As we enter the new school year, it seems like a good time to introduce deliberative practices to your classroom. One way to make your class lectures more deliberative is to ask clarifying questions. These questions guide students in identifying the values and motives behind major decisions as well as the tradeoffs, consequences and risks of making those choices. 

No matter the class subject, using deliberative questions to examine major issues, and decisions, engages students and encourages critical thinking. This is especially true for history classes where many students have a difficult time connecting to the material, and often view historic events as inevitable, rather than the result of people’s choices.

Take for example the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Almost one hundred years later this amendment seems fixed and unavoidable, almost fated. However, in 1869, when Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton created the National Woman Suffrage Association, the future of women’s rights was uncertain. Women at this time could not vote in any state. In many states women could not own property, and had no right to any money they might earn or inherit. Many women were not able to, or allowed to work. Those that could were limited to a handful of “feminine professions”. Women were expected to stay home, marry, become mothers, and devote themselves to housework.

So how did we get from the conditions of 1869, and before, to the creation of the 19th Amendment in 1920? What inspired women across the country to organize, speak out, lobby, write about, and protest? They valued equality and believed the rights guaranteed in the United States Constitution belonged to both men and women. These choices were not easy and not all women participated in, or even agreed with, the movement. What challenges did the Women’s Suffrage Movement face? Women risked public ridicule for speaking out, they risked physical safety to march and demonstrate, and many had to overcome hurdles at home from families that did not understand or accept women’s rights. These questions help us connect to, and better grasp the uncertainty of a time in history that seems set in stone.

While women’s right to vote is something the vast majority of us can agree with now, many historic decisions can be very difficult to understand from a modern perspective. The Red Scare of the 1950’s might seem extreme and even paranoid to students today. But, what caused the events of the Red Scare? What did Americans feel was threatened during this time?

(AP Photo/Godfrey)

Or, what about the Vietnam War? More than forty years after the end of the war it can be hard for students to comprehend the reasons America became involved in the tragic conflict in the first place. Deliberative question help students to analyze and interpret the values, and motivations behind events that might otherwise feel alienating. How did the spread of communism affect our decision to get involved in Vietnam? What values did America want to protect when fighting with and for South Vietnam? These questions force students to examine the perspective of people who were involved and lived through that part of history.

It is all too easy for students to write of historic events as inevitable, or unimportant. They sometimes make judgements about historic decisions without fully understanding the motivations of those involved. History is much more uncertain and much more complicated than students might think. Using deliberative questions will guide your class to consider the values, motivations, and causes behind events. These questions also give students the chance to examine perspectives they might not otherwise consider.


For a great list of questions to prompt your class to think differently, check out Gabrielle Lamplugh’s Deliberation: A Path to Higher Order Thinking. And for more free educational handouts and activities visit our Educator Resources page.

-Jessica Holdnak, Civic Fellow,