Compelling Questions + Social History

By Cynthia Resor posted 09-01-2017 09:48:36 AM


Compelling questions, as described in the C3 Framework, focus on issues and concerns of humans through time. Because they don’t have just one “correct” answer, but many different interpretations, they help students perceive the work of historians -- “doing” history. Compelling questions combine the interests of students, the content of a discipline, and the literacy and inquiry skills needed in that discipline.

Compelling questions are very similar to Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins’ essential questions. Both can be serve as conceptual frameworks for learning big concepts and discrete facts over multiple units or across disciplines.

I love compelling questions for teaching social history themes across units. Changes in how people live their daily lives don’t occur on a specific date on a timeline. Changes in daily life are usually gradual, taking place over years, decades, or even centuries. Social history themes almost never fit neatly into traditional units bounded by dates. But one good social history compelling question can be used throughout the year, becoming the glue that pulls everything together.

Social History Compelling Question: Example

Here is an example of a social history compelling question that relates to the lives of students AND could span an entire year of American history teaching units.

  • Why do different generations have different rules for romantic relationships?

The 1920's was a decade of social change in how men and women interacted. The usual 1920's instructional unit covers flappers and their shockingly short hair, short skirts, and free manners. But modern students probably wonder “What is so shocking about a flapper?” when compared to their own 21st century fashions and freedoms.

But if a compelling question is introduced and explored earlier in the year, in the 19th and early 20th century units of study, the relationship behavior of single men and women in the 1920's makes a lot more sense. Throughout the rest of the school year, the same compelling question continues to put strict dating etiquette of the 1950's, the new freedom of the 1960's, and the technology-driven 21st century romantic relationship “rules” in perspective.

One big compelling question used throughout the year can be combined with supporting questions that focus on specific descriptions and definitions. The supporting questions can be tailored for each unit.

For example, for 19th century units, the following supporting questions are appropriate:

  • What is courtship?  
  • How did rules of etiquette vary between groups of people? (social class, ethnicity, race)

For the 1920's unit, supporting questions might include:

  • What is dating and how was it different from courtship?
  • What technological changes contributed to the shift from courtship to dating?

For the 1950's unit, the supporting question could focus on sex/gender differences in etiquette:

  • How were relationship rules (etiquette) different for men and women?

Consider creating social history compelling and supporting questions for your social studies courses that can tie a year-long theme to the lives of students.

For more ideas and resources for teaching manners and etiquette, visit my website -