The following is from a 2013 Social Education article by S. G. Grant.

Grant, S.G. (2013.From Inquiry Arc to Instructional Practice: The Potential of the C3 Framework. Social Education 77(6), pp 322–326, 351. Available online at

Compelling Questions

Pushed into the classroom, the Inquiry Arc challenges some basic and longheld instructional practices. Perhaps the most challenging element, however, is designing lessons and units around questions.

Teachers have long used questions as part of their pedagogical repertoire. But there is a big difference between using questions to check for student understanding and using questions to frame a teaching and learning inquiry. Good questions can be difficult to create, but they can also help teachers and their students focus their inquiries and produce powerful learning outcomes.

Questions, as envisioned in the Inquiry Arc, are of two types— compelling and supporting. Compelling questions address “problems and issues found in and across the academic disciplines that make up social studies.” They “deal with curiosities about how things work; interpretations and applications of disciplinary concepts; and unresolved issues that require students to construct arguments in response.”¹ In short, compelling questions are provocative, engaging, and worth spending time on.

Compelling questions must satisfy two conditions. First, they have to be intellectually meaty. That means that a compelling question needs to reflect an enduring issue, concern, or debate in social studies and it has to draw on multiple disciplines. For example, “Was the American Revolution revolutionary?” works as a compelling question because it signals a continuing argument about how to interpret the results of the Revolution. And, although it sounds like a history question, to address it fully demands that one must look at it through a range of disciplinary lenses—Did the Revolution yield dramatic political change? Economic? Social? All of the above?

The second condition defining a compelling question is the need to be student-friendly. By student-friendly, I mean a question that reflects some quality or condition that teachers know students care about and that honors and respects students’ intellectual efforts. The American Revolution question above seems to fit these qualifications as well: It brings students into an authentic debate and it offers the possibility that adults may be confused—how could the American Revolution not be revolutionary? The latter is a condition that students tend to find especially fascinating.

Quiz time: Which of the following examples fit the criteria for a compelling question?

  1. Why do we need rules?
  2. What are the five largest sources of oil for U.S. markets?
  3. Why is Albany the capital of New York?
  4. Who are our community helpers?
  5. Can Canada and the U.S. be friends forever? 6. Who won the Cold War?

I would argue that numbers 1, 3, 5, and 6 fit the bill as compelling questions. For example, “Can Canada and the U.S. be friends forever?” satisfies the student-friendly criteria in that it keys off the idea that young people find the notion of friendship intriguing. On the substantive side, the notion of U.S.-Canada relations can be explored on multiple disciplinary dimensions. Think about it: If the U.S. and Canada compete on an economic level, can they still maintain good relationships on the political and/or social level? Similarly, the question, “Who won the Cold War?” qualifies as a compelling question because it meets the intellectually meaty criteria of highlighting a genuine dispute and the student interest criteria because it presumes that students can offer a useful perspective on the question through the arguments they make. By contrast, “What are the five largest sources of oil for U.S. markets?” and “Who are our community helpers” may be useful in developing a larger inquiry, but on their own, they do not carry the day either in terms of substantive or student interest engagement.


  1. The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards: Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of K-12 Civics, Economics, Geography, and History, 83.