So You Need a Compelling Question? How About a Couple Hundred?

For whatever reason, I’ve gotten into a ton of conversations lately around the topic of compelling questions. Some of the conversations have focused on the creation of quality sample questions as part of the ongoing revision of our current state standards. There’s been discussions with schools and individual teachers as they continue to develop quality curriculum designs and instructional units.

And while there always will be – and should be – conversations about the differences between compelling, driving, essential, and supporting questions, the point remains the same. If we’re going to help our kids become knowledgable, engaged, and active citizens, they need to be solving problems and addressing questions. So quality questions of all kinds are something we need to be incorporating into our unit and lesson designs.

But what can they look like?

In the Education Journal article Questions that Compel and Support, S. G. Grant, Kathy Swan, and John Lee argue for their definition of a compelling question and provide some ideas of how to write one. The three are the creators of the Inquiry Design Model, a powerful tool for teachers looking for a structure to help them organize their instruction around the doing of social studies.

I especially love how the authors introduce the idea of a compelling question:

"Compelling questions function as the headline of a news story. They catch the reader’s attention and provide just enough content to preview the story to come. A good inquiry functions in much the same way: A compelling question frames an inquiry . . ."

Their most recent book, Inquiry Design Model: Building Inquiries in Social Studies, has a very sweet chapter on creating compelling questions.

Another great place to start is with the College, Career, and Civic Life document from the National Council for the Social Studies. The document does a great job of articulating the importance of a robust compelling question:

"Children and adolescents are naturally curious, and they are especially curious about the complex and multifaceted world they inhabit. Whether they articulate them to adults or not, they harbor an almost bottomless well of questions about how to understand that world. Sometimes children’s and adolescents’ silence around the questions in their heads leads adults to assume that they are empty vessels waiting passively for adults to fill them with their knowledge. This assumption could not be more mistaken."

And the NCSS’s handy Inquiry Arc embedded in their C3 document outlines a structure for embedding great questions into the instructional process.

During a recent teacher conversation, we brainstormed possible traits of a great compelling question:

  • Matches and awakens student interests and concerns
  • Explores a mystery
  • Is age appropriate
  • Is intriguing
  • Requires more than a “yes” or “no” answer
  • Is engaging
  • Requires more than mere fact gathering
  • Is baffling
  • Has no “right answer”
  • Provokes curiosity
  • Requires synthesis
  • Is conceptually rich
  • Has “staying power”
  • Explores controversial issues  

Bruce Lesh, of Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answers fame and one of my biggest social studies heroes, provides some additional help by outlining his criteria for a quality compelling question: 

  • Does the question represent an important issue to historical and contemporary times?
  • Is the question debatable?
  • Does the question represent a reasonable amount of content?
  • Will the question hold the sustained interest of students?
  • Is the question suitable given the resources available?
  • Is the question challenging for the grade level and developmentally appropriate?
  • Does the question require discipline specific thinking skills?

But it’s not always easy developing a good question. We all eventually run out of good ideas. The good news is that lots of people have been thinking about this for while and don’t mind sharing. So if you’re looking for some questions, browse through these: 

We all know that best practice requires great questions to anchor learning. We just aren’t always great at coming up with them. So don’t be shy. It’s okay to borrow and adapt. Dig in and start adding some of these to what you already do. Your kids will walk away smarter because of it. 

cross posted at

Glenn Wiebe is an education and technology consultant with 15 years' experience teaching history and social studies. He is a curriculum consultant for ESSDACK, an educational service center in Hutchinson, Kansas, and he blogs frequently at History Tech and maintains Social Studies Central, a repository of resources targeted at K-12 educators. Visit to learn more about his speaking and presentation on education technology, innovative instruction and social studies.