The Importance of Good Questions
Introduction. As history teachers, it should be clear that everything we do must begin with a question. From determining year-long themes, to constructing units, to planning a lesson, to making an essay assignment, to writing exams, we start with well-conceived questions.
It isnt easy to come up with such questions. We want these questions to do many things at once, and I wont be able to discuss many important considerations in crafting questions. Im simply here to introduce the issue of framing historical questions. It is a skill that the grant hopes to help you refine. The following important issues will have to be left to others: 1) How to create questions that force students to get to the heart of their readings. 2) The differences among grade levels. 3) How to ask questions that are appropriate for particular kinds of assignments. For instance, questions that incorporate as many elements of the unit as possible are fine for exams, but paper assignments are usually written so that the students grapple in a detailed way with only a few sources.
My intention is to provide some guidelines for coming up with history questions in general. It will be up to you to emphasize, omit, or modify these guidelines based on your purposesi.e., to initiate oral discussions, to test the comprehensive knowledge of students in final exams, etc.
I have two questions that I hope to provide some answers to by the end of my brief talk. First, what are the elements of a good history question? Second, why is it important to pay so much attention to whether or not a question is historical?
Essential Elements of Good History Questions
Summary of elements of a good history question
Significance of good questions We would like our students to walk away from our classes with the ability to frame historical questions. Of course, we want them to remember the content of our lectures, readings, and discussions. But, if we continue to focus on getting students to master historical knowledge without getting them to think about how that knowledge was gained, then we are selling them short. We sell them short by only sharing with them the final product of historical knowledge, rather than the process by which that knowledge is gained. History is a problem-solving disciplinenot simply an exercise in memorization. We know that history is a problem solving discipline because weve had many discussions over how best to teach students to be critical of their reading. We want them to read more than just textbooks. We want them to read the primary sources that historians used to write the monographs that textbooks are based on. But, before they even consult a primary source, we must help them come up with questions to guide their reading.
Why is it so important to help them develop the ability to ask questions of historical significance? It makes history more interesting to the students. If they can master the guidelines I provided at the beginning of my remarks, then they can bring their own interests to bear upon history. For example, lets say you have a student who enjoys television. If this student begins to think like an historian, s/he might ask, "What the heck did people do to entertain themselves in the 18th century without television?" So, if you are reading someones diary as a primary source, they will be motivated to take note of what people did with their time.
Another example: you will have some students who fervently defend the virtues of living in California. The interest of these students might be piqued if you asked them why so few people from Mexico wanted to settle in California in the eighteenth century.
Developing good questions is a must if we are to get students to be more precise about what they learned. Let me explain. Imagine the following scenario. A child comes home from school, and his/her mother asks what happened in history class. The student responds by saying that the class was about the Spanish explorations of California before the establishment of missions here. That is fine. But, our goal should be for the student to respond in the following way: "we addressed the question of how Spanish explorers could understand the California Indians, given that they had never met and never spoken to each other before." Of course, even if the teacher began the lesson by asking the students to consider how peoples with mutually unintelligible languages could understand each other, some might come home and say that the lesson was about Spanish exploration. However, if we come up with well-conceived questions, we increase the likelihood of them replacing the phrase "the lesson was about" with a phrase like "we addressed the question," or "we tried to answer the following question."
By developing the ability to ask engaging questions, we will make strides towards making it clear that history is a problem-solving discipline. More importantly, well-crafted questions increase the likelihood of provoking the curiosity of students.