Though strong in theory, Essential Questions often wander off into drab and uninspiring standards-land when writing them for a unit. How do we frame learning, right from the start, in a way that maximizes student interest? How can we keep inquiry (and student interest) at the center?

This blog post was co-written by Sydney Schaef and Jon Altbergs. Jon is not responsible for the moderately juvenile title of this post.

Can you help?

We love this question: How do we frame learning, from the start, in a way that maximizes student interest? We’re excited to share one approach that we’ve found particularly useful in keeping interest-driven inquiry at the center of the learning process. We call the method Inquiry Framing. It’s designed to keep disciplinary content contextualized and meaningful for learners, while also serving as a simple structure to support learners in framing and personalizing their own inquiries.

Not too long ago I was hanging out with some very cool teachers from Kuna School District in Idaho, leading a Performance Assessment design workshop. We were launching into our first design sprint, which was all about defining outcomes for the performance assessment, and framing the performance assessment with an engaging, overarching question (a “compelling question”) that would feel relevant and engaging to learners.

There we were, deep in the design work, brainstorming ideas for how to bring state academic standards to life, working to frame high-interest questions that tied back to academic standards in an elegant way, some of us feeling a bit more stuck than others. It’s really challenging work! And I don’t remember ever being explicitly taught how to ensure curricular relevance in my teacher ed program. 

I paused to acknowledge the hard work, and mid-sentence found myself struck by the irony: “Isn’t it a little ironic that we’re in here, trying to build curriculum and assessments that prepare learners for the world, and we’re having so much trouble packaging standards and giving them meaningful context – when the world is right outside, so full of important questions and issues facing our students, their families and communities?” There was an audible laugh in the room. A shared sense of this being circuitous. We were working backward from standards, rather than working backward from the world. 

I hope it won’t be long before states begin to reimagine academic standards, writing them and organizing them in much more flexible ways. For now, off the soap box. Let’s explore this thing, Inquiry Framing. This post is organized into five sections:

1. Hey, what’s an Inquiry Frame?

2. How is an Inquiry Frame different from my list of Essential Questions?

3. How do I create a strong compelling question for my unit?

4. How do I create stellar guiding questions for my unit?

5. Designer Tips: Avoiding Pittfalls

1. Hey, what’s an Inquiry Frame?

An inquiry frame is a question map that helps learners launch into an investigative process to support inquiry-based, interest-driven learning for a unit of study. It is made up of two parts:

  1. An overarching compelling question
  2. A set of related guiding questions that serve as specific lines of inquiry for exploring the overarching compelling question, and that map to the Learning Cycle

Let’s start by clarifying the differences between an Inquiry Frame and Essential Questions, and then we’ll dig into how we create compelling and guiding questions for a unit of study.

2. How is an Inquiry Frame different from my list of Essential Questions?

Take a look at these four compelling questions (the first component of the Inquiry Frame). What stands out to you about these compelling questions? How similar or different are they to the ways in which you write Essential Questions (or any student-facing questions), for a unit of study?

Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, the originators of the Understanding by Design framework, describe essential questions as questions that are “not answerable with finality in a single lesson or a brief sentence…Their aim is to stimulate thought, to provoke inquiry, and to spark more questions… they are provocative and generative. By tackling such questions, learners are engaged in uncovering the depth and richness of a topic that might otherwise be obscured by simply covering it.” We dig it.

Wiggins offers these descriptors for high-quality Essential Questions, which also apply to compelling questions:

  • Open-ended
  • Thought-provoking and intellectually engaging
  • Calls for higher-order thinking
  • Points toward important and transferable ideas
  • Raises additional questions
  • Requires support and justification
  • Recurs over time

We offer four adaptations to consider.

First, we would add to this great list that the compelling question should be framed in a way that is relevant to student’s lives or interests, whether personal interest or situational interest generated by an experience (such as an entry event, as PBLWorks calls it).

Adapted from: Schraw, Flowerday, and Lehman (2001)

For example, you know your student Siera is super into volunteering in her community. She organized a book drive through her church to help raise funds for a local charity. But wait, we have to cover natural disasters in earth science class? How will we tap interest? We could tap personal interest by including as an option for the culminating performance task is planning an event to support a community of students choosing impacted by a natural disaster. Alternatively, we could tap situational interest, for Siera and others (!), by watching footage of a recent natural disaster somewhere around the world; exploring the works of a photo-journalist and leveraging the career-interest angle; or Skyping in a family impacted by the recent flooding or tornadoes in the US, and by asking them to share about their personal experience. You get the idea.

Second, we propose a slightly different structure to the questionsRather than a flat list of multiple Essential Questions, we suggest a question hierarchy in which there is one overarching compelling question, written as a hook- short, provocative- and then a collection of supportive guiding questions that remain explicitly connected to the compelling question, and which don’t wander off into standards-language land. This approach is similar to the approach that PBLWorks (formerly Buck Institute) advocates, which involves crafting a “Driving Question” (the single overarching question), and then generating Need-to-Know (NTK) questions with students that help frame the project. The distinction here is our recommendation that the curriculum designer build the “MVP” (minimal viable product, to borrow from the business world) inquiry structure as an important scaffold for teaching the inquiry process to learners, and also as a way to ensure, if necessary, that critical disciplinary content doesn’t get lost in the PBL sauce. 

Third, we recommend that students are always involved in helping to co-construct the Inquiry Frame. Instead of teachers framing all of the questions, students can and should, with explicit teaching and ongoing coaching, be involved in generating and refining both compelling and guiding questions. This will not only build engagement in the short term, it will build capacity in the longe term: with practice and feedback, they will be able to take on more of the cognitive and procedural load of framing their own questions and designing and leading their own investigations independently and with others.  

Finally, we recommend organizing guiding questions by the stages of the Competency-based Learning Cycle. In particular, the “Make Meaning” and the “Investigate” stage are where topics, including important disciplinary concepts, are explored at increasing levels of depth and complexity. All of this takes place while students are actively learning and practicing important skills, strategies and processes that are critical to the unit performance task. Put another way, the Competency-based Learning Cycle creates a structure that ensures both the content and the skills of the unit are meaningfully grounded in both an inquiry process and a competency-based outcome.Let’s take a look at a secondary-level example Inquiry Frame. Since the planet is basically on fire (12 years!?), we thought we’d high-light the topic of climate change. Notice the compelling question, and the guiding questions that follow. What stands out to you about the compelling question? What stands out to you about the guiding questions?

Here are a few things we’d like to point out about this Inquiry Frame:

  • ​The compelling question is written as a short, provocative hook. It’s open-ended. It calls for inquiry, and connects to an important issue in the world. And importantly, it should resonate with your particular audience. 
  • ​The guiding questions are designed with an arc of complexity. Using the Learning Cycle can be very helpful for generating and sequencing guiding questions. It reminds us to put ourselves in the shoes of the learner and ask, What questions would students ask, or need to explore, in order to build foundational knowledge related to this compelling question (“Make Meaning” stage of unit/project)? What questions will support a deeper investigation into the disciplinary concepts and interdisciplinary issues related to this compelling question (“Investigate” stage of unit/project)? And a bit more context: this ELA/Science interdisciplinary unit involved two teachers exploring the same question, but with different disciplinary performance tasks: an argumentative essay for ELA, and an experimental design task for science (which explains the question, What is the scientific method?).
  • ​The guiding questions are derived from the compelling question – they avoid standard language and keep the inquiry contextualized. You don’t see a guiding question that asks, “How do predictions of future regional climate data intersect with forecasting of greenhouse gas absorption by the ocean and biosphere?” Yes, we can and should and will get into this ESS2.D: Weather and Climate standard! But let’s put on our marketing hats and create an entry point that’s going to resonate with students. Package it. Pose the question from their point of view. What about, “How did the United Nations determine that we only have 12 years left to limit a climate change catastrophe on planet earth?” You know your audience best, of course. The point is to keep them at the center. Use the guiding question as a door to disciplinary content, and make it one that learners are excited to push open.
  • The Inquiry Frame can be used as a “tight/loose” structure for personalizing (and scaffolding) student-driven inquiry. Put another way, you can decide the non-negotiables, and create lots of flexibility for learners to shape their own inquiry experience. For example, students could generate their own guiding questions once introduced to the compelling question, and you could help sort and prioritize and co-construct the Inquiry Frame together. You could choose 1-2 mandatory guiding questions for the Make Meaning and Investigate stages, and then allow students to choose from among the others or generate their own (which you would then review and help revise if needed). You could teach students how to create their own peer-reviewed inquiry frames as part of a planning process prior to their launch into a research process. This is ultimately what we’re building toward. Lots of options!

3. How do I create a strong compelling question for my unit?

To help you write a high-quality compelling question, consider these four steps:

  1. Explore current issues and events. What’s happening in the headlines that could connect well to your content area? Think locally, regionally, nationally, and globally.
  2. Get to know your students. Take inventory on their interests. What issues and topics are they most excited about? What gets them talking? Consider drafting a set of questions based on the above (current issues and events) and then giving a survey to get student feedback.
  3. Identify significant controversies in your field of study. What’s happening in your field? What challenges, enduring questions, or controversies are in play?
  4. Use the questions below to ensure your compelling question meets the following quality criteria:
To ensure… Ask:
IMPORTANCE Is this question worth spending a unit exploring?Is this a question experts are still exploring (even though they might express the question differently)?Does this question or problem address content standards and competencies?
OPEN-ENDEDNESS & RIGOR Does the question require higher-order thinking and metacognition by requiring learners to develop, expand, and examine their schemata?Does the question create opportunities to explore and express multiple points of view?Can the question elicit multiple well-reasoned and supported answers or solutions?Does the question lead to evidence of student learning that demonstrate a student has met competencies and standards?Does the question lead to evidence of student learning that can be demonstrated through a performance task?
RELEVANCE & CONNECTEDNESS Does the question connect to students’ experiences?Does the question have importance for a local, regional, or global community with which students identify?Does the question reflect students’ interests, values, or can it be presented in a way that creates interest for learners?
APPROPRIATE SCOPE Is the scope and complexity of the question reasonable for the time and learner supports available?How much time do I have for this unit? Will it be enough?What skill-building is needed? What content must be addressed? Does this question create an opportunity to address them?

4. How do I create stellar guiding questions?

Once you’ve got a high quality compelling question, developing the guiding questions is about envisioning a set of stepping stones toward answering the compelling question. Guiding questions serve three functions:

  • They scaffold the inquiry process. Guiding questions help students identify their next opportunity for learning as they explore the compelling question.
  • They provide a roadmap to completing the performance task. Product- and process-related guiding questions help students identify their next steps for developing their evidence of learning.
  • They create opportunities for choice, flexibility, and non-linear learning. Guiding questions present students with multiple pathways for achieving and demonstrating competency.

As noted above, there are no hard and fast rules about the grain size, number, and open-endedness of guiding questions. To generate guiding questions, try to anticipate the questions your students will have about the compelling question. You can imagine them creating a Know Want to Know LearnedNeed to Know chart, or an Inquiry Chart. You can also survey the content and skills you want to include in the unit to create the guiding questions. A third method is to create a concept map like the one below.

Once you have your questions, it’s time to curate, which means reviewing, organizing, and eliminating. Keep in mind that this isn’t a linear process—you’ll find yourself moving among all three facets of curation.

Review: Is there a mix of content-based and skill-based background building questions along with questions that will allow students to investigate and dig more deeply into essential facets of the compelling question? Are there enough higher-order thinking questions? Are there questions about the process and expectations for the performance task? Is there anything essential to developing understanding that I missed? Does each of my questions scaffold inquiry? Could students put the questions into their own words?

Organize: What patterns do you see? Do some questions connect to others? Do some questions build off one another, suggesting a sequence? Which questions will be true stepping stones—meaning not all students will need to explore them—and which represent content and skills all students will need?

Eliminate: Which questions are nice to know, but not essential? Which are foundational and therefore necessary? Which have students already mastered? Which will some students know, but others will not? Which are outside the scope of the unit, not connect to target standards, or not connected to target competencies?

If you’re an elementary teacher wondering what this looks like in its simplest form, check out this Our Favorite Places embedded performance task aligned to second grade standards, or this first-grade Readers Have Big Jobs To Do performance task, a Lucy Calkins’ unit adaptation cleverly created by our friends at Sandhills Primary and Elementary School in Lexington, South Carolina!

5. Designer Tips: Avoiding Pittfalls

Be on the lookout for some common pitfalls as you curate your questions. Again, there aren’t any hard and fast rules, so take these as guidance rather than commandments and use your best judgment as the professional you are! Using the compelling question, “Will my DNA decide my future?” for a middle school unit. We came up with these example guiding questions that we would choose to eliminate in our own curation process— we’ll share our reasons for jettisoning each.

Is organ farming ethical? The question feels too much like its own compelling question, rather than a sub-question of, Will My DNA Decide My Future? It would probably be worthy of a unit itself.

Which scientists of the time rejected Mendel’s work on inheritance? The question is not essential to understanding and investigating the compelling question.

What is mitosis? The question is too discrete and content-focused —it’s trying to squeeze content into the inquiry frame without meaningful context. Which bigger concept or issue does mitosis address? Could we turn that into a guiding question, perhaps? 

What comparative and functional roles do genomics play in identifying mechanisms of human diseases? The question is too complex. Guiding questions should act as a scaffold, and this one presupposes a lot of prior knowledge. Depending on the students, this language may not be accessible.

In a nutshell…

So let’s wrap this thing up. TL;DR:

  • An inquiry frame is a compelling question and a set of guiding questions used to lay stepping stones through a unit.
  • The inquiry frame sparks curiosity and builds engagement by being relevant to students’ lives and interests, and connected to important issues.
  • Compelling questions should be open-ended and thought-provoking, promoting investigation and higher-order thinking.
  • Guiding questions scaffold inquiry by suggesting avenues of investigation and scaffold the performance task by offering next steps for moving forward.
  • The inquiry frame creates opportunity for student choice, with multiple pathways for students to develop and demonstrate competency.
  • Guiding questions are mapped along the learning cycle and paired with content and skills, providing an overview of the unit.

Happy designing, everyone! As always, we’d love to know what you think. We invite you to leave comments or questions in the box below.

Curriculum and Assessment Design | Mastery Learning Systems Design |Teaching and Learning

“Creativity follows mastery.” These are the words of Benjamin Bloom, who believed that learners are capable of incredible things if they have access to powerful learning environments. This is why we’ve chosen the name “Bloom” for our knowledge-sharing initiative. Bloom is all about our stake in helping to build the capacity of practitioners and leaders who work with our most marginalized youth to reimagine, recreate, redesign our models for learning–within schools and beyond. For us, this is fundamentally a matter of social justice. Reach out if you’d like to submit a guest post, or sign up for our monthly newsletter: [email protected].

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Dr. Sydney Schaef, Ed.D., M.BA., is an educator, entrepreneur, and learning design consultant. She serves as Lead Designer at reDesign. Prior to joining reDesign, Sydney served in the Office of New School Models at the School District of Philadelphia to support school design and startup in Philadelphia. Sydney also served as the co-founder and Executive Director of a 501c3 nonprofit organization that led innovative education and youth development programs in East Africa, and was awarded the Skoll Scholarship for Social Entrepreneurship in recognition of her work. Sydney started her education career as a middle school science teacher in Los Angeles, CA, not far from her home town in Ventura. She currently resides in Lancaster, PA with her family. Follow Sydney on Twitter at @sydneyschaef.