The Power of Essential Questions

Excerpted with permission from the Introduction of “The Miniature Guide to the Art of Asking Essential Questions” by Linda Elder & Richard Paul

It is not possible to be a good thinker and a poor questioner. Questions define tasks, express problems, and delineate issues. They drive thinking forward. Answers, on the other hand, often signal a full stop in thought. Only when an answer generates further questions does thought continue as inquiry. A mind with no questions is a mind that is not intellectually alive. No questions (asked) equals no understanding (achieved). Superficial questions equal superficial understanding, unclear questions equal unclear understanding. If your mind is not actively generating questions, you are not engaged in substantive learning.

Thinking within disciplines is driven, not by answers, but by essential questions. Had no basic questions been asked by those who laid the foundation for a field — for example, physics or biology — the field would not have been developed in the first place. Every intellectual field is born out of a cluster of essential questions that drive the mind to pursue particular facts and understandings. Biology was born when some humans pursued answers to the questions: “What are the characteristics of living systems? What structures exist in them? What functions do these structures serve?” Biochemistry was born when biologists began to ask questions such as: “What chemical processes underlie living things? How and why do chemical processes within living things interact and change?”

Every field stays alive only to the extent that fresh questions are generated and taken seriously as the driving force in thinking. When a field of study is no longer pursuing significant answers to essential questions, it dies as a field. To think through or rethink anything, one must ask the questions necessary to thinking through the logic of that thing, clearly and precisely.

In this miniature guide, we introduce essential questions as indispensable intellectual tools. We focus on principles essential to formulating, analyzing, assessing, and settling primary questions. You will notice that our categories of question types are not exclusive. There is a great deal of overlap between them. Deciding what category of question to ask at any point in thinking is a matter of judgment. Having a range of powerful questions to choose from is a matter of knowledge.

Because we cannot be skilled at thinking unless we are skilled at questioning, we strive for a state of mind in which essential questions become second nature. They are the keys to productive thinking, deep learning, and effective living.

Analytic Questions

Asking essential analytic questions is vital to excellence in thought. When we analyze, we break a whole into parts. We do this because problems in a “whole” are often a function of problems in one or more of its parts. Success in thinking depends, first of all, on our ability to identify the components of thinking by asking essential questions focused on those components.

Questioning the Structure of Thinking

One powerful way to discipline your questions is to focus on the components of reasoning, or parts of thinking.

As you formulate questions, consider the following guidelines and sample questions:

  1. Questioning Goals and Purposes. All thought reflects an agenda or purpose.Assume that you do not fully understand someone’s thought (including your own) until you understand the agenda behind it. Questions that focus on purpose in thinking include:
  • What are we trying to accomplish here?
  • What is our central aim or task in this line of thought?
  • What is the purpose of this meeting, chapter, relationship, policy, law?
  • What is our central agenda? What other goals do we need to consider?
  • Why are we writing this? Who is our audience? What do we want to persuade them of?
  1. Questioning Questions. All thought is responsive to a question. Assume that you do not fully understand a thought until you understand the question that gives rise to it. Questions that focus on questions in thinking include:
  • I am not sure exactly what question you are raising. Could you explain it?
  • Is this question the best one to focus on at this point, or is there a more pressing question we need to address?
  • The question in my mind is this… Do you agree or do you see another question at issue?
  • Should we put the question (problem, issue) this way… or that…?
  • From a conservative viewpoint the question is …; from a liberal viewpoint it is… Which is the most insightful way to put it, from your perspective?
  1. Questioning Information, Data, and Experience. All thoughts presuppose an information base. Assume that you do not fully understand the thought until you understand the background information (facts, data, experiences) that supports or informs it. Questions that focus on information in thinking include:
  • On what information are you basing that comment?
  • What experience convinced you of this? Could your experience be distorted?
  • How do we know this information is accurate? How could we verify it?
  • Have we failed to consider any information or data we need to consider?
  • What are these data based on? How were they developed? Is our conclusion based on hard facts or soft data?
  1. Questioning Inferences and Conclusions. All thought requires the making of inferences, the drawing of conclusions, the creation of meaning. Assume that you do not fully understand a thought until you understand the inferences that have shaped it. Questions that focus on inferences in thinking include:
  • How did you reach that conclusion?
  • Could you explain your reasoning?
  • Is there an alternative plausible conclusion?
  • Given all the facts, what is the best possible conclusion?
  1. Questioning Concepts and Ideas. All thought involves the application of concepts. Assume that you do not fully understand a thought until you understand the concepts that define and shape it. Questions that focus on concepts in thinking include:
  • What is the main idea you are using in your reasoning? Could you explain that idea?
  • Are we using the appropriate concept or do we need to re-conceptualize the problem?
  • Do we need more facts or do we need to rethink how we are labeling the facts?
  • Is our question a legal, a theological, or an ethical one?
  1. Questioning Assumptions. All thought rests upon assumptions. Assume that you do not fully understand a thought until you understand what it takes for granted. Questions that focus on assumptions in thinking include:
  • What exactly are you taking for granted here?
  • Why are you assuming that? Shouldn’t we rather assume that…?
  • What assumptions underlie our point of view? What alternative assumptions might we make?
  1. Questioning Implications and Consequences. All thought is headed in a direction. It not only begins somewhere (resting on assumptions), it also goes somewhere (has implications and consequences). Assume that you do not fully understand a thought unless you know the most important implications and consequences that follow from it. Questions that focus on implications in thinking include:
  • What are you implying when you say…?
  • If we do this, what is likely to happen as a result?
  • Are you implying that …?
  • Have you considered the implications of this policy (or practice)?
  1. Questioning Viewpoints and Perspectives. All thought takes place within a point of view or frame of reference. Assume that you do not fully understand a thought until you understand the point of view or frame of reference that places it on an intellectual map. Questions that focus on point of view in thinking include:
  • From what point of view are you looking at this?
  • Is there another point of view we should consider?
  • Which of these possible viewpoints makes the most sense given the situation?

Dr. Linda Elder


Dr. Linda Elder is an educational psychologist who is Senior Fellow at, and President of, the Foundation for Critical Thinking. She has co-authored four books as well as 24 of the 25 publications found within the Foundation’s Thinker’s Guide Library, and to date has presented to more than 50,000 instructors and administrators at all levels of education.


Dr. Richard Paul was founder of the Foundation for Critical Thinking, serving there as Senior Fellow and  Director of Research until his passing in 2015. His body of work included eight books and over 200 articles on critical thinking, and his views on the subject received coverage in The New York Times, Education Week, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Reader’s Digest, on PBS, and elsewhere.


The Foundation for Critical Thinking is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting essential change in education and society through the cultivation of fair-minded critical thinking. Visit the Foundation’s Facebook page here.



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