Doing History with Inquiry

When people hear that I am a social studies teacher, their responses typically fall into two camps: they either tell me how much they love history or hate it. The reason for any negativity towards the subject is typically because, “I’m not good at memorizing dates.” And indeed, students’ image of a social studies teacher can often be the monotone, dry lecturer, exemplified by Ben Stein’s character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. When I first stood at the front of a classroom, I knew that I would not be that kind of teacher. I have always known how to put on a show—but pedagogically speaking, what was I doing to teach my students how to be historical thinkers, instead of just history memorizers?

In the past few years, I have had the pleasure of working with the three writers behind the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards. If you are unfamiliar with the framework, you can read about it and download the document PDF from the National Council for the Social Studies. In that time, I helped pilot inquiry materials, and became the managing editor of the accompanying C3Teachers website. On the site, I maintain a monthly blog about the trials and tribulations of my journey with inquiry-based learning, inquiry being a key component of the Framework.

So, what exactly is inquiry? And what does it look like in the social studies classroom?

Before working with the writers of the C3 Framework, I don’t think I had a complete understanding of what inquiry-based learning was. In terms of a simple definition, inquiry is an investigation, within which one “seeks for truth.” But for teachers, it’s not about simple knowledge acquisition—it is the development and exercising of the skills needed in order to seek that knowledge. Inquiry, in itself, is not a new pedagogy.   What the C3 Framework does is it attempts to provide a clearer picture of what inquiry is and how to implement it in a classroom.

To quote education scholar John Dewey, “Only by wrestling with the conditions of the problem at first hand, seeking and finding his own way out, does he think.” Inquiry is not when a teacher bestows content upon a class; rather, what’s key is that students are provided the structure—through well-crafted questions, tasks, and sources[1]—to do their own exploration and learn how to think like an historian.

An intentional use of inquiry in the classroom means providing space for students to wrestle with the questions they have by employing the disciplinary tools of those in the respective fields. If history teachers want to teach their students how to do history, they need to provide them the opportunity to act as historians do. Historians don’t just memorize names and dates – they are investigating the questions that are of importance to them, drawing on an analytical skillset.

An inquiry structure, such as the C3’s Inquiry Design Model Blueprint, [2] assists teachers in developing students’ disciplinary abilities and skills needed to address the enduring questions of the field, in much the same way that scholars do.

As someone who has taught at both the college and high school level – and has been a student for most of her adult life – I believe inquiry-based practice is what needs to be more intentionally fostered at all levels to bridge the gap between the practice of scholars in the field and what students do in the classroom.

When implemented effectively, inquiry can “complicate students’ ideas, develop their curiosity, and motivate them to engage in further study of the questions that interest them.”[3] An inquiry-filled classroom, thus turns the social studies into the purposeful, engaging, dynamic, (dare I say) exciting subject that made us want to study it!

For more information and examples of inquiries, see the C3Teachers site for a growing database of inquiry units available for teachers of all levels.


[1] S.G. Grant, John Lee, and Kathy Swan, Inquiry-Based Practice in Social Studies Education: Understanding the Inquiry Design Model. (New York: Routledge, 2017).

[2] S.G. Grant, John Lee, and Kathy Swan, “The Inquiry Design Model,” 2015.;  Kathy Swan, John Lee, and S.G. Grant, “The New York State Toolkit and the Inquiry Design Model: Anatomy of an inquiry,” Social Education, 79, no. 5 (2015): 316-322.

[3] Keith C. Barton and Linda S. Levstik, Teaching History for the Common Good (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2009), 201.

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