No Dumb Questions: Using Inquiry to Drive Research

In his 1995 work, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, astrophysicist Carl Sagan wrote a sentence that would be uttered in classrooms around the world for decades to come: “there’s no such thing as a dumb question.”

We’ll assume, of course, that Sagan is excluding the students in your class who simply don’t listen to your directions and ask questions about the information that just came out of your mouth. (Do I sound bitter? Sorry. It’s February.) Sagan isn’t talking about those kinds of questions. Sagan is talking about questions that lead with curiosity and end in discovery– the kinds of questions historians ask during their research. 

Inquiry drives historical research and the social studies writing workshop from beginning to end. And while there may be no such thing as a dumb question, all questions are not created equal. Or, to paraphrase Orwell, some questions are more equal than others.

So, what makes a research question good? Well, if I were writing job candidate requirements for strong historical inquiry, I would say that it must be…

  • Discovery-oriented 
  • Detail-hungry 
  • Connection-seeking
  • Data-driven
  • And well-versed in Microsoft Excell 

Good historical questions lead students not only to a better understanding of the research topic but also to richer and more vibrant analysis. Anyone can look information up on the interwebs. A historian uses that information to construct a public understanding of the past to better understand the present.

During the research stage of a social studies writing workshop, my students use a variation of the document below (also linked here) to develop and organize their research questions. Note that the doc begins with a warm-up activity. As Rebekah O’Dell can tell you, I’m a sucker for a warm-up. This activity allows students to reflect on what they already know about a topic and explore what they want to know about it. Sometimes the simple act of acknowledging curiosity can spark it. 

An inquiry mindset is an essential tool for historical research but is not the natural state of all the students in our classrooms. Even the students who naturally ask a lot of questions can have difficulty developing strong inquiry questions. In fact, the most common question I’m asked during a research writing conference is, “well, how am I supposed to know what to ask?”  

When confronted with this problem, I encourage students to isolate what they want to know before asking the question. Then, I turn them to this chart: 

I’ll give you an example of how one of my students turned a…not great question (sorry, Sagan!) into a strong one using this chart: 

In my classes, we have discussions using an adapted version of the Harkness method. The goal is to enter the room with a rudimentary knowledge of a topic and use the time together to dive deeper through discussion. In this method, the students drive the learning by asking questions that are important to them. 

Harknesses help my classes create our knowledge and share our understanding– they’re a sort of group writing workshop.

During one discussion on Bacon’s Rebellion, a student asked, “do you think Nathaniel was crazy?” 

Some of the kids laughed. We took a brief second to review last name usage when referencing historical figures and a longer second to talk about the implications of calling someone “crazy.” I referred the student to the chart and asked them what they really wanted to know by asking that question. 

“I just don’t get why he burned down Jamestown. Like, what was even the point?” The student paused, looking at the chart. “So I guess I want to know his motive– why did Bacon burn down Jamestown?” 

The student turned an unanswerable question into an opportunity for rich discussion, understanding, and discovery. 

Feel free to use both the research document as well as the Inquiry Question Cheat Sheet in your classrooms (but please do not sell for profit or present as your own). I hope they help your students research like historians!

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