February 3, 2014 by

Some Thoughtful American History Essential Questions

History is one of those subjects that lend themselves pretty easily to the use of Essential Questions and Understandings. The best history classes are those that are focused around powerful questions and ideas that engage and motivate students in learning. They enable students to think about important issues in the past and apply them to current issues, situations, and events.

In order to stimulate thinking about powerful Essential Questions and their potential for teaching history, I have developed a set of ten questions below that might be used for developing inquiry units in American History or even as core questions for examining American history over time. My hope is that these questions will stimulate American history teachers at all levels (and perhaps even World history teachers!) to consider using or adapting these or other powerful questions to focus American history instruction, readings, and the collection of resources and materials, and also suggest interesting and engaging summative performance tasks and essay questions that can be used instead of or in addition to the multiple choice-short answer tests. I also hope that they will stimulate educators to develop and share additional questions as key focal points for American history courses and help teachers move away from courses that “cover” huge amounts of information without providing much meaning to students.

Here are the ten questions:

1. What leads people to explore? (Sample unit questions: Were the explorers of America crazy? What led people to explore and settle in the west? Are space explorers crazy?)

2. Is violence ever justified? When and Why? (Sample unit built around this question: Was the American Revolution necessary?)

3. What is the “American Dream”? Does it still exist? (Theme throughout the course after the Constitution was developed)

4. Who was the greatest American president and why? (Sample unit: Was FDR the greatest American president? Why or why not?)

5. Who was the greatest American hero (or heroes) and why? (Determine who was an American hero or heroes throughout each course unit)

6. What is the greatest American invention? (Primarily for units in the latter part of American history)

7. Is the Constitution still a “living” document that works? Should it be changed? (This question especially useful for the study of the development of the Constitution. I have worked with schools that have simulated the Constitutional Convention and had students represent the different states to come up with their own Constitution – and then compare it to the authentic document. The question also lends itself to the development of an “end of course” performance task – in light of the issues and problems of America today, should be change the Constitution?).

8. Is capitalism really the best economic system? What are its greatest strengths? Its greatest weaknesses? (This questions allows for the study of the capitalist system development, issues, strengths throughout American history).

9. What is America’s greatest success? America’s greatest blunder? (Provide students with a look at each period in history to determine the greatest successes and the greatest blunders, and an end of course question or performance task).

10. What are the greatest issues facing America today and in the future? (Begin the course with an exploration of this question and the many issues facing America today, and work backwards in American history to trace how these issues developed over time. End the course with a performance task to select one issue, explain how it happened over time, and come up with one or more alternative solutions).

One caution: The point of this exercise is to illustrate some simple, powerful questions. The danger is in trying to use too many of these types of questions throughout an American history course. The idea is to focus a course on one question, or a very few questions, and stick with it or them throughout the course. This approach will lead teachers and students to an exploration of many issues, teach many skills, and provide a thoughtful and authentic context to the teaching of American history that will engage students and make the learning of history an extremely worthy endeavor.

(NOTE: Write a comment to add to or adapt these essential questions, and explain how they might be or are being used).


Elliott Seif is a long time educator, teacher, college professor, curriculum director, author and Understanding by Design Trainer. Additional and related teaching and learning resources and ideas designed to help prepare students to live in a 21st-century world can be found in his other blogs at ASCD Edge, or on his website: www.era3learning.org