Framing History with Historical Questions
After six successful years implementing three Northern Nevada Teaching American History projects, it became apparent to us that we could challenge ourselves and our teachers to move beyond individual professional development experiences and engage in a long-term, three-year project aimed at fostering collaboration between vertical teams of upper elementary, middle, and high school teachers. Because teachers at these various levels had different curricular foci in American history, we sought common ground through common themes and questions. A primary goal for these vertical teams was to reframe their entire curriculum around the same essential questions (EQs) to facilitate historical inquiry and historical thinking.
Essential questions are open-ended questions that address the big ideas of history, have no predetermined correct answer, allow for multiple interpretations, and, most importantly, are applicable across historical eras and to contemporary events. Four to six well-written essential questions could frame every unit of study across all grade levels. After setting the instructional stage with these essential questions, teachers could structure historical inquiry around specific historical questions (HQs) for each unit of study. An HQ is directly related to specific historical content and to an individual EQ. The formula used by teachers was: EQ + history standard = HQ. Our article, “The Past as a Puzzle: How Essential Questions Can Piece Together a Meaningful Investigation of History” in The Social Studies (2011), details the process and results of our adventure implementing EQs and HQs in grades 512.
(For more examples of EQs and HQs for elementary, middle, and high school, download this chart.)
The first difficulty we faced in this process was collaboratively writing the overarching essential questions. Writing questions that were truly open-ended and thematic proved difficult to say the least. Despite originally believing that one eight-hour session introducing the concept and writing the EQs would be enough time, we found that the process actually took almost the entire year. We had to allow teachers time to process and play around with the questions before we could adopt them as a whole group.
Even more difficult was facilitating the use of EQs with integrity. That is, EQs were meant to help teachers reframe their curriculum around broad themes and enduring questions but were not initially used in this fashion. For some teachers, the leap to instruction and assessment around EQs was natural. They had a yearning to focus on the big picture and enduring ideas while engaging students in inquiry, and so the change was embraced. However, a majority of the teachers involved struggled with reframing their curriculum around EQs. They were eager to implement EQs, recognized the potential for increased student engagement and understanding, and even regularly inserted EQs into their lessons. They hung posters of the EQs in their rooms and talked about them sometimes during class. BUT, for these teachers, we had to provide additional tools, guidance, and mentoring in ways to think about EQs as a framework rather than an addition to their classroom goals.
Despite the initial difficulties, we have all found great success in implementing EQs. Teachers have noted that students in their classes who were exposed previously to the same EQs in lower grades grasp the enduring issues in history and comment on their comfort in using EQs to inquire deeply into the content.
We have been most impressed by the natural link to the next NNTAH project focus: creation and implementation of Document Based Questions (DBQs). Familiarity with using questions to guide the curriculum supported the move towards answering historical questions with DBQs. Historical questions, directly aligned with EQs, were the foundation of the document based questions. Teachers were able to create DBQs that supported their year-long focus on enduring issues in history, because the historical questions under study were always linked to the EQ. In 20102011, 44 teachers created their own high-quality DBQs based upon essential and historical questions. Since that time, many have reported creating additional DBQs to support historical inquiry in their classrooms.