English Dutch French German Italian Portuguese Russian Spanish


Guiding Students to Ask Productive Questions

Published on Fri, 12/21/2012

Teachers Matt Brown and Ann Pember first posted these ideas as part of the 2012 Emerging America Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Training of Trainers program.

Motivating Students to Question Sources

Early on, I provide the documents, and I set the questions. But eventually, I like students to choose their own documents for projects. I also like the documents to become part of the product itself. That gets students to ask, "Can I use this document to express a historical truth? How can it help me develop a narrative or theme in my product?"

I like to give students wide latitude in their choices, because the products then become their own. Students become much more motivated. It takes longer, and it's sometimes frustrating for students who simply want to follow a recipe. They think I'm withholding or being opaque. Yet when I keep turning students back to their research with comments designed to help them find their own answers, rather than mine, they learn much more. Not only about history, but about themselves and their own work of trying to make sense of the past.

• Matt Brown, Monomoy Regional School District

Matt, I like your idea of approaching the documents with a more general question and having students develop their questions. This is inquiry, and it is a great way to differentiate. Students can explore what they want to learn more about. They can explore larger themes, make deeper connections, while still learning an overall transferable skill.

Yet it is certainly true that students only want knowledge-based questions. They want to be able to find the correct answer and be done. They need a push to think at a higher level, which is difficult and time-consuming. These skills require practice. Yet even before students can practice inquiry skills, they need to practice discerning what makes a good or a bad question. Learning how to properly question something is a skill and a process.

One way to help students learn this is to provide open-ended questions that are provocative and do not have a simple or correct answer. At Malden, we help students with this by using a form of two-column note-taking, also called Cornell notes. Students first list the main idea and details from a reading–the basic facts. Then they re-read their list. Using a list of coding symbols, they mark next to each fact what they think of it: whether they think it is surprising, interesting, whether they agree or disagree, if they have a connection to it, or if they have a comment or questions. Then, next to the symbol, they flesh out their response and explain what they think about that fact: Why do they find it interesting? What is your connection to the fact? and so on. This can take awhile to learn and then perfect, but it enables students to go through the thinking process at a high level.

• Ann Pember, Teacher, Malden High School


Rich Cairn

Civics and Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction Specialist, Collaborative for Educational Services
Rich Cairn founded Emerging America in 2006, which features the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources program at the Collaborative for Educational Services, and the National Endowment for the Humanities Landmarks of American History program, "Forge of Innovation: The Springfield Armory and the Genesis of American Industry." The Accessing Inquiry clearinghouse, supported by the Library of Congress TPS program promotes full inclusion of students with disabilities and English Learners in civics and social studies education.