The focus of historical inquiry is a significant question or issue. Students need sufficient scope and depth of research materials to fully respond to such a question or issue. Students should ask, What else do I need to find out before I can answer this question? The ‘what else’ takes the form of research questions (or sub-questions/focus questions). These research questions break the issue into manageable chunks and can be seen as stepping stones on the inquiry pathway.
As with all skills, there is a clear developmental trajectory. In this case, the development of skills is reflected in the curriculum descriptors for the skill of generating research questions:
Years 7 and 8 must generate inquiry questions, whereas years 9 and 10 are required to use discernment to select the best inquiry questions for the job and, if necessary, re-work their questions until they are just right.
My KLA/department takes a developmental approach to inquiry, with department-level planning focused on providing learning experiences and scaffolding that allows students to continue to build on their skills in a challenging, yet developmentally appropriate, environment. The area of research questions is just one example of how my planning as a classroom teacher is done in line with KLA and curriculum concerns and best practice in mind.
I find that the following activities provide the necessary scaffolding to help students with their research questions:
Years 7 and 8:
- Discussing different types of questions (for example, open versus closed questions; background versus specific questions; and perspective versus consensus questions).
- Working collaboratively to generate a bank of inquiry questions related to the topic.
- Working collaboratively to categorise types of questions that have been generated.
- Providing question stems and/or question categories from which students will generate their own inquiry questions.
Strategies for years 7 and 8, plus:
- Selecting the most relevant or useful questions, or ranking the questions, from a bank of previously-generated questions (and asking students to justify their choice).
- Re-wording a set of existing inquiry questions to suit the particular topic or to allow for greater relevance and depth of inquiry.
- Backwards mapping the inquiry questions (planning the questions with the end result in mind. For example, if students know they need to generate an essay examining the social, political and economic causes of the French Revolution, they may generate inquiry questions that focus on these particular issues.)
Teachers would use the strategies mentioned above sparingly and encourage students to generate, select and refine their own questions, and be prepared to justify their decisions.