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
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?
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).
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).
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).
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).
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.