Solving Problems with
Twenty Questions


William D. Edgington

How many times have we teachers thrown up our arms in exasperation and wanted to inquire of a student or a group of students, “What were you thinking?” How many times a day do we advise our students to “make good choices” and then cringe when they don’t?

All too often, students don’t, or can’t, simply because they don’t know how. Although we know that our students are constantly involved in a thinking process, we tend to take that process for granted, rationalizing that thinking is simply something that everybody does. The term thinking skills is itself broad and ambiguous. Turner refers to the “mental processes that individuals use to obtain, make sense of, and retain information, as well as how they process and use that information as a basis for solving problems.”1 In social studies, we want to foster active citizens who have the ability to process information rationally to solve problems.

Yet many teachers are uncertain of how these skills are acquired. Too often, the idea of teaching thinking skills is synonymous with having students answer questions at the end of a chapter or recite material. My preservice methods students are often surprised that they will be responsible for teaching thinking skills in social studies instruction. Some students assume such an endeavor will be complicated and demanding; others believe that the questions written in blue ink in the margin of the teacher’s edition of textbooks will serve the purpose of “getting” children to think. But with planning and foresight, thinking skills strategies can be valuable tools in helping make the curriculum relevant, realistic, and stimulating to students. When teaching thinking skills through social studies instructions, teachers must not give these skills token attention or teach them in isolation, but must integrate them meaningfully into the curriculum.

An integral part of social studies instruction—and a key thinking skil#151;is problem solving. As defined by Hoge, problem solving is “finding the means to a distinctly conceived end or goal,”2 and involves various formal strategies to reach that goal. As with the teaching of any thinking skill in social studies, problem solving skills need to be taught systematically, and this is next to impossible if teachers rely on the textbook for questions. As students become familiar with the process, they may need less time for actual instruction, practice, and feedback.


Steps in Problem Solving

The problem solving model, also referred to as discovery learning or inquiry, is a version of the scientific method and focuses on examining content. As applied to social studies instruction, the steps include the following:

• Define or perceive the problem. (The students are presented with a problem or question for which there is no immediate solution.)

• Formulate the hypothesis. (The students guess the causes of a problem.)

• Gather the data. (Information, either provided by the teacher or gathered by the students, is collected.)

• Evaluate or analyze the data. (The students examine and reflect on the information.)

• Use the data to confirm or reject the hypothesis. (The students use their reflections to help them consider whether their initial explanations are accurate.)

• Explain or reach a conclusion. (The students formulate and state their explanation for the original problem.)

Often, teachers see the practicality of such an approach in science but not in social studies. This misperception is ironic because social studies is filled with asking “why” and “how,” and most students are naturally curious about people and experiences, past and present.


Twenty Questions

Perhaps the simplest example of inquiry thinking is the game of Twenty Questions. By asking questions that the teacher answers with yes or no responses, students attempt to solve a problem put before them before they ask their twentieth question. Usually it is a whole-group activity, but it may be played in small groups or individually. Questions may be asked in a variety of formats: The students may take turns asking questions or each student may ask a series of questions in a row. Students may also work in pairs to formulate questions.

When first exposed to the game, the students’ questions are often random and haphazard, but with practice and the aid of the teacher, the students learn that they are working their way through the steps of inquiry as they play the game, and their questioning strategies become more sophisticated. Gathering data by asking questions, students use the answers to analyze and confirm or reject their hypotheses. For example, students can discover what led to the death of Sir Thomas More (see Box A), why Dalmatians have traditionally been the mascots of fire fighters, or why civilizations generally began near water. Applying Twenty Questions to social studies instruction involves the following steps.

1. The students understand that they must find the answer to the problem that the teacher has put before them.

2. The students guess or reason what they believe is the answer to the problem.

3. By asking questions of the teacher, the students gather data to solve the problem.

4. The students use the information to reflect on and determine whether the data are congruent with their hypothesis.

5. On the basis of the information gathered, the students determine whether their hypothesis is correct. If incorrect, they may use the information to develop a new hypothesis.

6. If the students believe that their hypothesis is correct, they may state their explanation in the form of a question (“Is it. . . ?”). If they believe that their original explanation is incorrect, they may repeat steps 3-5 until they have a new conclusion.

Because the purpose is to let the students exercise problem solving thinking skills, the activity need not be limited to only twenty questions. What is important is that the teacher walk the students through the steps as the game is played, reminding them that they are solving a problem and that their questions will help them gather data, or information, which, through reflection, will help them determine whether their original hypothesis, or explanation, was correct.

Concrete objects may aid in the inquiry. In connection with a reading lesson, a preservice teacher displayed a farming tool that was typical of those used during the era of Sarah, Plain and Tall. Working with a fourth-grade reading group, the teacher showed the students the hand-held tool (which had belonged to her family for more than one hundred years) and explained that it was similar to those on the farm in Sarah, Plain and Tall. She informed the students that through their questions, they would discover the too#146;s purpose. Their initial questions centered on what they thought it was (“Does it plow?” and “Does it cut things?”), but through the teacher’s prompting, they soon asked questions that reflected data-gathering strategies in formal problem solving (“Is it used to prepare the soil somehow?” and “Is it used after the crop or plant is picked or harvested?”). The students then tested their hypotheses. They needed to ask more than twenty questions, but eventually they concluded that the object was used to separate residue cotton fibers from the plant—an explanation that their teacher affirmed. Although growing cotton was not mentioned in Sarah, Plain and Tall, the students, living in rural Alabama, could appreciate the difficulty that harvesting cotton presented to their ancestors, and in turn they understood the hardships that farmers, such as those in the book, must have faced.


Conflicting Statements as Problem Solving Tools

Twenty Questions is a highly effective method of problem solving, but other approaches also enable middle school students to focus on complex questions. For instance, Naylor and Diem suggest examining conflicting or opposing statements from the same source; an example might be Thomas Jefferson’s public writings on equality and his private ownership of slaves.3 Students must struggle with the contradiction between Jefferson’s words and his actions.

The question for the students to consider could be “How could Thomas Jefferson write and speak of equality for all men and yet engage in the ownership of human beings?” Because the issue is complex, the question may serve as the overriding problem to be solved, while other related questions may guide the problem solving. Progressions in inquiry might include such questions: Was Jefferson a hypocrite? Was he a racist? Did others in similar positions and circumstances reflect this contradiction? What was the social and political climate at the time? Did events make this sort of contradiction seem acceptable? Did Jefferson show any acknowledgment of this contradiction in his writings or letters? What were his views on slavery? How were his slaves treated? Was this contradiction reflected in his views and dreams for the United States? Does this contradiction make his writings and accomplishments any less important or admirable? Working in groups, pairs, or individually, students can engage in problem solving steps.

Data gathering in such an exercise works well if the students examine primary and secondary documents from a variety of sources. For example, at the Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress ( mtjhome.html), students can view formal documents that Jefferson wrote, personal letters, letters of his contemporaries, a timeline of his life, and assorted biographies.

Teachers need to emphasize and reiterate the steps in problem solving during the assignment. A culminating discussion of, or solution to, the problem may serve as a catalyst for further exploration of another issue or contradiction. In addition to exercising their problem solving skills, students better understand Jefferson the man, eighteenth-century political and social thought, and the philosophical principles that helped found the United States. Middle school students, curious about the people and the past, are ready to discuss how the past relates to their lives and the implications for their future.


Problem Solving for Creative Thinking

Although teaching problem solving skills is a vital part of social studies instruction, teachers are too often unwilling or unsure of how to incorporate problem solving into the curriculum. Not the nebulous beast that many educators assume, problem solving skills can be a viable centerpiece for instruction if we simply take a deep breath and examine the potential that they afford. If we wish for students to be creative thinkers, we must give them opportunity to think creatively, and if we want them to make judgments and reason logically, they must have the opportunity to practice these skills regularly. Through such models as Twenty Questions and Conflicting Statements, teachers can incorporate problem solving skills into the curriculum and give these skills the attention that they, and the students, deserve.



1. Thomas N. Turner, Essentials of Elementary Social Studies (2nd ed.) (Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 1999), 160.

2. John Douglas Hoge, Effective Elementary Social Studies (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1996), 50.

3. David T. Naylor and Richard Diem, Elementary and Middle School Social Studies (New York: Random House, 1987), 254.


William D. Edgington is an assistant professor of social science education, Sam Houston State University, P.O. Box 2119, Huntsville, Texas 77341. He may be reached at

Twenty Questions and the Issue of Sir Thomas More

(Sixth grade)


Teacher: We’ve been talking about England under Henry VIII, and today we’re going to investigate one of the most celebrated men of the day, Sir Thomas More. More was an author who wrote about the ideal society (Utopia); an attorney; and even the Lord Chancellor, the second most powerful man in England. But circumstances arose that cost More not only his position in the government, but also his life. He refused to change his stance on certain issues, although he was given opportunities to do so, choosing death over a compromise of his values and beliefs. He was beheaded on July 6, 1535.

Your mission today is to figure out what cost Sir Thomas More his life—what issues did he believe in so strongly that he chose death rather than deny his principles. Remember, you may ask questions to which I can answer with “yes” or “no” as we go through the problem solving process. You may already have a hypothesis or an idea, and my answers to your questions will help you determine whether your hypothesis is correct.


Student 1: Did it have to do with Henry VIII?


Teacher: Yes.


Student 2: Did More get in a fight with Henry?


Teacher: Be more specific.



Student 2: Did he and Henry disagree on something?


Teacher: Yes.


Student 3: Did it have to do with war?


Teacher: No. (At this point, the teacher emphasizes that the data were either supporting or disproving the students’ hypotheses and that they might need to rethink their hypotheses as they continue their questioning.)


Student 4: Did it have to do with Henry’s religion?


Teacher: Be more specific.


Student 4: Did it have to do with Henry starting his own church?


Teacher: Partially, yes. (At this time, the students review the data.)


Student 3: Was he not in favor of it?


Teacher: Be more specific.


Student 3: Was More not in favor of Henry’s church?


Teacher: No, he wasn’t in favor of it, but there is more to it.


Student 5: Did he not think that Henry should be the head of his church?


Teacher: No, he did not. Do you want to state your hypothesis?


Student 5: More didn’t think that Henry should be head of the church.


Teacher: Good! He refused to sign the Act of Supremacy, which named the king as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. But there was another issue on which More would not budge.


Student 1: Did it have to do with all of Henry’s wives?


Teacher: Be more specific.


Student 1: Did it have to do with his divorce? His first one?



Teacher: Partially. (The teacher prompts the students as they review the circumstances surrounding the end of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon.)


Student 6: Did it have to do with his ditching Catherine of Aragon and marrying Anne Boleyn?


Teacher: Yes. Keep going.


Student 7: Did More not think that Anne Boleyn should be queen?


Teacher: That’s correct. Do you want to state your hypothesis?


Student 7: More didn’t think that Anne Boleyn should be queen.


Teacher: Right! He refused to sign the Act of Succession, which stated that Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was lawful. He wouldn’t sign either the Act of Supremacy or the Act of Succession. So what issues ultimately led to Sir Thomas More’s death?


Student 8: Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and Henry making himself the Head of the Church of England.


Teacher: All right, let’s discuss why More felt so strongly about these issues . . . .


For a short biography of Sir Thomas More, see Encarta Online Encyclopedia, 2000 at

Using Problem Solving Skills in

a Fifth-Grade Classroom


Alan Rock and Nicole Halbert

Like most of our classmates, we were surprised to learn that we would be expected to teach thinking skills in social studies. Before our methods course, we equated social studies with maps, states, capitals, and presidents. We were astonished to discover that we would not just be teaching facts, we would also be helping students discover concepts, make generalizations, and enhance their observation, listening, graphing, mapping, and reference skills.

One of the requirements for our social studies methods course was to incorporate thinking skills into lessons that we would teach during our practicum. When we explained to our fifth-grade students that we would be doing activities that might be a little out of the ordinary, they seemed willing to assume the position of “thinker” rather than merely that of the traditional question-answering student.

We used a Twenty Questions activity for a problem solving skills lesson. To preface the lesson, we explained the rules and played a practice game of Twenty Questions. The mystery object or goal that they had to identify was a paper clip. The students’ first questions were random and nonsequential: “Is it a car?” “Is it the principal?” “Is it Jeff?” They called out the first thing that popped into their heads. As the game progressed, we discussed the need for asking questions that built on previous questions and that would narrow down the search. Eventually, their questions became more focused: “Is it in the classroom?” “Is it bigger than the desk?” “Does it have moveable parts?” “Is it red?” At the close of the game, we discussed the scientific method (they were familiar with the term from science class) and applied the steps to the practice game. When they thought that they knew what the object was, they were forming a hypothesis; by asking questions, they were gathering data; our answers helped them evaluate the data and reject or confirm their hypothesis.

We then explained their problem-solving activity: They had to figure out what actually happened to Paul Revere on the night of his famous ride. Having just played the practice game helped—their questions were not nearly as off-the-wall as at first. Instead of calling out any idea that came into their heads, their questions showed thought: “Does it have anything to do with his horse?” “Does it have to do with other people?” “Does it have to do with other minutemen?” “Does it have to do with the British?” “Did the British shoot him?” We stopped the questioning periodically to think about the scientific method and to have the students talk about their hypotheses. They did solve the problem—in fewer than twenty questions. Revere was captured by a British Patrol and spent much of the night in jail.

At their own initiation, they shared ideas with one another. For example, when the class discovered that the problem had something to do with the British, one student asked whether Revere had been killed. Another student dismissed that hypothesis because Revere was famous and therefore couldn’t have been killed. Other students immediately came to the first student’s defense, naming famous people who had been killed—John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr., for example. Once they solved the problem, they had plenty of follow-up questions: “Why have we never heard that part of the story before?” “How do we know that part of the story is true?” We hadn’t planned on such questions, but we addressed the issues of reliability and resources. In retrospect, we could have had the students compare the information that they had acquired with the information in their textbook.

We used the activity as a preview to our unit on the American Revolution. But we probably learned more than the students did. As future teachers, we clearly see that social studies can advance the thinking skills that the students use each day. Social studies is too often associated with tracing and memorizing, but we know it doesn’t have to be. We now look forward to using problem solving in our lessons.


Alan Rock and Nicole Halbert are Methods Students, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, TX