The Importance of Good Questions
Albert Amador-Lacson
September 2002

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

1. They must be concerned with a previous time. This seems obvious, but you would be surprised at how many people think that asking a question about a particular topic must mean that it is a history question. For example, my father constantly asks me questions about our government. One of his latest questions: Does the US Constitution allow for George Bush to attack Iraq without the permission of Congress? When I respond that Im not sure, he reacts very angrily by saying something like, "I cant believe you. You are supposed to be a history buff but you dont even know the basics of our government." So, my point is that some people assume that by asking a question related to government, politics, foreign policy, or labor they are asking a historical question.

Now, my father will often continue by prefacing his statement with the following word: "historically." "Historically, does Bush have the power to act without the consent of Congress?" What he meant by this was, "Is history on Bushs side?" Even though the question has some form of the word "history" in it, there are at least 2 elements of the question that prevent it from being a good history question. First, it is about the present. In fact, one could argue that it is not only about the present, but about the future. And, second, the evidence does not exist to answer such a question. What would the evidence be that history is on anyones side? Or, not on ones side? Even if we found that all presidents prior to Bush acted without the consent of Congress to commit troops, would this be convincing evidence that Bush has history on his side? I suppose if the entire context for previous actionspolitical, economic, social, cultural, etc.was the same for previous presidents, then I suppose this might be convincing evidence that Bush "has history on his side." Of course, the meaning of the phrase "history on ones side" still requires elaboration.

2. It must be a question that can be answered by consulting a manageable body of evidence and making an argument based on that evidence. Put succinctly, it must be an empirical question. It cant be a question that requires us to resolve some metaphysical issue before answering. For example, "What are the virtues of capitalism?" As a question of history, there are many problems with this question. But, the one that I will highlight is that it can not be adequately answered by marshaling evidence from only several sources or even thousands of sources. We could ask a question, like why did the Franciscan friars who settled in California promote some free market mechanisms and object to others?

3. It must be open-ended. Many questions create false dichotomies. "Was Father Serra cruel towards the Indians, or did he treat them like a Christian?" These are not mutually exclusive. In Serras mind, he treated the Indians in exactly the way a Christian would treat unenlightened savages. But, from the perspective of Indians, they may have viewed his actions as cruel. Instead of asking this question, we could ask, "How did Father Serra describe his relationship with mission Indians in his letters to his superiors?"

4. Of course, some questions are too open-ended: "Describe the impact of industrialization on people." Clearly, we must identify which people, and hopefully guide the students to the aspects of life we are most interested in. So, a better way to ask such a question might be, "Did women who worked in factories in the late 19th century believe that they had more options in life than those who did not?"

5. Preferably, its a question that asks students to scrutinize some phenomenon that they take for granted in their lives as being something natural, immutable, and never-changing. This is why democracy is such a great issue. We can ask students questions like, "Why were the founding fathers hesitant to embrace the kind of democracy we revere?" My favorite question that emphasizes the importance of examining what we take for granted is the following: "European emigrants and their descendants are all over the placeAustralia, New Zealand, the Americas, and of course Europe. How did this come to be?"

6. Counter-factual questions. "Would the United States have declared war on Japan if Japan had not bombed Pearl Harbor?" Personally, I like counter-factual questions for purposes of discussion. But, they can be problematic for exams and essays.

Summary of elements of a good history question

1. It must be about a specific time in the past.
2. It must be empirical in nature.
3. It must be open-ended, but not too open-ended.
4. It should force the students to re-think how something seemingly natural, like the dominance of Europeans in North America, came to pass.
5. It should be something students can answer based on what actually happened, rather than what might have happened.

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.