What Makes a Good Inquiry Question?

History | Grades 6-12

This is the second in a series of eight resources on historical argumentation written especially for the Lesson Study Group at Mills College by educator Stan Pesick. These resources are designed to be used individually to help define inquiry questions for use in Lesson Study cycles or in sequence for background research in the Study phase of a cycle. An ordered list of the sequence can be found in part one.


If, as many writing educators have argued, writing is actually thinking, then it’s best integrated into history/social studies classes when it is connected to the specific ideas, events, and people at the center of what is being studied in class. For the writing to be meaningful and engaging it has to be about a meaningful topic and supported by teaching that unites the writing and the content. A first step in this process is developing good inquiry questions that frame lessons and units of instruction.

In this resource, we discuss the teaching and learning of history through a focus on what makes a good inquiry question. The focus here is on developing engaging and significant questions for students to investigate.

Qualities of a Strong Inquiry-Based Writing Prompt

It generates discussion and encourages varied positions.

In this context, a good question builds on and benefits from the social nature of learning and the multiple voices contained in any classroom. If a question encourages and leads to varied responses, it creates opportunities for students to exchange ideas and, in the process, revise or refine their thinking.

For example, a question like “Was the Vietnam War in the best interest of the American People?” has the potential to generate a variety of thoughtful responses and classroom discussions. An instructor might begin with a conversation about how “best interest of American people” is defined, but the discussion can expand outward from there in numerous directions.

It demands an answer that is not just “Yes” or “No.” It requires explanation and analysis.

A good question leads to the understanding that its response is part of a larger conversation that’s been taking place among historians and/or the public. It leads to the desire to explain oneself, to elaborate, and to the recognition that a simple answer will not suffice.

For example, in the study of history we are often confronted with questions about the impact of specific events, projects, or programs. A thoughtful response to a long debated historical question—such as “Considering the goals of liberty and equality, were the gains of the French Revolution worth the pain that was caused from 1789-1804?”—requires a response that goes beyond just “yes” or “no.”

It demands a critical or careful reading of a variety of text(s).

If we consider the two example inquiry questions above, it is clear that a thoughtful response to each demands reading and investigating a variety of texts, including historical source documents from that time period and historical commentaries and essays.

An inquiry into the Vietnam question might include oral histories of soldiers, policy makers, and anti-war protestors. It also might include a variety of statistics on soldier and civilian deaths, as well as statistics on economic costs. And given the controversy that engulfed the nation, the inquiry would also benefit from historical essays that focus on the war’s legacy and how it is currently viewed by policy makers and citizens.

An inquiry into the French Revolution question might include documents that help paint a picture of tensions and divisions in society on the eve of revolution. This might include illustrations, paintings, and political cartoons. It also might include first-hand reports of the violence that occurred and who suffered the most.

It moves beyond opinion, into connecting claim, evidence, and reasoning.

A well-worded inquiry question focuses on a researchable issue whose answer takes the form of a claim that is supported by evidence, information, and reasoning. As students move from elementary to middle school, the Common Core State Standards specifically move from having students express opinions to having them develop and support claims.  It’s helpful to think about the difference between the two.

An opinion, as students often see it, doesn’t require support and can’t be argued with: “Blue is my favorite color,”  “______________ is my favorite artist.” But too often students often say “it’s my opinion” when a supported claim is required.

Returning to the Vietnam question, a claim that the war “was in the best interest of the American people” is strengthened when it articulates and applies a notion of what is in America’s “best interest” to how the historical evidence is analyzed and organized. A response to a question like this requires reasoning—in this case, a “criteria-based evaluation”—through which the evidence and history is understood and organized.

It is phrased in such a way that the question doesn’t predetermine the answer.

For a question to generate varied positions and create classroom discourse that allows students to refine their writing and thinking, the question can’t predetermine the answer.  For example, the question“Explain why Abraham Lincoln was a great President” boxes students in to one answer. It reveals more about the person asking the question than the thinking of the students doing the inquiry.

These five criteria focus on questions that frame an historical investigation, but strong responses are built on answering the more specific questions that make up the larger inquiry. For example, as part of the inquiry students should asking questions like:

  • “Where is Vietnam?”
  • “Who was the U.S. fighting, and why?”
  • “Which Americans fought in the U.S forces?”
  • “Was there a draft?”
  • “What was the meaning of the French slogan ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité?’”
  • “What were the various social classes in France on the eve of the revolution?

Discussion Questions

After reading this resource, let the following questions guide your thinking as a team:

  1. What significant historical events, places, groups, and individuals are at the center of the content we teach?
  2. With a focus on these significant events, places, groups, and individuals, what questions have the potential to generate classroom discussions that help students revise, refine, or clarify thinking?
  3. How can we help students include information from the texts needed to frame a response into the discussion?
  4. What questions might engage students in doing the hard work of historical inquiry?

About the Author

Stan Pesick taught U.S. History and American Government/Economics in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) Oakland, CA, for eighteen years (1976 – 1994). Between 2001 and 2011, he co-directed OUSD’s history/social studies department and directed three federally funded Teaching American History (TAH) projects. Between 2011 and 2014 he co-directed the Oakland Unified School District/Mills College History-English Language Arts (ELA) Collaborative on Writing the Argumentative Essay. Since 2014 he’s worked as a curriculum consultant to the National Japanese American Historical Society and National Park Service. He currently works with both the Bay Area and National Writing Projects.