Practicing Inquiry w/ Robert E. Lee

Robert E. SignsIt’s summer conference time, and if you’ve been paying attention, my Eleven Faithful Followers, you’ve noticed that I’ve been even scarcer than usual. In most of my workshops, just like in class, it’s not long before talk about asking good questions. Sometimes it’s about probing for content, sometimes it’s an effort to be deep and thoughtful, and sometimes it’s just about pretending to be interested. With teachers as with students, I’m happy to have their sincerity, but I’ll settle for their cooperation.

Besides, if they’ll PRETEND to be interested, most of the time they’ll gradually BECOME interested – at least a little. Because… psychology.

I’ve talked and written about Level Questions for years. It’s actually the most-viewed page anywhere on Blue Cereal – like, by a LOT. (I’m not actually sure how I feel about that, but hey – I’m glad it’s apparently useful for so many people.) Earlier this summer, as I was circulating during an activity, a small group of teachers in my care were deep in discussion, drawing my curiosity. It turns out they were speaking NOT of the current activity, amazing though it was, but of a spontaneous example I’d used discussing Level Questions a bit earlier.

I wasn’t bothered by this; it was a pretty good conversation. Then again, it was a pretty good example.

The whole thing starts with the conviction that helping students learn to ask better questions MATTERS, whether we frame it in terms of Level Questions or not. I’ve shared my basic approach before, but I’ll recap for context.

First, we discuss practicing inquiry and its power. It’s great for developing interest, noticing detail, and promoting understanding. Failing that, it’s a wonderful way to fake it hard enough that teachers almost always buy it. 

Second, we practice using provocative visuals or a short video clip like THIS ONE or THIS ONE or even THIS ONE. We go around the room, and everyone has to ask a different question and sound as if they mean it. Repeats don’t count. Neither do any questions that come across as perfunctory. Pay attention, and SELL IT.

None of this is difficult. That matters because we have plenty of times throughout the year when students claim to be overwhelmed, or confused, or “struggling” with our class. If you can’t watch a 5-minute video and ask a few semi-interesting questions about it, that’s not “struggling” – that’s “don’t choke on your own apathy.”

Sorry, I seem to have become distracted. Back to the issue at hand…

Third, we introduce Level Questions.

I’ve written before about my take on Level Questions, but I’ll repeat some of it here for clarity.

Heavily Armed HistoryLevel One Questions deal with factual information you can find printed in the text, covered by the video, etc. They usually have ONE correct answer. They’re great for clarifying vocabulary, checking for basic understanding, seeking further information, etc. Level One Questions get a bad rap in history because we have this weird idea that for generations, history teachers drilled their students senselessly on names and dates, with neither context nor purpose, despite how few of us have ever actually had that experience.

It is difficult to ask or answer Level Two Questions effectively without sufficient Level One knowledge.  


  • What does ‘Amerindian’ mean?
  • Which tribes were part of the ‘Five Civilized Tribes’?
  • What are three reasons does your textbook give for why President Jackson supported Indian Removal?

Level Two Questions are anchored in facts and reality but have more than one good answer. Responses must be supported (or refuted) with facts and reasoning. Level Two Questions require more than knowing information; they require processing information. They often involve analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating, and all those other fancy learny-thinky things.

Level Two Questions are the boom-diggity of history and social studies. They’re the stuff we wish more people in our world could ask, ponder, and answer intelligently.


  • Why did Islam have such limited impact across India?
  • In what ways did Islam shape or refine existing cultures and belief systems in the post-Classical and pre-Modern eras of Southeastern Asia?
  • To what extent did Islam spread through cultural diffusion vs. proselytization in its first several centuries?

Level Three Questions go beyond the objective and require opinions, beliefs, or otherwise subjective elements in order to respond. (Some teachers include overly broad questions in this category as well.) Facts and reason may be useful in responding to Level Three Questions, but they are insufficient. Level Three Questions are useful as interest-builders, big-picture questions, or conversation-starters.


  • Did Ulysses S. Grant go to Heaven? Was he a good person or a bad person?
  • When is it OK to push American values, medicine, education, or other cultural elements on other peoples? (Remember, if the answer comes quick’n’easy, you’re not thinking about it enough.)
  • What’s the deal with Russia?

Sometimes what 'Level' a question is depends on how much information you have, or exactly how something is phrased. Don't get too hung up on correct categories so much as stretching the sorts of questions students ask. It’s not really about putting them into the “correct” categories. 

What I do hope they’ll see, however, is the importance of asking better questions in terms of both quality and variety – whether we're trying to dig around in history or address modern-day dilemmas. So often we think we're arguing intensely when we’re not even talking about the same things.

Which brings us back to that teacher conversation I mentioned, and my brilliant example which sparked it.

Robert E. NamesTexas newspapers and TV stations have been reporting recently on local schools and related entities named after Robert E. Lee. Boards and administrators have been feeling some heat over this lately; some Texans apparently don’t love the way he tried to destroy the nation in a violent uprising. Even districts willing to change some names, however, have run into a logistical challenge – it’s crazy expensive to replace every façade, logo, sign, painting, or other marker of the name you’ve used for the past fifty years. It’s like trying to get a divorce after you’ve monogramed all the towels.

Several, though, have found a compromise. Robert E. Lee Elementary is now Bucky Lee Elementary, or some such thing, named for the obscure folk singer from Tennessee. Robert E. Lee Academy is now Roger D. Lee Academy, in tribute to the first shoe store owner in Amarillo. You get the idea.

My favorite is the new Learning Excellence Emporium (I’m working from memory here, but you get the idea); it’s no longer even a name so much as an acronym. Districts are still having to change anything with “Robert” on it, but it’s still a MUCH easier transition.

Tulsa did this several years ago with Brady Street, named for Tate Brady, who no one’s ever heard of but who was no doubt a racist since that described 94.7% of white people in Tulsa a century or so ago. To avoid having to rebrand everything, the city decided to honor Matthew Brady, the Civil War photographer, who as far as could be ascertained never so much as visited the area, let alone lived there.

So that’s… symbolic, I guess.

Brady StreetYou may remember recent kerfuffles over Confederate statues, particularly those of Lee (Robert E., not Bucky or Roger) in various locales. Half the town wants to keep them; the other half demands they be removed. Experts are called in to discuss. 

First up is a history professor from some local university. He talks about what Lee did. How he impacted American history, both in the Civil War and before/after. He throws out as many facts as he can in the time he’s given, and that’s great. It’s important. And it’s almost all Level One.

Next is a local community leader. She talks about how the statue makes her feel and how it’s perceived by people around her. She may include some facts about Lee, but her focus is on experiences and reactions. These are important, but largely Level Three.

The problem isn’t that they disagree; they’re not even arguing about the same thing. They’re working on totally different levels of information. And I respectfully suggest they’re not addressing some critical questions.

For example, if we’re talking about a statue, there are better questions to ask before “should we tear it down?”

  • When was this statue built? (That’s Level One, but an 1865 statue of Lee and a 1965 statue of Lee are two very different statues, even if they look exactly the same.)
  • What was the context in which the statue was built? In other words, what was going on at the time that would help us frame the significance of this statue? (This could be Level One, but because it’s not always clear cut it I think it’s Level Two. Like real history, it’s messy.)
  • Why did the people building say they were building it at the time? (Level One, but so easily overlooked.)
  • What are our foundational values as Americans today? (Level Three, and extra-messy.)
  • What does this statue mean today? (Without yelling at one another, please.)
  • What’s an reasonable balance between remembering our history and appreciating our collective past while still accommodating the evolving nature of national values and proclaimed ideals? What’s a practical economic, social, and/or political compromise between competing interests in this situation?

Yes, that’s a hard one. It’s pretty meaty even to ask, let alone begin to answer. But if it were easy, we wouldn’t be having the argument in the first place. Maybe the final question it would be nice to hear would be something along the lines of…

Can we go somewhere and talk?

I know, I know. But sometimes you have to ask. 

Coffee Together

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