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Monday, October 28, 2013

Essential Questions and Research Questions: Two Very Different—But Equally Important—Things

Historians ask questions and, as I’ve been saying during a spate of recent trainings, the questions you ask have a lot to do with the answers you find. Good questions are the key to interesting and successful historical research projects.

Essential Questions

I am an advocate of essential questions. “Facing History and Ourselves” lays out a convincing case for asking essential questions “to get at matters of deep and enduring understanding.” As Facing History explains, “By connecting material to a significant theme that resonates with the lives of adolescents, essential questions can add relevance and focus to a unit of study.”

Difference between Essential Questions and Research Questions

It is important to remember, however, essential questions are different from research questions, the questions historians use to help them understand the past—and in this way begin to understand these larger philosophical concerns.

For example, “Who am I? What are the various factors that shape identity? In what ways is our identity defined by others?” are clearly essential questions. Research questions, by contrast, approach these larger issues from the side, instead of head on. They are place and time specific—and narrow enough that you can (at least provisionally) answer them by looking at the historical record. “How did German Jews define themselves in the 1920s and 1930s?” “How did the boarding school era affect the identity of Crow tribal members?” are examples of research questions that can lead students to investigate specific historical topics while also allowing them to begin to wrestle with larger issues of identity.

Asking Good Research Questions: Tools for Grades 6-12

Asking good research questions is hard—and is a skill worth teaching. John Schmidt and Jeff Treppa offer tools to help students ask good questions in a larger piece they’ve written on research papers. Especially useful are the handouts they prepared: Guidelines for Forming Historical Questions and Practice: Developing a Historical Question


Asking Good Research Questions: Tools for Elementary Students

Especially for elementary students, Billings librarian Ruth Ferris recommends using Question Matrices to ask better questions. Find her description of question matrices and links to valuable resources in Appendix 8 of “Thinking Like a Historian” (page 29 of the lesson).

Asking Good Research Questions: Another Technique for Everyone

Another technique is to start with the essential question “What has changed and what has remained the same—and why?” In her lesson plan “Thinking Like a Historian”—which focuses on using historic newspapers to explore life during the gold rush—Ruth suggests students use life today as a comparison to “generate a list of general topics and categories that they will need to learn about to develop a snapshot of life in the 1800s. Possible topics to consider: food, clothing, transportation, communication, technology. Then have students ask questions about these topics. See the entire lesson plan.

Asking good questions is a huge step toward developing greater understanding. How do you teach this skill in your classroom?

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