Inquiry Based Learning and Teaching Social Studies

for history teachers
Inquiry Based Learning Curriculum & Lesson Plans for Social Studies

The social studies classroom is an excellent setting for inquiry-based lessons which incorporate the use of primary sources, project-based learning, and a compelling question into every lesson - guaranteed to challenge and grow your students' critical thinking skills and abilities!


Inquiry-based learning (IBL) has become a popular approach to teaching social studies, and if done properly, it can be extremely effective at a variety of grade levels! It involves students actively engaging in the learning process by asking questions, exploring different sources of information, and developing their own answers to compelling questions.


This article aims to provide social studies teachers with a comprehensive guide to creating inquiry-based lesson plans that will engage and challenge their students!


What is Inquiry-Based Learning?

Inquiry-based learning is a student-centered approach to teaching that emphasizes critical thinking, problem-solving, and active learning. In an inquiry-based classroom, the teacher acts as a facilitator, guiding students through the learning process rather than lecturing or providing answers.


The goal is to create a classroom environment where students are encouraged to ask questions, investigate, and explore different sources of information!


The Benefits of Inquiry-Based Learning

There are many benefits to using an inquiry-based approach in the social studies classroom, namely, that it encourages critical thinking and problem-solving skills. By engaging in the inquiry process, students learn to analyze and evaluate information, develop their own conclusions, and defend their reasoning.


Inquiry-based learning also promotes active learning and student engagement, as students are encouraged to take ownership of their learning and are more invested in the process. Another benefit of inquiry-based learning is that it aligns with the Common Core and many social studies state standards. By focusing on the inquiry process, students develop the skills and knowledge necessary to meet the standards for their grade level.


Inquiry-based learning helps students develop a deeper understanding of social studies topics and encourages them to become active and engaged citizens!


 Related Article: Best Strategies for Teaching Social Studies


Types of Inquiry-Based Learning

There are several types of inquiry-based learning, each of which can be used in the social studies classroom, which include:

  • Confirmation Inquiry
    • This type of inquiry is used to confirm or validate existing knowledge and involves posing a question and using evidence to support or refute a hypothesis
  • Structured Inquiry
    • Structured inquiry is a guided approach to learning that involves the teacher providing students with a framework for inquiry and is often used with younger students or students who are new to inquiry-based learning
  • Guided Inquiry
    • Guided inquiry is a more open-ended approach to learning in which the teacher provides students with a question or topic, but the students are responsible for developing their own methods of inquiry and finding their own answers
  • Open Inquiry
    • This type of inquiry-based learning is the most student-centered approach to learning where the teacher provides students with a question or topic, but the students are free to develop their own questions and methods of inquiry


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Inquiry-Based Lesson Plans

Inquiry-based lesson plans follow the Inquiry Design Model (IDM)


The Inquiry Design Model (IDM) is a framework for developing inquiry-based lessons that align with the social studies state standards and the Common Core and consists of three parts: the Inquiry Arc, the Standards Matrix, and the Instructional Design Template.


Inquiry Arc

The Inquiry Arc that guides teachers through the inquiry process consists of five stages:


#1: Identifying a Compelling Question

Compelling questions are at the heart of inquiry-based learning and are the overarching question that drives the inquiry. It should be thought-provoking and open-ended and encourage students to think critically about a topic, explore different perspectives and ideas, and develop their own answers. When developing a compelling question, it's important to consider the social studies curriculum, current events, and the interests of your students.


Some of examples of compelling questions might include:

  • How did the Civil Rights Movement impact the United States?
  • What role did different sources play in shaping our understanding of World War II?
  • What are the different types of civic life, and how do they affect the functioning of a democracy?



#2: Developing Supporting Questions

Once you have a compelling question, students work through a series of supporting questions. These supporting questions are ones that will help students develop the knowledge and skills they need to answer the compelling question. These questions should be focused, relevant, and connected to the compelling question, and they should encourage students to explore different types of sources and perspectives.


Related Article: How to Teach History: 10 Tips for ANY History Teacher


#3: Investigating Different Sources

As students explore supporting questions, they will encounter primary and secondary sources, which are critical to understanding social studies topics.


Primary sources are original materials that provide firsthand accounts of historical events. Examples include letters, diaries, photographs, and speeches. These sources provide students with a glimpse into the past and help them develop a deeper understanding of historical events.


Secondary sources, on the other hand, are interpretations or analyses of primary sources. Examples include textbooks, journal articles, and documentaries. Secondary sources provide students with context and help them make sense of the information they encounter in primary sources.


By using both primary and secondary sources, students can gain a more complete understanding of social studies topics. Inquiry-based instruction provides students with opportunities to explore different sources and perspectives, which can help them develop a more nuanced understanding of complex issues.



#4: Creating Formative Performance Tasks

These tasks are specifically designed to provide ongoing feedback to students as they work through the inquiry process. They help students develop their critical thinking skills and refine their understanding of the inquiry process. Here's an example of a formative performance task that could be used in a social studies lesson:


Let's say the compelling question for the lesson is "How did the American Revolution impact the lives of women?" One possible supporting question could be, "What roles did women play in the American Revolution?" A formative performance task that aligns with this supporting question could be:


"Working in groups of three, choose a primary source document related to the American Revolution that describes a woman's role or experience. Analyze the document and write a one-page reflection on what the document tells you about the woman's life during the Revolution. Share your findings with the class and discuss how the documents help us understand the roles and experiences of women during this time period."


This task gives students a chance to engage with primary source documents, analyze historical information, and develop their critical thinking skills. It also provides the teacher with an opportunity to provide feedback to students and assess their progress as they work through the inquiry process.



#5: Developing a Summative Performance Task

This is the final project that students will complete to demonstrate their understanding of the compelling question. The summative performance task should be authentic and should provide students with opportunities to use the knowledge and skills they have developed throughout the inquiry process.



Standards Matrix

The Standards Matrix is a tool for aligning inquiry-based lessons with the social studies state standards and the Common Core. The Matrix helps teachers identify the specific academic standards that are relevant to the social studies topic being studied, along with the specific components of each standard to be addressed in the inquiry-based lesson.


For example, if the topic of the lesson is the American Revolution, the Standards Matrix would list the relevant academic standards for social studies, such as the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) C3 Framework, state social studies standards, or Common Core standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies.


The Standards Matrix breaks down each standard into its component parts, such as key concepts, disciplinary practices, and specific skills or knowledge that students should develop as they engage with the content. Teachers can use the Matrix to ensure that their lesson plans align with the relevant standards and to help them design tasks and assessments that support student learning and achievement.


The Standards Matrix can help teachers ensure that their lessons are rigorous, relevant, and aligned with academic standards. It can also help teachers make connections between different content areas and provide a clear framework for student learning and assessment.



Instructional Design Template

Inquiry-based lesson plans can be used in all subject areas and can be adapted to different time periods and social studies topics, as well as to promote social-emotional learning and problem-solving skills.


The Instructional Design Template provides a structure for the lesson and includes sections for objectives, assessment, instructional strategies, and resources that help teachers plan and organize their lessons in a way that aligns with the five stages of the inquiry process (as outlined above under the Inquiry Arc).


By using the template, teachers can ensure that their lessons are well-structured, aligned with academic standards, and support student learning and engagement.


Here's an example of how the template might be organized:

Compelling Question: "How did the American Revolution impact the lives of women?"


Supporting Questions:

  • What roles did women play in the American Revolution?
  • What challenges did women face during the American Revolution?
  • How did women's participation in the American Revolution influence the course of the war?


Investigating Sources

  • Primary and secondary source documents, such as letters, diaries, and newspaper articles, that describe women's experiences during the American Revolution


Formative Performance Tasks

  • Analyze and interpret primary source documents to identify information about women's experiences during the Revolution
  • Create a visual or written representation of a woman's experience during the Revolution based on primary source evidence


Summative Performance Task

  • Develop a presentation or essay that analyzes the impact of women's participation on the American Revolution and evaluates the extent to which the Revolution advanced women's rights


The Instructional Design Template helps teachers to structure their lessons in a way that promotes student engagement, critical thinking, and deep understanding of social studies concepts. It provides a clear framework for lesson planning and helps ensure that lessons are aligned with academic standards and support student achievement.



Inquiry-Based Curriculum Resources

There are numerous resources available to support social studies teachers in developing inquiry-based curriculum. For example, the National Council for the Social Studies provides professional development opportunities and resources for social studies educators and also provides guidance on the use of inquiry in social studies instruction!


Field trips can also be a great resource for inquiry-based learning. By visiting historical sites and museums, students can engage with primary sources and gain a deeper understanding of social studies topics.


Short readings and current events can also be used to promote inquiry-based learning. By analyzing news articles and other short readings, students can develop critical thinking skills and engage with real-world issues.


Inquiry-based learning can be a powerful tool for engaging students in the social studies classroom. By using a variety of sources and perspectives, inquiry-based instruction can help students develop a deeper understanding of social studies topics and promote critical thinking skills.


With the use of inquiry-based lesson plans and resources, social studies teachers can create engaging and effective learning experiences for their students!



Inquiry-Based Learning and Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning (PBL) can be a great way to incorporate inquiry-based learning (IBL) into the history or social studies classroom. PBL involves students working on a project that allows them to apply their knowledge and skills to solve a real-world problem or answer a complex question.


Here are some ways that a history or social studies teacher can incorporate PBL into IBL:


Choose a compelling question that can be answered through a project

  • Start with a compelling question that requires students to apply their knowledge and skills to a real-world situation
  • Then, design a project that will allow students to investigate and answer the question
    • For example, if the compelling question is "How did the Civil Rights Movement change American society?", the project could be to create a multimedia presentation that highlights the key events and figures of the Civil Rights Movement and analyzes its impact on American society
  • Provide opportunities for student choice and voice
    • Incorporate opportunities for student choice and voice into the project
    • Allow students to choose their own topics within the scope of the compelling question, and give them some flexibility in how they approach the project
    • For example, some students may choose to create a video documentary, while others may prefer to write an essay or create an interactive timeline
  • Use a structured inquiry process
    • Use a structured inquiry process, such as the Inquiry Design Model (IDM), to guide students through the project
    • The IDM includes a set of standards-based inquiry tasks that help students develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they need to answer the compelling question
    • By following a structured inquiry process, students will be better equipped to answer the compelling question through their project
  • Incorporate formative and summative assessments
    • Use formative assessments, such as checkpoints and peer feedback, to monitor student progress and provide feedback throughout the project
    • Use summative assessments, such as a final presentation or paper, to evaluate student learning at the end of the project
    • By incorporating both formative and summative assessments, students will have multiple opportunities to receive feedback and improve their work
  • Provide opportunities for collaboration and reflection
    • Incorporate opportunities for collaboration and reflection throughout the project
    • Encourage students to work in groups or pairs to share ideas and support one another
    • Provide opportunities for students to reflect on their learning and the process of working on the project
    • By collaborating and reflecting, students will develop important social and emotional learning skills, as well as problem-solving and critical thinking skills



Examples of Inquiry-based learning activities


For 5th Grade Social Studies Students

  • Compelling Question: What was daily life like for Native American tribes in your state before European colonization?
  • Supporting Questions:
    • What were the different Native American tribes that lived in our state?
    • How did the geography and climate of our state affect the daily lives of Native Americans?
    • What were some of the cultural practices of the Native American tribes in our state?
  • Inquiry-Based Task: Have students research a particular Native American tribe that lived in their respective state and create a presentation that answers the supporting questions and explains what daily life was like for that tribe.

 Related Article: 5th Grade History Questions Perfect for Your Class


For 7th Grade Texas History Students

  • Compelling Question: How did the annexation of Texas affect the relationship between the United States and Mexico?
  • Supporting Questions:
    • What were the causes of the Texas Revolution?
    • How did the Battle of San Jacinto affect the outcome of the Texas Revolution?
    • Why did the United States want to annex Texas, and why did Mexico oppose it?
  • Inquiry-Based Task: Students research the causes and events of the Texas Revolution, as well as the political climate surrounding the annexation of Texas, and create a presentation or written analysis that answers the supporting questions and explains the impact of the annexation on U.S.-Mexico relations.

 Related Article: Teaching 7th Grade Texas History: Curriculum & Tips!


For 8th grade U.S. History Students

  • Compelling Question: What were the causes and major effects of the Civil War?
  • Supporting Questions:
    • What were the economic, political, and social differences between the North and South that led to the Civil War?
    • How did slavery factor into the causes of the Civil War?
    • What were the major battles and turning points of the Civil War?
  • Inquiry-Based Task: Students study, research, and analyze the causes and significant events of the Civil War and create a timeline or graphic organizer that answers the supporting questions and explains the effects of the Civil War on American society and politics. You may also consider having students engage in a debate about the causes and/or major events of the Civil War. 


 Related Article: Top 12 Lessons & Units for Grade U.S. History Curriculum 



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