Will Bailey-Watson is Subject Lead of PGCE History at the University of Reading. He shares his ideas for a best-practice approach to enquiry questions for training history teachers.

by Will Bailey-Watson
13th August 2020

Thinking back to school history lessons, many people can remember a history teacher who would come in, write an event on the board such as The Battle of Hastings, and the students would spend the lesson acquiring knowledge about that event. This is fine as an easy way of giving students some substantive knowledge, but over the past two decades the history teaching community has moved beyond this in developing ‘best practice’, to framing lessons and sequences of lessons around historical enquiry questions.

Why is it considered best practice to use enquiry questions?

Quite literally, ‘history’ means ‘enquiry’, and by framing the study of the subject around open, challenging questions, students are constantly forced to engage with the discipline of history.

Simply by framing the lesson in this way, students have to engage with the idea that historical knowledge comes from somewhere, and that we as students of history need to question where we are getting this information from.

Students are able to draw on substantive knowledge (dates, events, people, statistics) and disciplinary knowledge (causal reasoning, analysis of change, evaluation of typicality) in dynamic harmony.

If we return to the example, the students will need to know what the Battle was, who was fighting, statistics from the battlefield, and the outcome and immediate consequences (just as they would have done if you had framed the lesson around the simple ‘The Battle of Hastings’ title). However, they will also need to know where this information came from, what was the provenance of the authors, what historians have said since. The substantive knowledge needs to be secure before students can really grapple with the disciplinary thinking, but this is what it means to ‘do history’ rather than learn facts.

You can direct students’ historical focus and get them to think about the things you want them to think about. ‘Who can tell us about the Battle of Hastings?’ is a brilliant enquiry question for directing students’ thinking towards the construction of history, but a teacher might prefer a different focus. It might be that a teacher has read about the Battle of Hastings and thinks that William’s victory was not inevitable, and wants to introduce some issues around causal reasoning, such as identifying causes, categorising evidence, establishing the relationship between cause and event, evaluating relative importance of causes, and so on.

Therefore, a carefully reworked enquiry question can completely change the students’ focus, such as ‘How far was Norman strength the main reason William won the Battle of Hastings?’ While the substantive knowledge remains largely the same, students now have to consider the role that Norman strength played and evaluate this in relation to other causes, potentially of their own choosing.

Students know from the outset that they are entering into a debate, which is empowering and motivating. We want students to be motivated to learn. By framing lessons around questions which clearly have no emphatic answer, students will always get the chance to make sense of the knowledge they have acquired in the way that makes justified sense to them. This is not possible in maths or science, and is one of the most exciting aspects of studying history.

They ensure access and challenge in historically sensitive ways. All trainee teachers worry about access and challenge: how can everyone have access to a lesson, while also being challenged by the lesson? I always found enquiry questions the best solution. All students can attempt to draw on the relevant knowledge to answer them, but of course, with such broad questions, they will use their different levels of knowledge differently. This means that everyone is learning, and everyone is ‘doing history’, but also students are being given the chance to really push their thinking, whatever their level of prior knowledge.

What makes a good historical enquiry question?

  • A question worth asking. A simple test is: would a historian ever bother asking this question? For instance: ‘Who was to blame for the Treaty of Versailles?’ is not worth asking because a historian would never ask it. Instead, historians might ask: ‘Why has the Treaty of Versailles been interpreted in so many different ways?’, or ‘Why do so many people remember the Treaty of Versailles?’, or simply ‘How satisfied would the different countries have been immediately after the Treaty of Versailles?’

  • A question that is answerable. When trainees lack historical knowledge, they will sometimes ask questions that sound good but can’t actually be answered. The most common example is: ‘Was the Treaty of Versailles fair?’ The disciplinary thinking here involves an evaluation of the typicality of different peace treaties, understood in their context. In order to answer this question, students would need a secure and detailed knowledge of other peace treaties such as the Treaty of Portsmouth (1905) and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (1918), as well as others in a broader context such as the Treaty of Paris (1783) and Congress of Vienna (1814–15). There are lots of examples of unanswerable questions in history lessons: ‘Who was Jack the Ripper?’ is a common but pointless lesson. ‘Was John the worst king in English history?’ would be great at the end of a breadth study of English monarchs, but again it’s pointless if students have only studied the Middle Ages.

  • A question that allows debate and argument. An enquiry question needs to have scope for different interpretations. ‘Was the Black Death a tragedy?’ Yes. ‘Did Henry break with Rome purely for love?’ No. Very simple adaptions to these questions, to include scope for debate and argument, are key to their effectiveness. ‘How far was the Black Death a tragedy for absolutely everyone?’ allows students to recognise the human cost while engaging with the positivity that some people benefitted in the long term. Likewise, ‘How far was Henry’s feelings for Anne the driving force behind the break with Rome?’ allows far more scope for nuance, thought and discussion.

Planning over time

Everything mentioned so far applies when planning for learning over time. I have worked with lots of training teachers who really struggle to plan over the medium term as they are always so concerned about ‘the next lesson’. It is really important to try and frame sequences of lessons around historical questions that allow students to bring all their knowledge together.

Here are two further points.

  1. This could be over two lessons or over ten lessons. Teachers need to be flexible and responsive to how long they have with a class and what sequencing makes sense to the topic and context.

  2. Make sure the question captures all the content that has been taught. Sometimes I see trainees plan sequence enquiry questions that only capture parts of what has been taught. For instance, if year 7 spend six lessons studying 1066, from Edward the Confessor to William’s coronation, it is inappropriate to ask this sequence enquiry question: ‘Why did William win the Battle of Hastings?’ This question does not allow them to draw on, or think about, the confusion following Edward’s death or William’s actions between winning the battle in October and becoming king in December. A simple change of emphasis might be: ‘Was William’s victory at the Battle of Hastings the most significant moment of 1066?’ Suddenly everything students have studied can be used and thought about in interesting, historical ways. It’s so simple when you think about it!

Finally, it is important to recognise that this is just an introduction to using enquiry questions. I strongly encourage all training history teachers to read Riley, M. (2000) ‘Into the key stage 3 history garden: choosing and planting your enquiry questions’ in Teaching History 99.



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