How to Write a Great Essential Question

essential question

It’s time for a Pop quiz!

Which of these is an essential question for the art room?

A. How do the arts reflect values in a culture?
B. What common symbols are found in the work of the Lascaux cave painters?

If you answered A, you are right! The question is provocative, open-ended, and challenging which are all characteristics of a great essential question.

Using essential questions to drive learning in classrooms from kindergarten to college is a smart way to dive deeper into higher order thinking. Just as important, using essential questions can help students make key connections between what they are learning in the art room and apply it to their own lives and the greater world.

In addition, essential questions are a big part of the National Core Arts Standards. If you’re interested in learning more about bringing the standards into the art room, you won’t want to miss the Implementing the National Art Standards PRO Learning Pack. Johanna Russell will show you how to easily build on your existing curriculum by utilizing the standards in your everyday teaching.

Interested in writing a few essential questions of your own? Keep these 3 characteristics in mind.

  1.  In addition to being provocative, open-ended, and challenging, questions should spur debate in your classroom.
  2. Answers to essential questions should require evidence and support.
  3. Essential questions should occur over and over again. Revisit them as often as possible to allow students to grow in how they think about a few core topics.

You could write some questions tailor made to your curriculum, or you could download the free list of essential questions below!

Click for free download!
Click for free download!

Do you struggle with coming up with great essential questions? How can we help?

How do you use essential questions in your teaching?

Sarah Dougherty


My name is Sarah Dougherty, and I teach elementary art in a large urban district in central Iowa. I love working with our diverse population of K-5 students to bring art to their homes, communities, and everyday lives.


  • kiki krijt

    This Cheat sheet is wonderful Thanks! but it seems more geared to older students. I have difficulty coming up with Open-ended, provocative questions for elementary students. Does someone have some examples they use with 1-5 grade?

    • Thanks, Kiki! Here are a few of my favorites for the littles…
      1. Why do artists make art?
      2. How does looking at art make us feel?
      3. Why do you feel different than your neighbor when looking at art?
      4. Where do we see art everyday around us?
      5. Mostly we look at art, but what are other ways we experience art?
      6. What is art? Why?
      7. What is not art? Why?
      8. Why do people make things?
      9. Why do people make things look nice?
      10. Why do you make art?
      11. How can art help you understand other people, times, or places?
      12. How do artists come up with ideas?

      • kiki

        Thanks! these sure help.

  • Malba220

    All I can say is…thank you, thank you, thank you! As a fourth year elementary art teacher I truly appreciate this site. You all have provided me with more advice and guidance for art education than many PDs I am forced to attend.

  • Denise

    yes, thanks so much! A great starting point and makes it easy to add/grow from here.

  • Sarah Weaver

    Thanks for this Essential Question cheat sheet! It’s going to be a great resource. I did notice some typos…any chance it can be updated and reposted? I would like to post it in my classroom as a resource.

    • Hi Sarah- so sorry for the late reply. There is a new, updated list that is spelling-error free now. :)

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