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What does a great historical inquiry question look like?

Just finished a great two days with Rich Cairn from the Collaborative for Educational Services. Together with a small group of middle and high school teachers, we spent the time working to figure out effective ways to engage English Language Learners with social studies inquiry methods. Rich is in charge of Emerging America, a Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources project.

Part of what he does is to help teachers across Massachusetts – and now Kansas – use Library of Congress resources to make inquiry learning accessible to all learners. During our time together, we addressed a wide variety of topics – challenges faced by English Language Learners, challenges faced by teachers of EL students, ways to use graphic organizers to support language acquisition, using the LOC website, researching the history of immigration policies and court cases, and generally have an awesome time.

A small part of our conversation focused on the use of essential and compelling questions. Here in Kansas, we’ve been pushing compelling questions for a while. They play an important part in our current standards and are the key to a great inquiry-based lesson.

Question. Evidence. Solution. Communicate the solution. It all starts with a great problem to solve.

And during our conversation Rich shared a sweet definition of what a great historical inquiry-based question should look like in that process. He was happy to share it.

So . . . if you’re looking for a list of characteristics of what a compelling / essential / overarching / inquiry-based question should look like, here ya go:

A great inquiry-based question

  • addresses an authentic problem or issue.
  • is complex and requires multiple levels of analysis.
  • requires the use of primary / secondary sources to answer it.
  • requires the use of historical thinking skills such as sourcing and contextualizing.
  • lends itself to the creation of an argumentative essay or product.
  • stimulates ongoing thinking.
  • raises additional questions, debate, and discussion.
  • demands supporting and corroborating evidence.
  • allows for changes in a student’s claim as their understanding deepens.
  • has the potential for multiple “obvious” conclusions.

Bruce Lesh, of Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answers fame and one of my biggest social studies heroes, provides even more help for creating a great inquiry-based question with some of his own suggestions:

  • 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 always easy developing a good question. We all eventually run out of good ideas. So . . . how about these?

  • What really happened in Boston on March 5, 1770?
  • Was dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima the humane or inhumane thing to do?
  • What is the best form of government?
  • Were African Americans really free following the US Civil War?
  • What is the best balance between state and federal power?
  • What does a “More Perfect” union mean?
  • Is it ever okay to violate the Bill of Rights?
  • What is the solution to the dropping water table in Western Kansas?
  • Should the local county commission allow energy companies to drill fracking wells within county boundaries?
  • How much influence does the environment have on historical events?
  • What name should be given to the federal land contested by General Custer’s 7th Cavalry and the combined forces of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in June 1876?

The helpful news is that lots of other 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 Connecticut Department of Education has a similar list embedded in its standards document.

The Gilder Lehrman people also have some good stuff. They’ve got a list of 163 questions. And don’t forget the great questions and lessons at the Stanford History Education Group.

Great learning starts with a great problem. So don’t skimp on this incredibly important part of the inquiry process.

(When reading and writing great compelling / essential / overarching / inquiry-based questions have worn out their welcome, jump over to Rich’s Emerging America for a quick brain break. Explore its Teaching Resources and Online Exhibits. You’ll find primary source sets, lessons, assessments, and student activities.)



5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nice blog post, Glenn. Thanks for all of the links within this post. I teach ancient civ and would love to have a list of compelling questions like the list of 163 for American history. I see there are some compelling questions listed for the Kansas document. Our school has adopted the C3 standards.

    October 17, 2017
    • glennw #


      Thanks for the comments! If you’re still looking for world history stuff, you might try looking through the Kansas standards document – it has some unit level sample questions in each of the world history sections – that might help a bit. Would the C3 Teachers site have anything?


      October 17, 2017
      • I have looked at the C3 Teacher Hub. There are some nice lessons and it continues to get better. I am wondering how common C3 is in the U.S. and if it’s growing and expected to expand to other states.

        October 17, 2017
      • glennw #

        I think more and more districts across the country are moving in the C3 direction. The pendulum has shifted from rote memorization of long lists of facts to the doing of social studies. Their Inquiry Arc supports that type of learning and is something that can be used across grades and content.

        Many districts also like the integration of ELA skills as part of social studies – which the C3 supports.

        So . . . seeing more moving this direction.


        October 18, 2017

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