Why Use Inquiry Learning in Social Studies?
How Should Teachers Develop Questions for Inquiry Learning?
Developing Overarching Essential Questions
UbD stage 1 starts with big ideas and enduring understandings. Big ideas are transferrable concepts that anchor the course and focus the curriculum. Big ideas in social studies may focus on abstract concepts such as:
- common good;
They may also be framed as issues or conflicts:
- common good vs. individual liberties;
- unity vs. diversity;
- law vs. ethics.
The five themes of geography can also function as the big ideas:
- human-environment interaction;
Enduring understandings are derived from the big ideas and serve as the “moral of the story.” For example, the big ideas of common good and individual liberties could be expressed as: “Democratic governments must balance the common good with individual liberties.” In geography, an enduring understanding about human-environment interaction could read: “Physical environments influence human activities and human activities alter the physical environment.”
Flowing from the big Ideas and enduring understandings, overarching essential questions are broad questions that help shape the direction of units of study throughout an entire course. According to UbD, overarching essential questions:
- have no simple “right” answer; they are meant to be argued;
- are designed to provoke and sustain inquiry, while focusing learning and final performances;
- often address the conceptual or philosophical foundations of a discipline;
- raise other important questions;
- naturally and appropriately recur; and
- stimulate vital, ongoing rethinking of big ideas, assumptions and prior lessons.
Table 1A. Sample Overarching Essential Questions in Social Studies
The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework, developed by the National Council for the Social Studies, helps guide the development of unit-specific compelling and supporting questions. C3 uses an Inquiry Arc based on four dimensions of social studies inquiry: 1) Developing questions and planning inquiries; 2) Applying disciplinary concepts and tools; 3) Evaluating sources and using evidence; and 4) Communicating conclusions and taking informed action.
Dimension 1 guides the planning of inquiry-based units. The C3 framework states:
- Questioning is key to student learning. The C3 Framework encourages the use of compelling and supporting questions, both teacher- and student-generated, as a central element of the teaching and learning process. For example, a compelling question like “Was the American Revolution revolutionary?” is both intriguing to students and intellectually honest. Such a question can be vigorously explored through the disciplines of civics, economics, geography, and history. It is also sensitive to the idea that students are interested in how and why events are characterized as they are. Supporting questions assist students in addressing their compelling questions. For example, questions like “What were the regulations imposed on the colonists under the Townshend Acts?” will help students understand the many dimensions of the war as they form their conclusions about the magnitude of change associated with those Acts. (p. 17)
- Central to a rich social studies experience is the capability for developing questions that can frame and advance an inquiry. Those questions come in two forms: compelling and supporting questions. Compelling questions focus on enduring issues and concerns. They deal with curiosities about how things work; interpretations and applications of disciplinary concepts; and unresolved issues that require students to construct arguments in response. In contrast, supporting questions focus on descriptions, definitions, and processes on which there is general agreement within the social studies disciplines, and require students to construct explanations that advance claims of understanding in response. (p. 23)
In the video below, Kathy Swan, lead writer of the C3 framework, explains two important criteria for compelling questions. Compelling questions must be intellectually meaty and student-friendly.
Adapted from the Inquiry Design (IDM) Blueprint: http://www.c3teachers.org/idem/
How Should Teachers Implement Essential and Compelling Questions?
Strategies for Implementing Overarching Essential Questions
Overarching essential questions can be placed on large poster-size paper and posted on the classroom walls. These posters serve as reference points for the teacher and students. Allow space on the posters for the class to record thoughts about the essential questions. At the beginning of the course, conduct a class brainstorm on the board and write some of the key ideas on the posters. Repeat the activity quarterly or with each unit and add the new information using a different color marker each time. This will allow students to see their growth in understanding throughout the course.
Students can also keep an essential questions journal to record their reflections on these questions at various points throughout the course. Journal entries also allow for creative responses. Students may draw a cartoon, write a poem or song, or create a visual metaphor to demonstrate their understanding of the questions.
Discussion strategies (outlined later in this document) provide opportunities for collaborative reflection on the essential questions. As the questions are revisited, students should be asked to connect the essential questions with the specific content of each unit, with compelling questions serving as further discussion points.
While essential questions do not have a single correct answer, they can shape essays in pre- and post-assessments to measure students’ growth in historical thinking and writing. Teachers can assess students’ responses using an evidence-based essay rubric that measures how well students supported their claims with evidence and reasoning.
Strategies for Implementing Compelling Questions
Compelling questions are unit-specific and should be introduced at the beginning of each unit or lesson. The C3 framework recommends that students take an active role in the development of compelling questions. Teachers may want to develop one or two compelling questions and have students come up with a third question for a particular unit. Keep in mind that compelling questions are only the beginning of the inquiry. Supporting questions should also be crafted to guide students’ inquiry. The strategies contained in the document provide tools for students to research, discuss, and debate these questions, and guidance on performance-based assessment development.
Many compelling and supporting questions work well with a detective model approach to history. Like detectives, historians define a specific problem to solve, ask meaningful questions, evaluate the evidence, and draw tentative conclusions. The evidence comes in the form of primary and secondary sources, but is always incomplete. Detectives and historians must try to separate fact from opinion and remain open to a variety of ways the evidence may be interpreted.
To begin the detective model, ask students ask students to give examples of detective or investigative television shows or movies they have seen. Ask students to brainstorm a list of skills that a good detective or investigator needs to have. Explain that throughout this course, students will learn that history is not a giant list of facts and figures to memorize. Rather it is an investigation into the past. Ask: Which of these skills are necessary to study history effectively? View a short video clip of a detective show and discuss how the detectives gather and use evidence. Classic examples from the television detective show Dragnet are available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/50sDragnet.
Graphic Organizer 1C. Investigating History
What Resources Are Available for Inquiry Learning?
Wiggins, Grant P., and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. Expanded 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005
McTighe, Jay, and Grant P. Wiggins. Understanding by Design: Professional Development Workbook. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2004.
National Council for the Social Studies. College, Career, and Civic Life Framework for Social Studies State Standards: Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of K-12 Civics, Economics, Geography, and History. Silver Spring, MD: NCSS, 2013. http://www.socialstudies.org/system/files/c3/C3-Framework-for-Social-Studies.pdf
Swan, Kathy and John Lee, ed. Teaching the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework: A Guide to Inquiry-Based Instruction in Social Studies. Silver Spring, MD, NCSS, 2014
Lesh, Bruce A. "Why Won't You Just Tell Us the Answer?": Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse Publishers, 2011.
Wineburg, Sam, Daisy Martin and Chauncey Monte-Sano. Reading Like a Historian: Teaching Literacy in Middle and High School History Classrooms. Columbia: Teachers College Press, 2012.
Stanford History Education Group. Reading Like a Historian. https://sheg.stanford.edu/rlh
University of Maryland Baltimore County. History Labs: A Guided Approach to Historical Inquiry in the K-12 Classroom. http://www.umbc.edu/che/historylabs/
National Council for the Social Studies. C3 Teachers: College, Career & Civic Life. http://www.c3teachers.org/