No Such Thing as a Bad Question?
Inquiry-Based Learning in the History Classroom
Historians love questions. As teachers, they try hard to transmit a spirit of curiosity and a practice of inquiry into their pedagogy. Even in their most expository moments, historians frame and speckle their lectures with questions, reenacting the process of investigation and discovery in what they hope students will consume as gripping narrative.
As researchers working on the AHA’s Mapping the Landscape of Secondary US History Education project, we’ve spoken with hundreds of teachers, administrators, and curriculum specialists and reviewed dozens of curricula from school districts nationwide. In education discourse, “inquiry” is everywhere—a broad shorthand for instructional approaches that stress high-level questioning and some program of source-based investigation followed by student-authored argumentation. Inquiry is an ascendant emphasis in social studies standards and the product of decades of instructional design practice, curriculum theory, cognitive psychology, school reform, and standardized assessment.
From textbooks to online resources to homegrown lesson plans, “inquiry-based” curricular units center on “essential” or “compelling” questions. (In some circles, what was once a lesson or a unit is now called “an inquiry” or an “inquiry task.”) In the most structured modules, an inquiry curates and scaffolds a set of relevant primary sources with smaller supporting questions, asking students to deploy their readings of those sources as evidence in support of a position—a response to the big question posed at the outset. The big questions are often meant to be debatable—unresolved issues that can spur class discussion or become the prompt for a final assessment.
Teachers, administrators, and curriculum specialists across the nation agree that a good history lesson should include a lot of questions—and so do we. The example questions we discuss are drawn from actual curricular materials in use in US classrooms. Because we often see strengths and weaknesses within the same curriculum (or even the same lesson), we refrain from singling out any particular provider or locale; good ideas and bad ones can come from anywhere. We offer this commentary as part of a shared endeavor of improving how we pose questions in our history classrooms—whether in elementary schools or graduate programs.
At its best, a passion for questions allows teachers to promote historical thinking. Asking about historical circumstances—how the shift to the factory system affected American workers, or what motivated US policy during the Cold War—encourages an exploration of multiple scales and genres of context. Asking about historical outcomes—whether the American Revolution was avoidable, or why the Montgomery Bus Boycott succeeded, or why the Equal Rights Amendment was defeated—requires students to deal with complex causation in chronological sequence and to think through the structural constraints on historical agency. Educators nationwide are posing good questions like these every day.
Not all questions are created equal, however. Across diverse genres of social studies curriculum, forced choices between moral absolutes, abstract queries of ethical or civic concern, and overly fanciful counterfactuals appear more frequently than they should. Stark and uncomplicated question constructions speed the inquiry process straight to argument, reducing history to a series of positions that one must take and defend. If inquiry is to remain the banner under which history lessons are devised, teachers will need to distinguish good questions from bad ones.
In education discourse, “inquiry” is everywhere.
Too many lessons ask students to stake a position on a moral binary, rendering judgment on a past policy or person from the perspective of a national (and present-tense) “we.” Questions that ask whether slavery was bad or if American imperialism sacrificed freedom for power seem prebaked to generate only one conclusion—a litmus test to see if students have absorbed the right set of feelings about past events, or an invitation to assume that they would have been on the right side had they lived at the time. Inquiries that ask students to render a verdict on whether the Boston Tea Party or the US-Mexican War was “justified” can spur consideration of causes and consequences, but they privilege lawyerly thinking over historical understanding. Even more blunt are the recurring assignments that require historical figures to be rated as heroes or villains. (Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Jackson often compete in this role.)
The good intentions behind such prompts should not be dismissed. Engaging students with history often begins with indelicate provocation—a hook to awaken their own sense of what feels foreign and familiar about the past. Teachers can indeed encourage students to sit with a sense of moral disgust (slavery was wrong!), psychic connection (Carnegie is my hero!), or policy judgment (the US-Mexican War was not justified!). But these feelings and judgments are reminders that people in the past made choices within particular and peculiar contexts. And they should ideally serve as the preface for bigger, better questions that plumb the past and unsettle the naturalness of our present. When, why, and for whom did slavery become a moral problem? How, when, and why did Americans develop their taste for rags-to-riches stories? Who was convinced by arguments justifying (and opposing) the US-Mexican War, and why?
In some cases, a compelling question will edit out the historical characters, contexts, and events in order to build headier metaphysical stakes. Asking what it means to be equal or how democracy should work or whether compromise is fair are certainly compelling questions. Within a history class, however, such a prompt sets up a mismatch between philosophical dilemmas and the finite set of historical documents or events under study. As history teachers, we believe (along with many predecessors) that historical inquiry sharpens students’ capacities for judgment—capacities that they will ultimately turn toward moral and civic issues. But history alone cannot be expected to resolve such fundamental questions or to speak its counsel to us in aphorisms. In pursuit of more abstract propositions, teachers may need to draw from other disciplinary traditions like moral philosophy and political theory.
Even essential questions based in chronology and causation can stretch beyond the boundaries of good inquiry. Asking students “What if the Confederates won the Civil War?” is not the same as asking how the Confederacy might have won the war, or whether the war would have happened without the Mexican Cession. The first question echoes the world-building of speculative fiction, while the subsequent questions deploy counterfactuals in the way that historians do: to think imaginatively about contingency and to judge the relative strength of competing causal interpretations.
Our desire to get inquiry right expresses our sincere desire to support strong K–12 history teaching at a time when political pressures have redirected attention away from the how and why of historical change and onto questions of how we should feel about history. Most teachers we’ve spoken to do not face regular politicized objections to their work. When they do, they are far more likely to defend the integrity of history than to run from it. In our research, teachers have consistently voiced their commitment to a strict sense of professionalism; their work demands that they appear neutral, balanced, and politically inscrutable to their students. As most teachers understand this principle, it requires them to forswear political opinion while also asserting their authority over truthful historical interpretation. This authority is ultimately what qualifies teachers to direct the inquiry experience.
In the extreme minority, a few teachers, spooked by activist pressures, confess that they have withdrawn from their role as an interpretive authority in their classrooms. Rather than be caught in the act of teaching a “divisive” or “problematic” lesson, they report that they’ve chosen inquiries of primary documents so that the sources can “speak for themselves” without teacher interpretation. In these unfortunate cases, inquiry’s student-centered and document-centered format allows the teacher to hide from political pressure—and from their obligation to their students as experts in historical content knowledge. Regardless of a teacher’s environment and the pressure they face, good inquiry depends on good questions and strong guidance.
With feelings-first approaches to history grabbing the headlines, historians owe it to everyone to stress that historical inquiry doesn’t need to be politically urgent or philosophically deep to be compelling. Questions probing the how and why of history acquaint us with the historicized humanity of those who came before us and the contingent surprises that they faced. These truths—that we are human, and that the future will surprise us—are lessons worth learning.
Whitney E. Barringer is a researcher, Lauren Brand is AHR reviews editor and a former researcher, and Nicholas Kryczka is research coordinator at the AHA.
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