The begining of the story: Context Story Line Opening


Formulating an Historical Question

By: W Guy Clarke Georgia State University


The challenge for me, as well as other social studies teachers today, is to make pedagogically sound decisions about curricula that will ultimately provide opportunities for students to meaningfully engage content. Teachers must b alance the demanding sense of responsibility for “data-based results” as well as fostering an environment that promotes inquiry-based learning as an essential component in historical and critical thinking. I becomes quite difficult to achieve a perfect equilibrium between “content coverage” and a quality pedagogical built on consistent, meaningful, challenging and relevant curriculum.


I teach high school juniors and seniors enrolled in United States history and local history at Cherokee High School in Canton Georgia. In order to meaningfully engage content, social studies students in my class first learn the skills necessary to think historically. The activities which facilitate the development of historical thinking skills must be; inquiry-based, within an historical context, student-centered, and must utilize primary historical documents, require students work collaboratively and to think historically. However, the design of these activities can be a pedagogical challenge for teachers.


This school year, 2003-2004, I began using a document analysis model titled “SCIM-C” developed by David Hicks of Virginia Tech as part of the Digital Historical Inquiry Project. SCIM-C stands for summarizing, contextualizing, inferencing, monitoring, and corroborating. Each of these five overlapping stages is part of a process of documentary analysis which can support authentic historical inquiry. Hicks (2003) states “within each stage there exists a series of questions that students should be able to ask as they examine the source” (p.3). In my high school history class, students work with the SCIM-C process using a layered chart to guide themselves through the process of constructing knowledge, meaning, and context from the document by building continuously on previous stages in the process.


After experiencing success with the SCIM-C model while working with my students, I began to notice an issue with my high school students’ use of SCIM-C. An area at the top of the SCIM-C chart which I used had a blank area titled “Question.” This area was meant for articulating an historical question that a respective document being analyzed would address. My students had considerable difficulty developing historical questions. I would suggest a topic, but students were mostly unable to develop an appropriate question. Realizing that National History Standards (NHS), specifically Standard 4. Historical Research Capabilities, refer to the ability of students to formulate historical questions, I decided to try to develop a scheme to help my students construct appropriate historical questions themselves.


Formulating the Question

I decided to focus my pedagogical efforts on my local history class which included a major student project requiring original historical research. The project was titled “Getting to Know the Community of Cherokee County Georgia: “Where Metro Meets the Mountains” and was a culminating research project. The project was initiated toward the end of the courses after students had worked specifically with the SCIM-C model and after I had encountered the problem of students developing their own historical thinking questions. I attempted to address the problem of students formulating historical questions by developing a reflective narrative each night that would be posted to our class web site and discussed the following day. In these discussions, students raised questions that were addressed that evening in another narrative. A layered narrative emerged which provided me a way to model and articulate the cognitive processes and skills of historical thinking and the metacognitive strategies and processes used to first develop an historical question and finally a historical research project. The narrative was envisioned first as a demonstration on how to formulate a historical question. As the narrative developed, a generalizable process for students to use in formulating their historical questions emerged.


Students Formulating Historical Questions: Narrating the Process

The process of demonstrating the historical questioning process began with a narrative which I wrote for students at the onset of our research project. The following narrative was constructed as an introduction to their project work.


Selecting Topics and Developing Historical Questions: The Hardest Part  

Below are listed eleven potential research projects that you could complete over the course of the next ten weeks in our class. Remember, these projects are just like any other project you would do in any other class at Cherokee High School. However, these projects focus on the community of Cherokee County, Georgia. When you are considering taking on one of these projects, you need to ask yourself “is this topic really of any importance to anyone?” If your answer is “no,” then move on to the next topic and repeat the question and answer process until you have found a topic you can answer “yes” to.

Once you have found a topic that you believe is of importance to someone, ask yourself “why would this topic be of importance to anyone?” Think of it this way. If you are going to spend time working diligently on a project that will require you to: construct a narrative (write a paper), construct a timeline (appropriate to your topic), locate a variety of resources (document, document, document!!), and create a web site (your research work presented on the Web), then that topic better be important to you or you will be bored!


The next step is a little tricky, but we will work through it together. Why do you go to a particular store? Why do you go to the library? Why do you go to a Web site? All of these questions have something in common, so think about it for a few minutes. Yes, you do go to a store to buy something you needed. Yes, you do go to the library to get a book for a book report. And yes, you do go to a Web site to buy, for example, a prom dress that you want to wear to prom. However, in each one of these scenarios you were engaged in a search for something you needed. When you went to the store, you first realized you needed something (e.g. we are out of cereal. What kind of cereal do I want? Where can I get that cereal?); when you went to the library, you first realized you needed a book (e.g. I have a book report due in Mr. Baker’s class. What book do I need? Where can I get this book?); when you went to the David’s Web site, you first concluded that you had to get a spectacular prom dress (e.g. I am going to prom with so-and- so this year. What kind of dress do I want? Where can I find a dress that no one else will have?).


Therefore, the question I want you to ask yourself now is “what question would someone have to ask themselves in order to come to my project web site?” In other words, “what question could someone visiting my project web site possibly be able to answer?” We need to develop some historical questions appropriate to your topic!


  • The History of the Cherokee County School District
  • A Property Survey of Ball Ground, Georgia
  • Election 2004: How the Issues Affect Cherokee County, Georgia
  • Bill Hasty, Sr.: A Resident of Cherokee County, Georgia
  • Cherokee County in Pictures: A Collection of Photographs
  • The Canton Cotton Mill: From a Mill to Lofts
  • Downtown Canton: Has Anything Really Changed?
  • Demolish or Restore: Preservation Projects in Cherokee County
  • How Much Do You Really Know About Cherokee?
  • The Dictionary Project: Documenting the Local Lingo 2004
  • Is That Really Art?: A History of Art in Cherokee County or Cherokee County the Art Exhibit
  • Perspectives on Change: Documenting Growth in Cherokee County


Students were asked to choose three topics and formulate two historical questions appropriate to that topic before the end of the class period. This provided me with an opportunity to interact with individual students, answer specific questions, and collect their topic/question assignment to assess and construct the next day’s narrative.


The second day students were handed back their historical questions with specific remarks written on the assignment. The problem I observed with the student’s questions was that the questions were too specific or narrow. The comments I made on each student’s assignment generally asked the students to consider their topic in a larger historical context and then adjust their question accordingly. I also decided after reviewing the student’s assignments that I would use The Story of Asaph Perry as a context for how to develop an historical research question. Students were familiar with this project through work earlier in the year. In fact, students in this class had helped construct the site by selecting, transcribing and digitizing the primary historical documents presented on the site. The next day in class I lead students through this narrative on developing historical questions using as a context the Asaph Perry web site.


The National Standards for History (1996) briefly addresses the issue of students developing historical questions in the "Basic Principles Guiding the Development of Standards for K-4" (p.3) by stating that


All these resources should be used imaginatively to help children formulate questions for study and to support historical thinking, such as the ability to marshal information; create sound hypotheses; locate events in time and place; compare and contrast past and present; explain historical causes and consequences; analyze historical fiction and illustrations for their accuracy and perspectives, and compare with primary sources that accurately portray life, attitudes, and values in the past; compare different stories about an era or event in the past and the interpretations or perspectives of each; and create historical narratives of their own in the form of stories, letters such as a child long ago might have written, and descriptive accounts of events" (p.3).


Putting Things into Perspective: Understanding the Context


You see, this is first and foremost a history class, so as you begin to create some questions that "someone visiting your Web site would possibly be trying to answer" lets think broadly. Cherokee County, Georgia does not, and has never, existed alone without any kind of influence or without ever influencing anyone. The things that occurred in Cherokee County, Georgia in 1898, such as the establishment of a cotton mill and men enlisting to fight in the Spanish American War, were happening all over the South and the United States.


When we realize that events in Cherokee County are similar to what happens in other places we are beginning to contextualize these events in a historical framework. When we place events into a larger context, or historical framework, we see how Cherokee County fits into the larger stories of U.S. and world history. All of the sudden when you look at things this way, things you know about in Cherokee County, Georgia begin to seem more important. We begin to see why things happened the way they did, and how events in the far corners of the globe could actually have an impact on Cherokee County and visa-versa.


Context is defined as "the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs. Regardless of the topic you chose, it occurred in context. For example, you are familiar with the story of Asaph Perry from your work last semester. If you remember, Asaph Perry was an entrepreneur. In fact the web site suggested that he was a “quintessential” entrepreneur. He engaged in a variety of business activities during his life including travel sales, marketing, and owning a few small businesses. However, the term “quintessential” is what I would like us to examine here for a moment.


Quintessential is defined as most typical example or representative. So with this definition in mind, what was Asaph Perry an example of or representative of? Why would anyone other than the descendants or Asaph Perry or maybe the citizens of Cherokee County be interested in the story of Mr. Perry? Did Perry do something that your history textbook left out? Was something just recently discovered in one of the stacks at the Cherokee County Historical Society that no one ever knew about that suddenly made the story of Perry one that no high school student should leave school without?


No, Asaph Perry was not recently credited with saving Canton from sure certain destruction. No, the authors of your textbook were not negligent in their writing by leaving Perry out of their publication. Asaph Perry was just an ordinary American, but that is what makes him so important. Let me try to explain how ordinary, not extraordinary, becomes important to you as a student of history. The study of Asaph Perry allows all of you to identify yourself within larger historical contexts and to also recognize your "shared humanity and common problems" (NHS, p.42) regardless of time or place. The study of personal or local history empowers you to make sense of larger narratives about the past. While the story of Asaph Perry is not an unusual story, it is story about, and full of, opportunities - opportunities for me to help you engage and make sense of the past. The life of Asaph Perry, a resident of Cherokee County during the era in which modern America would begin to emerge, can bring alive for you a variety of historical themes in American history and world history; themes such as technological change, industrialization, entrepreneurial spirit, family life, and changing gender roles.


By studying Asaph Perry, you had a unique opportunity to examine the life and times of a real family using actual documents written by, and written to, Perry as well as other relevant artifacts he collected. However, the documents and artifacts of Asaph Perry only gave us glimpses into his life. Our aim was to understand as much of Asaph Perry's life as possible, but to do this with a parallel aim of engaging larger stories and themes from history. Last semester you, armed with the tools of historical analysis, inquired about the past using these specific artifacts and, in a sense, Asaph Perry become a telescope into the past. Your study of Asaph Perry's life within the larger context of U.S. history allowed you to truly understand the changes that were taking place, industrial, technological, economic, and societal, during a time when the United States that we now live in was beginning to take shape. Alone, the significance of Asaph Perry's letters is not evident; but using the processes of analysis and interpretation with this evidence, you gained a deeper understanding of the past. In other words, you put Asaph Perry's life and experiences in Cherokee County, Georgia into the larger contexts of United States and world history and saw how factors existing far away influenced someone you probably would have known if he was alive today. You see, Asaph Perry did not live independent and separate from the events that were taking place outside of Cherokee County in the United States and the world -- neither do you.

Following the reading and discussion of the narrative, student’s assignments were returned and they were asked to choose one of their three original topics and again formulate or revise their two historical questions. This activity provided me with an opportunity to interact with individual students, answer specific questions, and collect their topic/question assignment to assess and construct the next day’s narrative with.


After reviewing the revised questions from day two, I found that most of the student’s historical questions were too broad instead of too narrow. I therefore offered another layer of remarks regarding the scope of the questions on their assignments. The third and final day of this process allowed students to hone and finalize their historical questions. Again the class individually reviewed their papers, layered now with two days of revisions and remarks, and logged onto our Web site to read the following:


Coming up with a historical question: Not too broad or too narrow


Unfortunately, scholars have not written much on how students develop historical questions. However, I think that it is extremely important that you are asking a question that you want to answer. If you get bored, the paper that I will read or the project that I will grade will not be as good as if you were somewhat excited about the topic you were researching and the question you were answering. Digging through evidence, whether it is books, documents, periodicals, interviews, or photographs, so we have to really be into it.


Robert C. Williams states in his book The Historian’s Toolbox: A Student’s Guide to the Theory and Craft of History (2003) that when we deal with evidence “The results can be messy. But so is history” (p. 5). Williams (2003) contends that “The past is not history. The past and its traces provide the raw material of history… But without the raw material of the past, there would be no evidence in the present, no story to tell, and no history to discover and construct. So we begin with the past and the root word of history, story” (p.5).


If we think of history as a story, the idea of doing history does not seem so frightening, does it? We are all familiar with stories; our grandparents told us stories about their child hood and how tough they had it, always beginning with “when I was your age…” Soon to follow was a story about something that may not have made sense to you at the time, but I bet it does now - maybe a story about morals, values, or maybe a cautionary tale. These stories answered questions that at the time may not have been so apparent or of any real value to you as a child. The stories that I remember being told by my grand parents all addressed one issue or helped me answer one question: “how should a young man in today’s world live his life so that he and his family could be happy and proud?” It took me many years and a lot of thinking to make sense of those stories and to come up with the question that all of my grand parent’s stories would answer. Obviously, that was my grand parent’s opinion or perspective and not one held by everyone—but that is the perspectival and interpretive nature of history that we have talked about.


So how does this apply to you and the project you are about to embark on? Well, you have had a chance to look at some historical materials about Cherokee County and you have probably heard plenty of stories about Cherokee County. What you have to do first is to take what you know and come up with a question that you believe the evidence will best answer or address. Remember, “stories about the past are not yet history, because they are not necessarily true” (Williams, p.9). Williams (2003) argues that “stories are like instructions for the craft of history. They narrate the step-by-step process of construction in sequence. But stories do not give us the raw materials unless they are true, nor the tools for construction. They are useful in the beginning, and we should know them before we settle down to work” (p.9). In other words, the historical question that you develop may not necessarily be answered, once you have critically analyzed the evidence, the way you thought it would be—that is not a problem. However, the story that you tell, the narrative that you write, will be based on evidence and represent your informed and accurate answer, or your perspective on, the historical question you will develop. We’ll leave off here with a quote that articulates exactly what you are about to do: “The fascinating thing about telling stories is that they start with the end” (Williams, p.7).

Again, following the reading and discussion of the narrative, student’s assignments were returned and they were asked to choose one of the two questions they had written and revise it one more time. I circulated throughout the class to interact with the students, answer specific questions, and collect their final historical question to assess.


In one class students were becoming noticeably frustrated with the process of sharpening and honing their historical question. I asked one student for their topic (Bill Hasty and his different careers in public service positions) and we, as a class, went through the following questions in an effort to dissect and construct a feasible and appropriate question that was neither too narrow nor too broad:


Historical Questions: What you should look for in a good historical question




United States

World History


Affect positive change





2nd half 20 th century


Civil Rights through the Cold War

Cold War(s) and collapse of U.S.S.R.


Canton, Cherokee County



United States


Positive improvement for the community

Change in society, government, technology, economy



(Subject) Individual





Jobs and career






After we discussed what we knew about Mr. Hasty and the world in which he lived in, we formulated a historical question that we felt was not too narrow or broad. The question was “How did individuals in the United States during the second half of the 20 th century affect positive change in their communities through their career choices?” Bill Hasty’s live would be a case study that would answer or address this particular question. In other words, we decided that a well formulated historical question would solicit an answer that would inevitably address the six criteria of who, what, when, where, why, and how in a well developed narrative. While there is no doubt this model needs some work, it allows students to use prior or familiar knowledge and questions as a framework in which an historical question can be formulated.


In order for students to answer their question they first determined what resources were needed and where those resources were located. These are the first steps of any authentic historical inquiry and again place students within the expectations of NHS standard 4, specifically the substandard on obtaining historical data. By simply answering their questions students would have to interrogate historical data (NHS standard 4). They also had to employ cognitive strategies and skills that historians use to answer questions about the past. Their answers will take the form of narratives, which also allow students to meet a substandard of NHS standard 4 namely, “identify[ing] the gaps in the available records, marshal contextual knowledge and perspectives of the time and place, and construct a sound historical interpretation” (p.22).




The National Standards for History (1996) briefly addresses the issue of students developing historical questions in the “Basic Principles Guiding the Development of Standards for K-4” (p.3) by stating that

All these resources should be used imaginatively to help children formulate questions for study and to support historical thinking, such as the ability to marshal information; create sound hypotheses; locate events in time and place; compare and contrast past and present; explain historical causes and consequences; analyze historical fiction and illustrations for their accuracy and perspectives, and compare with primary sources that accurately portray life, attitudes, and values in the past; compare different stories about an era or event in the past and the interpretations or perspectives of each; and create historical narratives of their own in the form of stories, letters such as a child long ago might have written, and descriptive accounts of events” (p.3).


The National Center for History in the School’s (NCHS) National Standards for History (1996) also contends that “historical memory is the key to self-identity, to seeing one’s connectedness with all of human kind”. The study of local history allows students to identify themselves within a historical context and also recognize “their shared humanity and common problems” regardless of time or place (National Standards for History, 1996). None of the above seems possible without first formulating an appropriate historical question. “This means that students have to learn what it is to ask and answer historical questions” (Levstik & Barton, p.14).


In order to meaningfully engage content, social studies students must first learn the skills necessary to think historically. Historical inquiry is seldom recognized as a means for students to see themselves in larger historical contexts. The study of history, or historical thinking, can enable students to connect to the larger themes historians use to organize the past. In this case, local historical inquiry provided especially fertile ground for improving students’ ability to contextualize their historical thinking and in turn, engage in self-reflection.


Levstik and Barton (2001) contend that “people learn when they seek answers to the questions that matter to them; their understanding changes only when they become dissatisfied with what they know. The process of asking meaningful questions, finding information, drawing conclusions, and reflecting on possible solutions is known as inquiry” (p. 13). However, no inquiry or research begins without a question. The importance of students formulating historical questions themselves thus seems obvious. Historical questions first provide the conceptual framework in which historical inquiry is situated in and second historical questions thereby create the context in which students develop the skills of historical thinking.




Cherokee Digital History Project (2003). Cherokee county digital historical archive. Retrieved March 26, 2004, from http://msit.gsu.edu/dhr/cherokee/index.html

Digital Historical Inquiry Project. (2003). Retrieved March 26, 2004, from www.dhip.org

Levstik, L. S., & Barton, K. C. (2001). Doing history: investigating with children in elementary and middle schools (2nd ed.). Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

National Center for History in the Schools Los Angeles CA. (1996). National standards for history. Basic edition. California: Center for History in the Schools, University of California, Los Angeles.

Williams, R. C. (2003). The historian's toolbox: a student's guide to the theory and craft of history. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe.