One of the most fruitful aspects of using IDM in a school, PLC, or any community of teachers is the ability to develop a similar language about what we are trying to teach in a classroom. My own social studies department made it a soft goal to implement IDM language (questions, tasks, sources, etc.) a few years ago. Many of the best and challenging conversations I have had with colleagues have utilized this language, particularly when it comes to developing and using compelling questions. This is no small accident. Creating a useful compelling question may be one of the hardest skills to master. While this post will not be exploring HOW to write a wonderful compelling question (for that I point you to Rebecca Mueller’s excellent article, “Calibrating your Compelling Compass”), what I do want to ask is something more basic: What do you want your compelling question to DO for student thinking? 

Most compelling question development centers on the language of the all important verbiage of a question. The differences between How and Why? Should and Could? What and Is? This point was driven home when I was discussing the merits of an inquiry around Slavery and the Civil War with one of the teachers who had recently implemented the inquiry “Why did the South secede?” an inquiry created in conjunction with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Learning for Justice” initiative. She remarked how well this inquiry went with her students. The basis for this conclusion was the open-ended nature of the question “Why?” She credited the framing of the question with its success. Particularly around a topic fraught with misunderstanding, the “why” seemed to open more intellectual doors than a “should” question that is often found in the IDM universe. 

This conclusion points to something simple but powerful in inquiry: what you want your students to inquire about will inform the question you settle on. Here I offer two kinds of questions: ones that lead to a “diversity of conclusion” and ones that lead to a “diversity of explanations.” One is not better than the other. But they are different. 

Let me explain. Questions that lead to a “diversity in conclusion” allow for students to generate multiple possible conclusions. Questions that lead to a “diversity in explanation” may only lead to one or two basic conclusions, yet still force students to wrestle with evidence that results in a diversity of interpretation. For example, our compelling question above, may yield very few historically verifiable responses other than “the protection of slavery” as the underlying reason for Southern secession. But how the inquiry guides students through the competing and intertwined events of westward expansion, the 1860 Presidential election, and conflicting viewpoints of southern and northern legislators results in a robust understanding of the ways in which slavery was also intertwined with the political and social fabric of the time. This is important and critical to inquiry work. What this inquiry lacked in a “diversity in conclusion” led to instead a “diversity in explanation.”

Questions that provide the opportunity for a diversity in conclusion are those questions that force students into positions that necessarily follow from the question. One of my favorite questions, “Is the internet good for democracy?” fits this description. This question necessarily creates at least three argument stems. Widen the language from “Is” to “What” and you get even more stems. “What Made Nonviolent Protest Effective during the Civil Rights Movement?” opens the doors to conclusions that may not have even been possible to the teacher’s own mind, as students are freed up to consider a multitude of options as the evidence leads. These questions are also super compelling, eye-catching and even controversial. 

But I also want to leave space for simple questions. “Why did the South Secede?” is incredibly simple in its conception. Yet, simple questions are often some of the most difficult questions. “Why” implies causation, consequence, action, and mistakes. This question also has historical resonance, given that historians have been asking and re-asking that question. Most historians worth their salt have agreed that all the available evidence points to “slavery” as the reason for secession. If that is true, then why do students even bother with investigation? The answer to this is simple: questions like these put students in the driver’s seat of learning, modeling what historians do, explaining the past with the clues that the previous generations left behind. A teacher in this scenario is looking not for a diversity in conclusions, but rather, a diversity of explanation. Imagine momentarily the same compelling question reincarnated as “Was slavery the cause of Southern Secession?” Setting aside that possibility of students answering “no,” you have greatly simplified the options for students. Your goal now has become the crafting of conclusions rather than explanations. Useful in getting students attention, but not so great in getting students to explain well.

What is the lesson here? I offer two views of questions. Questions that lead to a “diversity in conclusion” lead to multiple different stances on a question. While questions that lead to a “diversity in explanation” may be simple and straightforward, but will require more emphasis on how to explain and interpret. Do all questions fall neatly into these two categories? Absolutely not. Instead, think to yourself the next time you are writing your next compelling question. What do I want out of my students? Sometimes the answer is simple. And so, sometimes the simple questions provide the space for the best responses.