Doing History is Asking Questions

Learning to do history means learning to ask good historical questions--questions that are worthy of prolonged discussion, questions that will lead to deeper insights into important matters, if not to definitive answers.

"Students cannot possibly learn everything of value by the time they leave school, but we can instill in them the desire to keep questioning throughout their lives . . . The aim of curriculum is to awaken, not 'stock' or 'train' the mind. That goal makes the basic unit of a modern curriculum the question. . . What the modern student needs is the ability to see how questions both produce and point beyond knowledge."(Grant Wiggins, "The Futility of Trying to Teach Everything of Importance, Educuational Leadership, November 1989.

"A moment's reflection should suffice to establish the simple proposition that every historian, willy nilly, must begin his research with a question. Questions are the engines of intellect, the cerebral machines which convert energy to motion, and curiosity to controlled inquiry. There can be no thinking without questioning--no purposeful study of the past, nor any serious planning for the future. . . . Without questions of some sort, a historian is condemned to wander aimlessly through dark corridors of learning. Without questions of the right sort, his empirical projects are consigned to failure before they are fairly begun. . . . It should be self-evident that some questions will yield empirical answers and others will not" (David Hackett Fischer, Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought, 1970, pp. 3-4).

"Serious researchers, however, do not report data for their own sake, but to support the answer to a question that they (and they hope their readers) think is worth asking. So the best way to begin working on your specific topic is not to find all the data you can on your general topic, but to formulate questions that point you to just those data that you need to answer them" (Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb and Joseph M. Williams, The Craft of Research, 3d ed., 2008, 41).

For more on the importance of asking questions in education and in democracy, visit the Right Question Institute,, an organization based in Cambridge, Mass., dedicated to teaching the skill of developing good questions.

Types of historical questions:

What happened?

    • Who was responsible?

    • What was the motive/role/strategy of one or more of the historical actors?

    • What caused or influenced something and how? (Influence more doable)

    • What was the impact of something? (time frame may be too long)

How or what did people think about something?

    • What was their ideology?

    • What were their values?

    • What was the weltanschauung or mentalitĂ©?

How does something fit into its context or reflect or embody important historical themes?

See Patrick Rael's website, specifically is page on "How to Ask Good Questions."

Also: Warren Berger, A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.