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March 26, 2021

DBQ….Not Just Another Acronym

So much has been written about the Common Core lately and yet, I find myself constantly returning to the article Three Core Shifts to Deliver on the Promise of the Common Core State Standards in Literacy and Math over and over again. And it’s not just because it was written by….drumroll please….the authors of the CCSS. Instead, it’s because as the authors state, these “core shifts in literacy and math, deeply grounded in the Standards themselves, offer a way to focus implementation on the few things that have the most significant return for students”.

I also really like this article because those “few things” that can have a huge impact in pushing student achievement all align really well with the work so many teachers in our network have been doing with The DBQ Project.

So what exactly is a DBQ and why does it align so well with the 3 Common Core Instructional Shifts?

To start with, it’s probably helpful to know that DBQ stands for Document Based Question. It comes to us from AP history exams, where students are provided with upwards of 15 primary and secondary sources and asked to write an argument-based essay in 45 minutes.

Now for the alignment piece: Instructional Shift #1 is all about building knowledge through content rich nonfiction. If you’ve ever seen an actual AP DBQ question, you’ll notice that each document whether it be a copy of a democratic ballot from 1823 or a Davie Crockett excerpt is rich in content.

Instructional Shift #2 fits really nicely too, as it addresses reading and writing grounded evidence from the text, both literary and informational. Reading and writing using evidence is pretty much the definition of what a DBQ asks students to do (even if it tends to only be in informational texts).

So far, so aligned….and then comes Instructional Shift #3–regular practice with complex text and its syntax.

Here’s where we need the help of the The DBQ Project. Chip Brady and Phil Roden, the founders of The DBQ Project were AP history teachers at Evanston High School who believed that all students could develop the high-level critical thinking skills necessary to be successful on an AP exam, if they were provided with consistent instruction and a chance to practice.

To do this Chip and Phil began to create the scaffolded DBQ units that are now used across the country with a wide range of students, elementary school through high school.

Unlike the DBQ section of the AP exam, where the question seems to take the form of a complicated paragraph that in itself can be difficult to decipher, the questions associated with a unit from The DBQ Project are intended to be engaging and easy for students to debate. The DBQ Project’s units also include a hook activity that helps to build student excitement about the task ahead, as well as a background essay intended to provide the necessary historical content. All this helps prepare students to engage in the regular practice with complex text and its syntax that is the document analysis component of each unit.

Because completing a DBQ allows students to build knowledge through finding evidence as they read content rich nonfiction and to write essays grounded in that evidence, we believe that students should have regular practice with the DBQ process. To that end, every AUSL high school history student is expected to complete 4 DBQs this school year. And because we want this to be a learning experience for all of us, Data Day in January will be dedicated to looking at the work that world history students have done with the “Asoka: Ruthless Conqueror or Enlightened Ruler?” DBQ and the work that US history students have done with the “Was the US Justified in Going to War with Mexico?” DBQ.

Looking at DBQs on Data Day is another important shift to add to our list so we’d love for you to respond to this post and share your feedback about how to make it as successful as possible.


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