Though people like Socrates made asking questions seem deceptively simple, it’s actually a very complex process. Here are a few criteria to creating the kinds of deep questions that fuel great conversations.
Criteria #1- Essential Questions are clear on the surface but complex underneath
A really good essential question causes confusion and throws off comfortable ways of thinking. This is a critical first step in learning. Lack of clarity, though, becomes an asset that sets in motion the process of thinking through a complex problem. Confusion motivates us to find an answer and- most importantly- provides the soil for a rich conversation.
Criteria #2– Essential Questions reveal multiple perspectives.
There is typically more than one way to answer these types of questions. Lack of certainty is, again, an asset because it positions us intellectually to develop logical arguments to convince others towards our perspective. Seeing multiple perspectives cultivates a spirit of empathy and tolerance for difference and encourages us to find new truths as we share our thoughts with others.
Criteria #3– Essential Questions beg for clear definitions
Hiding inside many essential questions are words with messy definitions often overlooked. For example, “Does American history reflect the achievement or failure of the American Dream?” Notice the phrase “American Dream” requires immediate and extensive investigation. The American Dream for a union worker, business owner or farmer will be very different. Socrates himself demonstrated that the starting point for critical thinking is a precise definition of words.
At Teach Different we model a 3-Step routine for having unforgettable conversations. The last step of this routine is to ask an essential question that serves to close down the conversation and introduce academic content.
Here are a few examples of posts featuring these conversations and the essential questions they inspire: