"I keep six honest serving men. (They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who." - Rudyard Kipling
For most students participating in the Connecticut History Day program, this is their first experience in conducting in-depth research. Our students become young detectives of history, who are on a mission to solve a historical puzzle of their own choice. They are challenged to go beyond the internet and their comfort zone, to find primary and secondary materials that will support and defend their thesis statement. As teachers, we challenge them to explore each perspective of an issue and gain historical background of the time period they chose to learn about. It is extremely important for the students to understand and present the information in historical context. For most students, this is a daunting task and requires them to take baby steps to reach their goal to be successful. At the conclusion of their research, they must be able to analyze and synthesize materials to form a strong thesis statement and defend it.
One of the first steps students should take at the beginning of the research process is to write strong research questions that help direct their research. Experienced researchers know that the answer to one question generally leads to more questions. History is a puzzle with many answers and solutions. Two students can be researching the same topic and will discover completely different information and perspectives as they proceed. Researching becomes a historic treasure hunt to try to find answers and solutions to what happened in the past. The hunt is what generates excitement for students and keeps their interest throughout this long process. They may uncover materials and information that surprise them, and in some cases may reveal shocking realities of the past. Almost always, new materials generate new questions, and so the process continues.
Recently I attended a workshop presented by National Geographic, at the Connecticut Council for the Social Studies conference. The speaker was explaining their Geo-Inquiry Process, which has a scientific connection. As I sat there and listened and viewed the materials distributed, I immediately thought of the connection to History Day! This questioning model is transferable to the NHD research process as well. The National Geographic program asks students to follow a five-step process which includes:
Our students are basically following the same steps, only using a historical lens to conduct their research. The NHD model looks like this:
In each program, the first step requires students to write a strong research question. A strong research question asks students to think about their topic in a historical context.
For example, a student who may be researching the D-Day invasion of Normandy will discover that the date, time, and location for the surprise attack were all very well planned, with a definite purpose to each mission. There was not one plan, but several, with multiple backup plans that considered all problems that could arise during the collective missions. Each country and participant had a specific role in the main mission. What was the role of each? How was it decided who would carry out a specific mission? Most likely, students will discover multiple answers to the same question, before moving onto the next step of their research process, which is; analyze the materials they found and draw conclusions.
To assist my students with writing research questions, I created a worksheet based on the Geo-Inquiry Process, developed by National Geographic. The worksheet is set up to test the student’s initial research question. If they can successfully answer the question in the box correctly, then they move on to the next box. If they do not have a correct answer, they are directed to return to their original question and rewrite it to make it stronger. Students continue to proceed down the list of eight questions until they reach the last box, which will direct the student to begin their research. I am attaching the worksheet I created to this blog for teachers and students to use when writing their own research questions.
Please remind students that the research process is constantly demanding historians to ask more questions. Most of the time, one question will lead to others. That is what makes researching a puzzle. Students are young detectives of history, who uncover multiple answers, and very often they will find, answers only lead to more questions!
Sharon Wlodarczyk is a longtime Connecticut History Day teacher and has had several national winners over the years. She is a teacher in Region 15. Sharon has participated in the NHD Normandy Institute and served as a NHD Teacher Ambassador.