Communicating information: writing focus questions

Focussing questions should:

  • Be based on your preliminary reading
  • Show some knowledge of the topic already
  • Contain key historical concepts

The key historical ideas are:

  1. Significance
  2. Continuity and change
  3. Cause and effect
  4. Perspectives

1. Significance

Historians weigh the importance, durability, and relevance of events, themes, and issues in the past and the appropriateness of using the past to provide contemporary lessons; historians debate what is historically significant and how and why the decision about what is significant changes.

Related questions:

  • How significant was XXXX to... (a group of people/a country)?
  • In what ways was XXXX significant to....?
  • In what ways does XXXX continue to be significant to....?
  • To what extent was XXXXX a turning point in the history of....?

2. Continuity and change

History examines change over time and continuity in times of change. Historians use chronology to place these developments in context. Historians debate what has changed, what has remained the same, and the impact of these changes.

Related questions:

  • To what extent has XXXX changed since....?
  • To what extent has the role of XXXX changed since....

3. Cause and effect

Historians investigate the reasons for and the results of events in history; they debate the causes of past events and how these events affect people’s lives and communities. Historians study relationships between events to identify pervasive themes, ideas, and movements, such as terrorism, revolution, and migration.

Related questions:

  • What were the most significant causes of XXXX?
  • What were the most significant consequences of XXXX for....?

4. Perspectives

There are multiple perspectives on the past (both at the time and subsequently). Interpretations of the past are contested – historians base their arguments on historical evidence and draw from a variety of perspectives.

Related questions:

  • How have perspectives on XXXX changed over time?
  • What values do the perspectives of XXXX on the XXXX reveal about their society?

You only need one focussing question. If you have two then they should go together: they should not be unrelated. Your question may combine historical ideas. For example: 'How have perspectives on XXXX changed over time?' combines perspectives with continuity and change.

Example: South African War

Let’s look at some specific examples now. When you are given a topic it is usually very broad. For example: the South African War. Here is how the focus question writing process could go depending on your topic.

  1. What were the causes of the South African War?
  2. What were the consequences of the South African War?

These two questions are ok, but a little too broad. Perhaps the first question should be:

  • What were the most significant causes of the South African War?

That way you can limit yourself to two or three causes, and in your evaluation (or if you write your research up in a .2 assessment), you can write about why you picked those three as the most significant. It is a meatier question because it combines causes with significance. For this reason you could just do this single question.

For the second of the two questions you could do the same kind of thing:

  • What were the most significant consequences of the South African War on the [Afrikaners/British, etc]?

This is a good question in that it has both significance and consequences, but it is also limited to one group so you don’t get too thinly spread.

Of course, you might not be interested in war, but still find something interesting in the South African War. This might lead to a question like this:

  • What values do the perspectives of the New Zealand public on the South African War reveal about their society?

This is a question which is not really about the war at all. If the question was: 'what values do perspectives on the South African War reveal about society?' then it would be far too wide. You would have to cover so many different perspectives that you would get lost in them.

It is much better to go deep into a narrow question that to try and cover something very broad.

An effective question will often combine two historical concepts, and will often focus on one group or place. Play with the question until you get it right. In some respects, writing a good question is the most important part of your research.

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