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The Evidence Base for Social Studies: Inquiry-Based Learning
The Evidence Base for Social Studies: Inquiry-Based Learning

What We Know

Inquiry is often defined as a seeking of truth, information or knowledge. Inquiry-based learning is a complex process where students attempt to convert information into useful knowledge through a structure of identifying “real” questions, finding resources to gather information in answering the “real” question, interpreting the information and reporting the findings (Chard 2004). During this process, students constantly refine the “real” question, evaluate and verify information, reinterpret information in light of new information, and report findings, often in non-traditional ways.

Inquiry-based learning is grounded in the writings of John Dewey. Jeffrey Kaplan explains Dewey’s philosophy in this manner: Dewey believed that teaching and learning should occur in a classroom where true participatory democracy is practiced (2002). Learning, Dewey argued, prepares people so they can encounter life’s problems through their constant interplay with their immediate world. Education should not be looked on as a preparation for life, but an important part of life that children live. Kaplan notes that in education, phrases like “learning by doing,” “creating a caring community of learners” and “discovery learning” are based on Dewey’s teachings (2002). Inquiry-based learning has been a part of educational reform movements since the 1930s.

What role does inquiry-based learning play in social studies learning?

Inquiry, as theory, is a way in which people view the world (Youngquist and Pataray-Ching 2004). It requires critical thinking, a contribution of new ideas and reflection throughout the entire process. As such, the student is at the center of the experience with the teacher as “co-partner and guide” (Starnes 1999). Joan Youngquist and Jann Pataray-Ching (2004, p. 178) find that as teachers create inquiry curricula around students’ interests and strengths, they also help students broaden the ways in which they think, question and explore. Investigation is a journey and teachers provide the guidance for the journey when they recognize that a student’s experience of the inquiry process is a personal one (Tower 2000).

Hammer expresses the concern of many teachers interested in promoting student inquiry: a tension between promoting inquiry and the more traditional agenda of “covering content” (1997, p. 485). His research provides teachers an option that merges components of both inquiry and content- discovery learning. Discovery learning uses inquiry to have students “discover” the intended content. Again, teachers acting as guides in the learning process are critical to student success. During this “discovery” process, teachers provide an arena of activity-rich opportunities for inquiry (Hammer 1997, p. 514).

Chard compiled the following list of advantages inquiry-based instruction has for students (2004). Inquiry-based instruction:
  • Helps students identify and refine “real” questions into learning projects;
  • Provides students with opportunities to learn with more freedom while reinforcing the basic skills;
  • Provides students with opportunities to utilize more varied learning styles;
  • Incorporates interdisciplinary study;
  • Is suited for a collaborative learning environment or team projects;
  • Works with any age group and as students get older, more sophisticated questioning and research skills are developed;
  • Acknowledges students’ “funds of knowledge,” a term coined by Luis Moll, which opens opportunities for minorities and disadvantaged students (Chard 2004).

These advantages help students develop the skills needed to make informed and reasoned decisions that promote personal and public good, an important goal of social studies instruction (Levstik and Barton 2001, p. 132).

What does inquiry-based learning look like in the social studies classroom?

Levstik and Barton identify the goal of social studies as a vibrant curriculum that engages students in investigating significant themes and questions, with people, their values and the choices they make as the central focus (2001, p. 3). Many social studies teachers have active citizenship as their goal for students (Meyerson and Secules 2001, p. 268). Inquiry-based learning concepts provide a means of achieving these goals.

Guidelines for teachers to use when implementing inquiry-based learning are almost universal across the grade levels. Educational researchers identify question development as the starting point for this process. Elementary school students, and most students in kindergarten through grade 12, do not often get opportunities to ask “real” questions in school (Tower 2000). As a result, teachers need to plan sufficient time for question development. Students need practice writing questions that require more than factual answers; they need to develop larger questions that have multiple answers. Tower reminds us to have students ask themselves, “If I can go to one source, one book and find the answer, I am thinking too small.” Wallace suggests that when first introducing students to inquiry-based learning they should be instructed to maintain a “think log-book” to build a repertoire of questions to refer to while working (2002, p. 22). Levstik and Barton state that elementary students have to learn what it is to ask and answer historical questions as the first step in learning what an authentic application of historical knowledge looks like (2001, p. 14).

When planning instruction, teachers need to identify how they will organize the process: whole-class, collaborative/team, or individual-inquiry topics. The first several times students are introduced to inquiry-based learning, it is suggested that a whole-class approach be taken as students practice certain projects, observe others, and generally become prepared to go out on their own (Tower 2000). Collaborative, or team projects, allow students to take part in meaningful and productive discussions, often with others holding different viewpoints (Levstik and Barton 2001, p. 8). Egbert and Simich-Dudgeon also recognize that verbal interactive activities promote collaboration and negotiation of meaning among learners (2000, p. 22). Nosich states that thinking is not a solitary activity, and that one of the best ways to learn to think things through is during cooperative learning (2001, p. 37).

A critical component of inquiry-based learning is resource materials. For inquiry-based learning, non-fiction books are the mainstay. Tower reminds elementary school teachers that many students have little experience with non-fiction books (2000). Integrating English language arts into the process provides students information on how this genre is different from fiction, a form of literature of which they are familiar. Chard believes that students need to begin with an anchoring experience that provides them with a minimum of common knowledge of the problem (2004). This anchoring experience will assist students in understanding the project. Chard suggests reminding students that a critical part of the research process is to actively look for information that proves and disproves their hypotheses, and that quantity does not “trump” quality (2004). Using the Internet, e-mail to experts, local libraries, museums and public agencies such as departments of wildlife, natural resources, human services and safety services provides a wealth of resources and information for students to use. Dewey identified that students want to affirm that the work they are doing is important, needed and worth doing (Starnes 1999). Using out-of-school expert resources provides this sense of importance for students.

Providing an atmosphere of curiosity with opportunities for discussion is another important component for successful inquiry-based learning. Tower notes that brainstorming and having students talk about how their projects are progressing provide teachers with ways to assess students’ prior knowledge, clear up misconceptions and informally assess their progress. Hammer sees this as a time when the teacher identifies the path(s) the students are taking and scouts ahead to see where the path(s) may lead (1997, p. 515). By doing this, the teacher may have to assist students in making judgments as to which path(s) to follow. Teachers should not expect students to arrive at insights at prescribed moments. Instead, it is their responsibility to recognize when and if students have made progress and diagnose student difficulties (Hammer 1997, p. 514). Nosich suggests that as students are brainstorming, concept maps or graphic organizers be constructed to identify the “fundamental and powerful concepts” that emerge (2001, p. 63). He suggests returning to these “fundamental and powerful concepts” whenever new material is introduced (2001, p. 61).

Reflection is an essential activity that recurs often when using inquiry-based learning. Starnes suggests that reflection become a “way of thinking” for students and teachers (1999). If reflection is viewed as a “way of thinking” rather than as a “way of doing,” then it can become a skill transferable to other life skills such as decision-making. Reflection allows students to identify other possible solutions or views based on the research question (Levstik and Barton 2001, p. 13). It allows students to evaluate their sources, reconcile conflicting accounts and create interpretive accounts (Levstik and Barton 2001, p. 14).

The presentation of inquiry-based projects is different from traditional class reports or research assignments. The emphasis is on telling the story of the “learning journey,” telling how they, the student(s) arrived at the answer. The goal is not the answer; the goal is the learning process. This method provides students the opportunity to determine the mode of presentation that fits best with their experience (Selwyn and Maher 2003, p. 58).

Authentic inquiry-based tasks require multiple forms of assessment. The use of anecdotal records allows teachers to track individual progress (Levstik and Barton 2001, p. 36). Use of evaluation checklists that include assessing students in planning and regulating their learning, making evaluation standards clear through the use of rubrics and helping students monitor their own progress, provide multiple opportunities to gauge student progress (Levstik and Barton 2001, p. 85).

If students are to see themselves as a part of their society, educators have to rethink the way social studies is taught (Levstik and Barton 2001, p. 2). Dewey believed that if students were provided skills for the here-and-now, they would become more capable of self-support and self-respecting independence, an integral part of citizenship in our modern democracy (Starnes 1999). Inquiry-based learning offers an opportunity to achieve this goal.
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