The Essential Question and Higher Order Thinking

Rapidly changing demands in the workplace have led to the need for a new kind of school graduate conversant with higher order thinking.

Curriculum August 3, 2020

Rapidly changing demands in the workplace have led to the need for a new kind of school graduate conversant with higher order thinking. In addition to the traditional characteristics of punctuality, presentation, cooperation, and competency, have been added the necessity for a growth mindset, social and cultural awareness, complex problem-solving skills, emotional intelligence, and innovation (Dugar, M, “The Top Ten Skills You’ll Require by 2020”, in Growth Hacks, April, 2019).

This context has resulted in the need for new kinds of assignments that assess students’ higher order thinking, in addition to their ability to demonstrate knowledge. “Students are meant to leave school as not merely learned, but inquisitive; not merely knowledgeable, but capable of using their education for good ends; not merely with technical skills, but with the appropriate habits of mind that determine whether the skill is used wisely, unwisely, or not used at all when needed (Wiggins, G, McTighe J, Schooling by Design: Mission Action and Achievement, Hawker Brownlow Education, 2007, p. 17).”  Consequently, we should be building students with a disposition to learn and the ability to solve complex problems with creativity, insight, and perception, in such a way as to produce effective, thoughtful and engaged members of society.

Knowledge is now public domain. Therefore, students’ ability is not primarily seen when they demonstrate knowledge, but when they are able to transfer that knowledge to different contexts. There are a number of approaches that will facilitate higher order thinking. The right question is a good place to start.

As teachers, we are well accustomed to the fact that good work arises out of well-crafted assignments. Indeed, a good answer comes from a good question. However, while a topic or subject may be guided by all kinds of well-designed questions, the pursuit of higher order thinking is facilitated by the essential question.

Importantly, establishing the essential question is not only for every subject or topic, but for every school. Designed for every subject and topic, the essential question is the reference point that leads discussion into higher order thinking. It guides inquisitive discussion and aims to encourage perceptive, insightful, highly effective and critical thinking. Therefore, an essential question should lead students to grapple with ideas, principles and concepts that will enable them to apply what they have learned, and the manner in which they have learned it, to different situations and contexts, so that they become not just knowers, but thinkers, problem solvers and innovators.

The essential question of a school should require time to process as well as insightfulness to understand and apply answers. Its construction should be hard earned, encompasses the development of the whole person and embody deeply held convictions.

Finally, a school’s essential question should be definitive enough to guide its major decisions and inform its curriculum in such a way as to produce the kind of learning that will equip students for a rapidly changing world.


Dr Lewis, PhD, is the Deputy Principal at Prescott College, South Australia.

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