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An inquirED Blog

Questioning: The Key to Unlocking the Power of Inquiry in Social Studies

To practice inquiry in social studies, educators must craft powerful questions AND help students build their questioning power. To discuss these critical components of inquiry, we were joined on our webinar by Warren Berger (Journalist and Author), Sarah Westbrook (Director of Professional Learning, The Right Question Institute), and Anthony Sievert (Learning Experience Architect, inquirED). Read below for a summary and reflection and check out the recording below the fold.


A New Focus on Questions

Before this webinar, I tried to cast my mind back to my pre-service teacher days, straining to remember what my classes and textbooks had to say about the importance of questions. It wasn’t much. The whole of my instruction seems to have been this advice: “After you ask a question, wait five seconds.”

Warren Berger joined us on the webinar and shared that he, too, received little training in questioning as he prepared for his profession, in his case for a career in journalism. “You’re training someone to be a journalist,” Berger shared, “you would think you would train them on the thing that they are going to do every single day.”

So Berger fine-tuned his questioning skills himself throughout his career, but as he questioned and wrote, he began to realize the importance of questions across professions. The great innovators, business leaders, and change-makers he interviewed were also great question askers. Additionally, as he researched the significant products and creations throughout history, he usually found a question at the root. “If you trace these things back to their origin,” he said, “somebody is asking a question at the beginning of the process.”

Berger now calls himself a “questionologist,” researching and writing about the power of questions. “There is a need for it in the world,” he said, “and now I think we know more than ever that we need questions to sift through the information coming at us.”

So, if Warren Berger had his way, I probably would have had a class or two in questioning in my teacher prep program — maybe even by a certified questionologist! But what would have been the focus of those classes?

Student Questioning

Sarah Westbrook, Director of Professional Learning at the Right Question Institute (RQI), joined us on the webinar and shared her belief we should start by focusing on student questions. “So often we focus on adults asking questions to students,” she shared, “instead of helping students ask questions themselves and develop their questioning skills.”

Much of RQI’s work in K12 education does just that, utilizing its most well-known protocol, The Question Formation Technique. Westbrook described the QFT as “a deliberately simple step-by-step strategy,” but one in which “you’re doing sophisticated thinking all the way through it.” If you are interested in best practices for applying the QFT, you can register for the online course offered through the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Westbrook brought examples of student questions generated during the QFT. One of those examples, from a 7th grade class in Folsom, CA, used a Dorthea Lange photograph (see photo) as a prompt – or “QFocus” in QFT terminology. Students asked a wide range of questions about the image, from the profound (“Did they ever get full-fledged justice?”) to the innocuous (“Is that a BMW or something?”).

Westbrook pointed out that sometimes closed-ended or innocuous-seeming questions may kickstart important conversations. For example, the question: “Is that a BMW or something?” focuses us on the car and may lead to other important questions. Why was the car included in the photo? What did it mean relative to the sign on the building? “There’s always a level of unpredictability with questions,” Westbook reflected, “you might think you are asking something closed, but it opens up Pandora’s box…and it can get you to somewhere pretty interesting and profound.”

So, the QFT helps students build their questioning power, but what about when teachers have to develop compelling questions to frame an inquiry?

Helping Teachers Ask Questions

Anthony Sievert, a Learning Experience Architect at inquirED, spends a considerable amount of time with his team trying to craft these questions. Sievert and his team want the questions they craft to encourage sustained investigation, spark student curiosity, and connect to their lived experiences. "They need to be student-led, putting students in the driver’s seat,” Sievert said, “and we want them to be authentic and rigorous as well.” They also want to ensure that the questions they pose aren’t harmful to students, forcing them to take positions on controversial issues.

To support their work, Sievert and Elisabeth Ventiling Simon, inquirED’s Head of Learning Experiences, have developed a questioning framework adapted from the work of Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy. In their book The Political Classroom, Hess and McAvoy break down the nature of controversial issues, distinguishing between issues that are settled (i.e. those that are generally agreed upon) and open (i.e. those that are the subject of current debate).

When crafting compelling questions, Sievert and his team aim for questions that are directed toward open issues. With this guidance in mind, and building further on the work of Hess and McAvoy, Sievert and Simon described two types of questions that could be used to interrogate open issues: moral questions and ethical questions.

According to Sievert, moral questions are backward-looking and “put students in the unfair position of judging past choices from today’s position.” For example, a classroom where students debate a question like: “Columbus: Hero or Villain?” Ethical questions, on the other hand, are forward-looking and focused on how the past can influence the choices we make today. Sievert believes that teachers should shift to ethical questions to guide an inquiry. “Just by making that shift,” he shared, “we can craft questions that are authentic and invite responses, instead of answers and judgments.”

We ended our webinar with a short audience Q & A – and an audience member shared that he increasingly felt there were barriers put up to deflect questions – and that some questions were “off-limits.” Make sure to listen to Sarah Westbrook’s response, in which she explains how “the question itself is the triumph.”


Explore the resources and links below to find out more about our panelists and their work.

Warren Berger

Sarah Westbrook

Anthony Sievert

Watch the Webinar Recording


About inquirED

inquirED was founded by teachers with the mission of bringing inquiry-based social studies to every classroom. Inquiry Journeys, inquirED’s elementary social studies curriculum, is used in schools and districts across the country to help students develop deep social studies content knowledge and build the inquiry skills that are essential for a thriving democracy.


Panelist Bios

Warren Berger: Innovation expert and questionologist Warren Berger has studied hundreds of the world’s foremost innovators, entrepreneurs, and creative thinkers to learn how they ask questions, generate original ideas, and solve problems. He is the author or co-author of more than 12 books on innovation, including the bestseller A MORE BEAUTIFUL QUESTION: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas and the internationally acclaimed GLIMMER, named one of Businessweek’s Best Innovation and Design Books of the Year. His writing appears in Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, Psychology Today, and The New York Times. He lives in New York.

Sarah Westbrook: Sarah is the Right Question Institute’s Director of Professional Learning. As a former high school English teacher, Sarah is committed to amplifying and uplifting the innovative work educators do every day. She partners with schools and districts to design in-person and virtual professional learning on the Question Formulation Technique. She also leads the online course, “Teaching Students How to Ask Their Own Questions…” offered through the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is the principal investigator on a Library of Congress grant that will support educators, especially those working with traditionally underrepresented students, to facilitate student-driven, inquiry-based primary source learning.

Anthony Sievert: For the past ten years, Tony has served as a secondary Social Studies teacher, an assessment specialist, an instructional coach, and a Social Studies Curriculum Specialist for a large, urban school district. Through these experiences, Tony has created, curated, and facilitated the adoption and implementation of inquiry-based social studies curricular resources at all grade levels. He earned his B.A. in Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his J.D. from the University of Wisconsin Law School. Tony joined the inquirED team in the Summer of 2021


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