Strategies for Inquiry in Social Studies

Back in 2018 I had the opportunity to attend a multi-day training in Hong Kong with Inquiry guru Trevor MacKenzie. Since attending I have tried to constantly expand the role of inquiry in my practice and the quality with which I do it. It has not always gone as I’ve planned, but its been worth the effort over time.

“Doing Inquiry” can be easy, and does not always have to involve huge projects(A lesson that was painful to learn). At its smallest level, inquiry with a “little i” involves looking for entry points into lessons that get students asking questions, thinking about problems, and making connections. Embedding small protocols and activities that introduce the various components and stages of inquiry help scaffold towards the larger projects that empower students and enrich traditional curriculum. I’ve learned that inquiry should not be a “special activity” but a frequent, even daily, classroom routine.

Below are some of the strategies, tips, and subject specific ideas I have used and found some success with. They can be easily replicated or adapted to nearly any content or context. Often, some of my best lessons are created, not from scratch, but from someone else’s idea that I adapt to fit my needs and style. I hope some of these might offer that to you.

4 Quick Inquiry “Hooks” & Activities

Not every student question needs to be answered. Sometimes, questions are valuable because of the thinking they provoke. Be prepared to be flexible so you can take advantage of unexpected (but useful) topics, tangents, questions that students uncover. Make inquiry and curiosity a daily mindset in the classroom for both you and students. Start small and provide structure, don’t make my early mistake of thinking students could jump right in to free inquiry…Seems obvious all these years later.

  1. True/False Statements

Sometimes the traditional lesson “hook” can be re-imagined as an opportunity to not just get students interested in particular content, but engaged in part of the inquiry process. I like using True/False statements to get pairs of students discussing issues related to our main topic. The example below is from my Human Geography course. I used this as a entry-point for a structured inquiry project at the end of our unit on population and migration.

As I am moving around the room listening to students speak, there are great opportunities to get them to consider how to frame questions, consider different perspectives, select evidence, or pursue investigations. Students came up with great frameworks for analysis, case study possibilities, research strategies, and sub-topics/supporting questions. The statements and discussion prompts can be tailored to fit content or purpose. At some point in the process a few of my students get frustrated with the binary choice and decide to answer along the lines of “It depends…” I always enjoy when this happens because it makes possible one of the purposes of the activity, to help students think with complexity.

2. What Ifs?

Counterfactuals can be a point of contention amongst some history teachers. I find them useful as quick lesson/unit openers. They help students recognize that history is no more inevitable than our own lives are. More significantly, they train students to consider historical possibilities and how events depend on both a variety of interacting variables and specific historical conditions. In short, understanding what might have happened can help students understand what did happen.

Often, I will write the what-if question(s) being used to keep a bit of control over the direction of the discussion. I will group students (3 or 4 to a group) around large pieces of chart paper (or white boards) with the question written on it. I will ask them to silently brainstorm any words, ideas, comments, questions, etc. that come to mind. After that, we do quick gallery walk to see what every group came up with and then have a larger discussion, the purpose for which is to clarify the most valuable insights, questions, and future directions for investigation.

To work well, counterfactuals need to be probable, or based on a decision or series of events that could have easily happened differently. “What if the Captain America actually existed during WWII?” is not exactly productive, though it may be quite compelling for students. Some examples include:

  • What if Martin Luther had been burned at the stake?
  • What if the D-Day invasion had been repulsed?
  • What if the Confederacy won the battle of Antietam?
  • What if the Franz Ferdinand survived his trip to Sarajevo? (This is my favorite for getting into pre-WWI historical conditions)

This activity has been great for starting an inquiry unit, an inquiry project, or helping students fine-tune their own questions. The same strategy can be used to unpack any driving question regardless of whether it’s a “what if?” question. Like many of the best activities, its strength lies in the parts that are collaborative; inquiry should not be done in solitude.

3. Provocations

Sometimes introducing early stages of the inquiry process is as easy as starting class with a compelling image or video that is used as a traditional “hook.” Inquiry language often calls this a provocation. This can be a single image or a gallery walk of multiple images or videos. The purpose is to be compelling, challenge thinking, make connections, and provoke further questions.

I like to be purposeful with how I encourage students to ask and refine their questions, consider where they would look for further investigation, and to propose new topics or content for further investigation. So many teachers already use hooks to get kids into individual lessons or content, small adjustments and added intention can open up new possibilities.

4. Source Questioning using Themes

Themes can be a great way to offer analysis opportunities in any history course. In AP World, the themes are a critical component of the curriculum, and returning to them offers constant pay-off. An AP course, given the rigid nature of curriculum and pacing, can be difficult to find opportunities to integrate larger inquiry projects. So, I like to find smaller ways of encouraging an inquiry mindset.

One easy strategy I like when introducing document analysis is to have students use the themes to create questions of the document. Not only does this encourage deep analysis of the sources, but it gives students practice asking good questions and using them to comb through evidence. This is not my original idea, and I am sure it can be expanded or adapted. Pairs of students can be responsible for only one or two themes, and it can become an easy and effective warm-up.

“Big” Inquiry Strategies & Tips

Inquiry Units

The C3 website has some great inquiries that are ready to go. My only complaint is that they are short “units” and don’t always cover all the content or skills that are prioritized by some curriculum. You can’t do inquiry every day or you would not be able to cover all your content and learning standards. I like to use the C3 structure as a capstone to a larger unit of study. That way, I can begin the unit with various content and skills that the curriculum requires, introduce different parts of the inquiry process through hooks and smaller activities, and finish with the inquiry project itself. As of writing this I am doing this very thing at the end of a unit on population and migration for my non-AP Human Geography course. These inquiries are highly structured and very useful for 9th/10th grade students who need guidance and scaffolds. I suspect their future teachers will be grateful when they arrive with the questioning, research, and thinking skills embedded in the inquiry process.

Another style of inquiry unit that I like is based on the UbD model. A good Essential/Driving Question is important for any unit of instruction. I like to use mine as the driving question of an inquiry project which can take multiple forms depending on the class, student level, or content. Through the unit I plan lessons around content, sources, and skills that will all come together during the project. This not only offers a great spine to organize the unit, but scaffolds the research process since students will have already viewed and worked with a significant bank of sources. The inquiry project becomes about synthesizing the learning and taking ownership of it.

The example above is from a unit I taught in a US History course themed around Immigration. I selected the content I was teaching based on what would help students answer the driving question at the end of the unit. These lessons also included a lot of primary and secondary sources that helped me teach historical thinking skills and preview sources that I wanted students to use in their projects. Other content and sources inevitably came up through individual research, but all students started with the same foundation. In practice the final project was less structured than a C3 inquiry and gave students greater responsibility; but beginning here worked for me since the course was entirely upperclassmen. By the end of each semester students were mostly ready to engage in a guided or even free inquiry project.

Student Choice

Student choice is a common engagement strategy. I have seen it most commonly used as part of “choice board” or “menu” style projects that involve selection of content tasks. Likewise, student choice is often part of the discussion of differentiation in both product and process. These are incredibly useful, but do not always leverage or build inquiry skills.

Inquiry asks students to be involved in selecting topics for investigation. Making connections to what they already know and what they want to know is important. Instead of selecting tasks, students are driving the direction and purpose of inquiry. This requires practice, but gives them a greater sense of independence or agency.

I have made the mistake of attempting free inquiry without any scaffolds or practice…its a disaster. It’s said best by Trevor Mackenzie, Inquiry is not a chaotic free-for-all of student choice, its an opportunity to give students voice and choice with consideration for purpose and person. Students need these structured, planned, and intentional supports to succeed. When they do succeed there is greater payoff and pride for them.

One great program that can help do this is National History Day. There are great resources to support its inclusion into the curriculum, and it does all the best part of inquiry alongside historical thinking skills. Highly recommended!

Scaffolds & Feedback

Scaffolds and feedback are important at every level or stage of an inquiry. Scaffolds help students build the skills needed to progress through the types of inquiry, from structured, all the way to free inquiry. Feedback is needed to help students refine their thinking and skills and to guide them towards the desired outcomes. I think most teachers recognize that both these components are necessary. However, the twin struggles of resource creation and time often cause things to go awry. Some of the same scaffolds that work in more traditional lessons and assessments work with inquiry projects as well.

Some frequent scaffolds I use:

  • Models and Exemplars – This is just good teaching. Students get better when they see examples of what they are expected to produce. These exemplars also help establish some quality control. The first time I assign a major assignment or project, I spend time doing it myself so I can produce a good example and use the process to predict where students might struggle.
  • Pre-selected sources – Few things can be as frustrating as guiding students through research. You can never predict all the ways they may get lost. I find that setting clear boundaries on research while engaging with tips and strategies about source selection pays dividends early on in the year. For their first C3 unit, I provide students will all the sources; only at the end do I ask them to find one additional source to help fill any gaps in their research.
  • Writing Outlines & Organizers – It would be easier if students came to me knowing what a tri-partite thesis is, or even that they should not start an academic paper with a rhetorical question. However, that is not the reality. These basic scaffolds are a necessity of any inquiry that is producing a formal written product.
  • Timelines and Check-ins – Another lesson I learned the hard way. large projects need timelines, work time needs check-ins. Accountability, accountability, accountability
  • Graphic Organizers & Thinking Maps – It’s easy to use some sort of organizer to structure research and thinking. There are so many great pre-made options out there. I have worked at two schools that were focused around the Thinking Maps movement. John P. Irish has some resource books with good history specific organizers that are easily adapted.
  • Guided Reflection – It is easy to skip reflection so as to move on to the next thing. This is a mistake. Good guided reflection is a chance for students to provide feedback to each other as well. A lot of growth can be unlocked here.

So much of inquiry is just regular old “good teaching” with a little added intention to purpose and outcome. Its not reinventing the wheel, its unlocking its potential.

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