The Intersection of Inquiry-Based Learning and High-Quality...

Teaching and Learning

The Intersection of Inquiry-Based Learning and High-Quality Instructional Materials in Social Studies

from Imagine Learning

By Abbie Misha     Apr 15, 2024

The Intersection of Inquiry-Based Learning and High-Quality Instructional Materials in Social Studies

High-quality instructional materials (HQIMs) are educational resources designed to effectively support student learning. They can include textbooks, lesson plans, digital resources and other materials carefully crafted to meet the needs of diverse learners and facilitate meaningful learning experiences. By using HQIMs, educators can enhance the quality of instruction, support differentiated learning and improve overall learning outcomes.

While the concept of HQIM has been established and embraced in other core academic disciplines, applying this concept to social studies has been more complex. Unlike content standards for math or science, where there is more uniformity across states, social studies standards can vary significantly from one state to another. This variation reflects the diverse historical and cultural priorities of different states. Additionally, social studies encompasses a wide range of disciplines, including history, geography, civics and economics, each with its own set of disciplinary practices. This variety makes it challenging to create materials that are universally recognized as high quality across all aspects of social studies.

Recently, EdSurge spoke with Kathy Swan, a 20-year veteran professor of social studies education at the University of Kentucky. Swan worked as a bank examiner for the FDIC before transitioning to teaching, which she pursued both domestically and internationally for about 10 years. She then earned her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia before joining the faculty at the University of Kentucky.

Throughout her career, Swan has been interested in inquiry-based pedagogy, drawing from her experiences as a teacher. Despite initially having reservations about standards, she became the lead writer and project director of the College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework, a set of national standards for social studies education. Swan views the C3 Framework and inquiry-based learning as guideposts for teachers to create and implement effective and engaging social studies classrooms. She has leveraged her expertise to contribute to Imagine Learning, where she served as a lead consultant in the development of Traverse, its new social studies program.

EdSurge: What is inquiry-based learning? Why is it considered an effective instructional strategy?

Swan: Inquiry is life. Our lives in the natural world are driven by a series of existential questions, as well as supporting questions (or just-in-time questions), that help us navigate each moment. Just today, I asked myself, “Should I eat that? What do I think about the state of the union? Should I go for a walk or go straight to work?”

Inquiry-based learning frames learning through questions rather than answers, and in the classroom, students drive those questions with guidance from teachers. Social studies education, in particular, has often focused on the answers to questions about when something happened or who someone was, learning the molecular pieces of content. Inquiry tries to shift that to questions students can think about, providing them greater agency with the questions that drive the learning. In other words, they aren’t just memorizing answers.

That is the strength of inquiry; it unites us across the educational spectrum. In a book I recently co-authored, I suggested that inquiry is to education like liberty is to democracy — it’s baked into the cake. We didn't just discover inquiry, which I find really reassuring as an educator because we are in this field where there can be a fad every week. The fact that we’ve been talking about inquiry in education for over a hundred years, from when John Dewey codified it, helps me believe in it and invest my time and energy into it. We are just having an old conversation with new tricks.

Introducing Traverse, a digital-forward, inquiry-driven social studies curriculum for grades 6-12.

How does the C3 Framework differ from traditional sets of standards, and what factors contributed to its widespread adoption in social studies education?

The C3 Framework is the equivalent of our national standards document, but it's not a set of standards. The Common Core in ELA and math was a set of standards meant to be adopted almost whole cloth by states, and overnight, almost 90 percent of states adopted them. Science [standards] followed that idea.

We understood that a set of standards in social studies would be tricky due to the names, dates, places and events that people fight about. There can be pushback, particularly around content people are passionate about, so we took a different approach. Instead, we created a framework that outlines these dimensions and indicators that states could use to inform their social studies standards. We wanted social studies standards to have the flexibility to speak to culturally responsive pedagogies and, on the other hand, not let the federal government tell local or state governments how curricula should be created.

The C3 Framework was released in 2013. We really waited for the phones to ring the day it was published. We joke about it in the book we just wrote, Revolution of Ideas: A Decade of C3 Inquiry. C3 dropped like a feather. Nobody seemed to care [laughs]. Then, over time, C3 gained momentum in all the right ways. It has become the vernacular, the North Star of social studies.

One reason the C3 Framework eventually experienced widespread adoption is that it is a flexible document that gives states greater agency. However, the more important reason is that the framework provides good ideas that resonate with real teachers and policymakers. The foundation is so well established. Who can argue with inquiry? C3 won on the strength of its ideas.

An inquiry-based education trains students for college, career and civic life — C3! The most important thing we do in social studies education is prepare citizens to live in a diverse democracy. Inquiry is a way to construct democratic laboratory experiences where students can practice living in a deliberative, diverse democracy.

How does inquiry-based learning integrate into the development of HQIMs for social studies?

The acronym HQIM might be fairly new, but the concepts behind it are not. HQIMs are standards based, inquiry based and allow for differentiation. The C3 Framework is built on compelling questions: questions designed for multiple perspectives and more than one answer. The HQIM social studies practices speak directly to the disciplinary practices in C3. And inquiry, as a practice, relies on examining diverse perspectives to understand human phenomena.

The C3 Framework and HQIMs complement each other; they both support an equity lens we need in social studies through inquiry. The sources we use within an inquiry that students examine must allow those perspectives to surface. The inquiry process not only considers different past and present perspectives but also emphasizes student perspectives as they use evidence and their own reasoning to answer compelling questions. It's important to unpack the layers of those perspectives within an inquiry experience.

What additional insights can we glean from the C3 Framework as we define HQIMs for social studies?

It is critical that we, as educators, teach the entire Inquiry Arc — all four dimensions. Dimension One is about developing questions to drive the inquiry. It provides the So what? for the social studies practices. But sometimes, teachers want to jump to Dimension Two, where the content concepts and disciplinary practices reside. Dimension Three focuses on evaluating sources and using evidence. Dimension Four is important because it pushes students to express their conclusions and take informed action. This can be another tricky space for teachers. Dimensions Two and Three are already in most teachers’ wheelhouses, but Dimensions One and Four can feel like Narnia. But those tricky spaces are the difference-making spaces. They speak to the vibrancy of the social studies curriculum.

When I look at a social studies curriculum, I'm not just thinking, Can students construct an evidentiary argument after reading a source in response to a question? I'm thinking, Where's the life? Where's the energy? Where is the vibrancy that can be transferred into the classroom? The vibrancy develops in that important question that makes students want to learn more, and then it comes in at the end, where students are able to express themselves and take action. You can have a lot of curriculum that checks boxes, but will it come alive in a classroom?

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