How do human networks grow and provide maximum benefits? What settings and activities stimulate creativity? What makes people stay engaged in projects with uncertain results? Those are example of essential questions that shaped early dialogue about the design of think ponds. They’re not the kind of questions that require immediate, direct answers. They are questions to help deepen thought, stimulate creativity, and promote common understanding among communities.
Essential questions can help your think pond focus inquiry and steer dialogue as you craft solutions. You also can use essential questions to help explore the vision and work of your think pond, to guide your research as you pursue learning goals, to evaluate a plan, and to frame your message as you promote an idea or product.
Essential questions are most frequently used in schools. Teachers use them to deepen students’ thinking skills and understanding. Why not begin to adopt a group thinking strategy that is familiar to the next generation entering the work force?
Some teachers also use essential questions in their own professional learning to develop more thoughtful approaches to instruction. Why not try to use them in a broader range of adult learning situations?
Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, whose books have revolutionized teaching in many schools, present these criteria for what defines an essential question:
- Is open-ended; that is, it typically will not have a single, final, and correct answer.
- Is thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion and debate.
- Calls for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.
- Points toward important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines.
- Raises additional questions and sparks further inquiry.
- Requires support and justification, not just an answer.
- Recurs over time; that is, the question can and should be revisited again and again.