Teaching and Learning History - 020916

Classroom Applications

Helping Students Engage in
Meaningful Historical Inquiry

By Matthew Missias
Grand Valley State University, MI

Put simply, getting students to ask really good historical questions is difficult. Breaking through that barrier is the first step in making history instruction meaningful – for you and your students.

We know that historical inquiry is founded on the collection and analysis of data, but without a compelling question to drive the inquiry, students don’t really participate in historical inquiry. For K12 students studying history too often it means getting bogged down with memorizing dates and people or worse, regurgitating someone else’s historical narratives. What makes a historical question compelling is that it focuses on issues that have life beyond the texts; the kinds of ideas that humans feel compelled to return to in order to better understand our collective past.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Two strategies to try: First, have students use some unique resources from history to frame their questions. For example, Picasso’s Guernica might be used to initiate conversation about everything from fascism to anti-war protests just as archaeological artifacts might generate questions about ancient civilizations. Engaging students with the novel and unfamiliar generates questions based on curiosity. Second, students can focus on local history. Whether by using local landmarks, people, or items, local history deeply personalizes student interest. This is easy for American historical questions, but can also be an important segue as a means of uncovering common historical themes and problems found in world history as well. These are just two of many ideas, but importantly, always striving to help students generate compelling questions will make historical inquiry meaningful.

About the Author:

Matthew T. Missias is former secondary Social Studies teacher and has spent the last ten years working as a teacher educator in higher education. Currently, he is part time faculty at Grand Valley State University and the President and Owner of Cultivated Learning, LLC, a full service educational consulting firm that works to support educators, learners, and parents.

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