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300 sample compelling questions for the social studies

I had the chance last week to spend a very fun afternoon with an energetic group of elementary teachers. I always enjoy chatting with K-6 folks. (I just don’t know how they get up every morning and keep going back. Because, seriously . . . grade school kids freak me out. They smell funny, they always seem to be sticky for some reason, and they throw up at the most awkward moments. So God bless anyone willing to spend all day, every day with anybody under the age of 12.) Part of our conversation centered around planning different units in a year long scope and sequence at various grade levels. And some of the discussion revolved around possible essential / compelling questions that might anchor each of those units. I don’t get the chance to have these kinds of discussions with K-6 people much – when I do, it’s always a good time. Once they start rolling, it’s hard to get them to slow down. We started with the basics:

What does a good compelling question look like?

And quickly moved on to the one that they really wanted to know:

Where can we find some already created?

Just a reminder. This is not just K-6. Compelling questions are something all of us need to be incorporating into unit and lesson designs. So . . . what do they look like? A great place to start is with the College, Career, and Civic Life document from the National Council for the Social Studies. The document does a great job of articulating the importance of a robust compelling question:

Children and adolescents are naturally curious, and they are especially curious about the complex and multifaceted world they inhabit. Whether they articulate them to adults or not, they harbor an almost bottomless well of questions about how to understand that world. Sometimes children’s and adolescents’ silence around the questions in their heads leads adults to assume that they are empty vessels waiting passively for adults to fill them with their knowledge. This assumption could not be more mistaken. Children’s and adolescents’ curiosity is deeply rooted in an unceasing desire to make sense of what goes on around them—through their language development; in their social interactions with parents, siblings, friends, and community members; and through what they see on television, in the movie theater, on YouTube, or on the Internet. Perhaps little signals the intensity of this socio-cultural curiosity so much as the wild popularity of social networking sites such as Facebook.

And the NCSS’s handy Inquiry Arc outlines a structure for how to embed great questions into the instructional process. inquiry arc Bruce Lesh, of Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answers fame and one of my biggest social studies heroes, provides some help by outlining the criteria for a great compelling question:

  • Does the question represent an important issue to historical and contemporary times?
  • Is the question debatable?
  • Does the question represent a reasonable amount of content?
  • Will the question hold the sustained interest of students?
  • Is the question suitable given the resources available?
  • Is the question challenging for the grade level and developmentally appropriate?
  • Does the question require discipline specific thinking skills?

But it’s not easy developing a good question. We all eventually run out of good ideas. The helpful news is that lots of people have been thinking about this for while and don’t mind sharing. Head first to the Kansas standards document. For each grade and each unit in that grade are five sample compelling questions. I’m not big fans of all of them but they’re a nice place to get some ideas aligned to our big ideas. The Gilder Lehrman people have some good stuff. Their latest list of 177 sample questions is behind their firewall. So you’ll need to log in or create a free account. Totally worth it. You should be able to get an older list without the account.

Orange County Public Schools published a nice list for different content and grade levels. Lots of good ideas. The Connecticut Department of Education has a similar list embedded in its standards document. We all know that best practice requires great questions to anchor learning. We just aren’t always great at coming up with them. So don’t be shy. It’s okay to borrow and adapt. Dig in and start adding some of these to what you already do. Your kids, sticky or otherwise, will walk away smarter because of it.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ryan Theodoriches #

    The resources shared offer some examples of good compelling questions but also show that there is still a wide variety of interpretations as to what a good compelling question is. Teachers who look at these lists should do so with a list of good compelling question criteria at their side as there are more than a few examples of closed ended questions with one right answer and many that do not seem to lend themselves to a rich, rigorous inquiry resulting in an evidence-based argument.

    January 20, 2016
  2. Nice post, Glenn. Our school has adopted the C3 standards and we are developing compelling and supporting questions as we push for more inquiry. If you have any good additional websites, since this blog post, please share them. Thanks.

    August 6, 2016
  3. Harry #

    Thank you so much for posting this. This is such a great resource to pull from. I am currently getting my Masters from Michigan and we have been learning about the importance of essential and compelling questions. This list will be very useful as I craft curriculum for my student teaching placement. It helps me get ideas so that even if I don’t actually use the exact questions I can build off of them and make them my own.

    November 19, 2020

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