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Top Ten Posts of 2016 #7: 300 sample compelling questions for the social studies

I’m sure most of you are doing the same thing I’m doing right now. Spending time with family and friends, watching football, catching up on that book you’ve been dying to read, eating too much, and enjoying the occasional nap.

But if you need a break from all of the holiday cheer, we’ve got you covered. Between now and the first week in January, you’ll get a chance to re-read the top ten History Tech posts of 2016. Enjoy the reruns. See you in a couple of weeks!

sticky student

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 an large group of people all 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 about 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 The NCSS has been pushing high quality question creation for a long time. A 2008 Social Education article titled Challenging History: Essential Questions in the Social Studies Classroom articulates the rationale for essential questions and highlights ways they can be used as part of instruction. A good read with specific examples.

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?

And be sure to read Matt, Karen, and Lynda over at Social Studies for the 21st Century. They’ll walk you through a step by step process for creating good essential questions aligned to the NCSS C3 Inquiry Arc while keeping the end in mind.

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 a big fan 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. TeachThought put together a generic list of essential questions that are perfect for adapting to social studies themes. Lots of good ideas. Find an older list of social studies specific questions at the Greece Central School District page. 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. And, I will admit, some of these are better than others – so feel free to borrow, adapt, and improve. Dig in and start adding these to what you already do. Your kids, sticky or otherwise, will walk away smarter because of it.

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