Medium-Term Planning Part 2: getting the question right

A brief browse through the pages of Teaching History from the last decade will show that one of the things that troubles history teachers most is ‘what is the right question to ask?’ I am not talking here about the day-to-day questions that history teachers use in all their rich variety in lessons. Instead, I am focusing here on getting the question right in terms of medium-term planning, by which I mean ‘what should the overarching question be for this scheme of work?’ For those who are new to the idea of an enquiry question, a good place to start is Michael Riley’s article in Teaching History 99 (2000). Riley wrote about how an ‘enquiry question’ (which incidentally is nothing to do with ‘independent enquiry’) can give focus to a sequence of lessons where, over the course of those lessons, pupils learn the knowledge they need to address the question before, at the end of the sequence, they finally get to answer it in an exciting, intellectually-grounded and tangible outcome task, such as writing an essay. Choosing the right question to guide a sequence of lessons is, however, no easy task, and I am going to write here about some of the things that one needs to consider in constructing a great enquiry question.

A good question becomes more, and not less, complicated over time

A really good question appears simple, but quickly unravels into something more complicated. Let’s take an example that can be found in Teaching History 146 (2012) by comprehensive school teacher Elizabeth Carr (@EG_Carr). The question Carr wanted her pupils to answer was ‘How Victorian were the Victorians?’ I like this question because the answer sounds obvious at first, but then quickly unravels when poked. Carr wanted her pupils to have a grasp of what Victorian society was like, and this meant that pupils needed to know about the different groups who lived in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. One misunderstanding that many people seem to have is that ‘the Victorians’ were either innovative industrialists forging the future or emaciated child factory workers dying underneath machinery. Examples of both clearly exist but Victorian society was so much more complex (and of course changing over time) and pupils need a deeper knowledge of the similarities and differences between individuals and groups. Over six lessons Carr gradually introduced her pupils to different groups in society, beginning with common  assumptions, and then unpicking as she went differences in the wealth, status and attitudes of those who lived at the time. Each lesson in this sequence added an additional layer of complexity and, when pupils came to answer the question at the end of the sequence, they found that to speak of ‘the Victorians’ was not as simple at they might at first have thought. I shall write separately on using lesson introductions and conclusions to help maintain interest in a question, but I think these moments in a lesson (distinct from the rather reductive ‘starter’ and ‘plenary’) are crucial in keeping pupils interested in and excited about a question. “Well, today we have worked out that these ‘middle-class’ people in Victorian England had quite a different set of experiences to the factory workers we studied previously. But wait! We haven’t yet looked at the people who were living out in the countryside – I bet you thought we’d worked out finally who these Victorians were – but, surprise surprise, it’s about to get a whole lot more complicated… See you next lesson!”

A good question points towards and demands extensive subject knowledge 

A well-phrased question really helps out the history teacher who cannot decide what gets in and what gets left out from his or her lessons. There is so much I could teach about Britain in the first millennium, but I have only one half term: how can I decide what to include and exclude? I always found the best response to this was to go back to the enquiry question: if I were writing an essay to answer this, what would I want to include? Plenty of historians have written about the period: what do they see as vital, and what as subsidiary? Even the most detailed history curriculum leaves a great deal of space for teachers to choose what to focus on, and picking out the key pieces of substantive knowledge needed to answer the enquiry question is a vital part of the medium- and short-term planning process. I found that keeping a close focus on the enquiry question was a good way of making sure I was on track in my scheme of work: if I know that, in three lessons’ time, pupils will have to write an essay on the causes of the First World War, then I will make sure that I am covering in those three lessons all the details they are going to need to do that task successfully.

A good question emerges from existing historical debate

Let’s face it: some of the debates historians have are quite obscure. Most periods of history, however, have several gripping debates which historians have participated in over the years. Why was the slave trade abolished in 1807? When did Roman Britain end? How far did Britain change after the Norman Conquest? What were the consequences of the French Revolution? Reading as much scholarship as you can is the obvious way to identify the key debates and arguments for a particular period, though a good back-up is to drop an email to a historian and to ask them to point out the key issues for their period. I have often found that the questions that have engaged pupils the most (perhaps because they keep me engaged!) are questions behind which there is genuine historical debate. I have yet to meet a history teacher who does not want his or her pupils to write argumentatively, and we are missing a trick if we do not call upon debates that are already ‘out there’ in the field. If nothing else, it’s worth it for the look on the pupils’ faces when you turn up on Monday morning with your thumbed copy of Chris Clark’s Sleepwalkers and say “I skipped sleeping this weekend to finish this and it’s AMAZING: it challenges everything I thought I knew about the causes of the First World War…”

Conceptual clarity

In my own teaching, and in watching hundreds of lessons as a mentor to trainee teachers, the single biggest factor I saw affecting the coherence of a lesson was the extent to which the enquiry question being used was underpinned by conceptual clarity. Historical concepts, such as ‘cause’, ‘consequence’, ‘change’ and ‘continuity’ are powerful beasts because they help us phrase questions which are historical. I have previously blogged on how we need a disciplined approach to knowledge – as a historian, the questions I want to ask of Shakespeare are going to be different to those of an English Literature specialist, for example. In studying history I want to explain why things happened, what the consequences of an event were, how things changed and the ways in which they stayed the same. Being clear in an enquiry question about which of those particular things you want pupils to do for the purpose of a sequence of lessons is a great way of generating coherence. The most talented historians are those who can construct narratives with conceptual clarity (on why something happened, or how something changed) and, similarly, the most talented teachers I have seen weave threads of knowledge around conceptually well-founded questions. In this sense I agree with Mr Gove’s recent pronouncement that great teachers can construct a compelling narrative in their lessons. I assume his commitment to this in history is why concepts such as ‘causation’, ‘change’ and ‘consequence’ were placed in the aims section of the earliest draft of the new National Curriculum in the context of ‘framing historically-valid questions’.

And everything else…

The problem with writing this blog post is that, ultimately, everything feeds into forming a good question including issues I want to return to in later posts: decisions about overview and depth, about thematic emphasis, about geographical location will all affect the way a question is formed. In my next post I want to return to the question of overview and depth, and much of what I say there will, I am sure, have a bearing on how a question is constructed.

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