Big Ideas in Literacy
Using Questions to Frame and Sustain Inquiry
Historians often approach their work by first identifying a problem space they find significant and worthy of investigation. Such a problem space might include figuring out what happened at a specific time and place, what qualities characterize certain people over time (e.g., leaders), or the reasons that caused events to occur. Regardless of the problem space, historians begin their investigations by asking questions. For teachers, however, the pathways to forming questions may not be as emergent as they are for historians. While teachers may be motivated to create their own investigations based on the desire to understand something, they may also begin by coordinating investigations with topics identified in state standards or established curricula.
Because investigative history, by definition, inquires into the past, questions play an integral part in the process of student learning. In fact, questions play two roles:
- They can be used to frame a unit or a single lesson. (For the purposes here, questions frame individual investigations.)
- They can be used to highlight controversy or problems for students. Questions can both frame and advance an inquiry. That is, questions can be used to provide an overarching structure for an investigation. Once the investigation is underway, questions can be used to prompt students to think deeply about the complexities of the topic under study.
The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) College, Career, and Civic Life C3 Framework distinguishes between two types of questions that can be both teacher- and student-generated: compelling questions and supporting questions. Compelling questions focus on enduring issues and concerns. For example, “Was the American Revolution revolutionary?” In contrast, supporting questions focus on descriptions, definitions, and processes on which there is general agreement. That is, supporting questions focus on the content needed to fully consider the compelling question; for example, “What were the regulations imposed on the American colonists under the Townshend Acts?” For the purposes of this course, compelling questions are used to frame investigations. These compelling questions here are called essential questions.