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March 5, 2021

Student Historians: Inquiry-Based Learning in a Social Studies Class

“One of the big challenges today is that students are inundated with the ability to access information, but don’t know how to answer the ‘so what’ question—how to interpret it,” Douglas Brisson, a National History Day judge and historian.

Students engaged in historical inquiry

YES! As a middle school teacher working with students enthralled with “googling-it, it” but lacking the skills to effectively evaluate and analyze online sources, Mr. Brisson highlighted exactly how I felt. His sentiments are why I decided to take on the challenge of building a literacy and social studies classroom that fostered inquiry-based learning. This was not an easy task but, with the support of the Chicago Metro History Education Center, I was able to encourage my students to learn historical content by developing their own questions and arguments based on research into primary and secondary sources. I was also able to integrate literacy and social studies by supporting my students’ research and critical thinking skills as they analyzed multiple texts through close read, synthesized information, and developed text-based arguments (aligned with Common Core standards).

Interested in promoting inquiry-based learning in your own classroom? Check out the steps that I took along my journey:

Step 1: Create a Classroom that Encourages Academic Conversations

In an inquiry-based learning classroom, it is important that students understand how to respect and value each other’s contributions to the learning environment. In the beginning of the year, make sure to set norms with your students for your academic conversations and practice using Accountable Talk.

Our Norms –

  • Pause Before Speaking – Stop after someone is done talking; Stop before asking a question
  • Ask Questions – Show interest in other people’s ideas. Use phrases like, “Please tell me more about…” or “I’d like to hear more about…”
  • Share Your Ideas – Share your thinking when it is your turn; Use Accountable Talk phrases
  • Pay Attention to Yourself and Others – Look at the person when they are speaking; Wait for your turn to talk (don’t interrupt)
  • Think Positive – Look at the person when they are speaking; Wait for your turn to talk (don’t interrupt)
  • Balance What You Say and What You Hear – Be proud when sharing your own ideas while respecting and listening to others’ ideas; Take turns speaking – no one should be doing more talking than anyone else

For examples of Accountable Talk phrases, check out Chapter 5 from Fisher, Frey, and Rothenberg’s book, Content-Area Conversations. For ideas on how to incorporate Accountable Talk in your intermediate classroom, check out this TchAUSL video.

The Teaching Channel’s series on Inquiry-Based Teaching has a video on building a culture of respect that highlights the teachers and students at Urban Academy in NY. One of the teachers, Avram Barlowe, points out that during academic conversations with students, the students need to trust that the teacher can facilitate an open, respectful, and fair dialogue where students can explore and express their ideas. Check out this video clip, Inquiry-Based Teaching: Building a culture of respect, to gather more ideas on how to promote a culture of inspired conversation in your own classroom.

Step 2: The Research Journey

Students have a strong desire to learn more about topics that they view as relevant to their own lives. Our job is to provide high quality sources so that students can satisfy their personal curiosity while also being exposed to historical content. Here are a few ways to do that…

  • Schedule a field trip to the Chicago History Museum and allow students to explore the exhibitions on Chicago history. While students explore, have them record notes on possible topics in Chicago history that they want to conduct additional research on.
  • Support students in narrowing down their choices to one topic. This is a guided process – for example, many students are interested in studying a topic such as The Great Chicago Fire. You can help them understand how to dig more deeply into this topic by suggesting they study the fire codes and how they may have impacted architecture in Chicago, for example. The key here is that students still choose their own topic that they personally connect to but that you help them find an angle to research.
  • Create collaborative groupings in your classroom. For example, if one of your student’s topic is Jane Adams, another student’s topic is Hull House, and another student’s is the Mother’s Pension Fund – group these three students into the collaborative group of “Progressivism.” This way, the students can support each other during their research by sharing sources and placing their topics in a historical context.
  • Celebrate the learning process by highlighting small successes along the way. Each week, highlight the research “find of the week” and celebrate a student(s) who finds an obscure fact or a piece of evidence that really influences the path of their project.

Step 3: Analyzing Primary and Secondary Sources

Another crucial element in an inquiry-based learning classroom is helping students learn how to effectively access and analyze primary and secondary sources. This is the place where you can integrate instruction of literacy skills with historical content. For example, during document analysis, literacy skills such as Determining Importance, Inferencing, and Synthesizing are all important skills that students must be explicitly taught in order to effectively analyze and interpret a historical document.

AUSL has recently developed a new AUSL Historical Reading and Writing Framework. Make sure to check it out to develop lessons to support your students’ historical inquiry and critical thinking skills.

To check out additional resources for developing historical inquiry lessons, check out Sam Wineburg and the Stanford History Education Group, “Reading Like a Historian” document based lessons. You can also view Teaching Channel videos that dig deeply into the “Reading Like a Historian” series.

And, check out the following sites to support you and your students in accessing primary and secondary sources:

Step 4: Developing the Argument

After students have had the opportunity to access, analyze, and evaluate multiple primary and secondary sources, you have reached the heart of the historical inquiry-based learning process – developing the argument. Here, students must synthesize across their sources, identify appropriate evidence, and provide their conclusions from the material by making an argument about their historical topic. This is the opportunity for your students to share their thinking with a larger audience, make public their ideas of the past, and state the relevance of their argument today.

As Chicago Metro History Education Center highlights, “At the center of the historical argument is a thesis which will be developed through claims and evidence.” In one to two sentences, “the thesis takes a stand on a historical issue: it may explain why or how something happened, express an interpretation related to the annual National History Day theme, and suggest the larger significance of historical events or actions.”

During thesis development, students need lots of support and many opportunities to flush their ideas out through academic conversations with peers as well as with conferences with you. To check out resources to support your instruction of thesis development, check out Chicago Metro History Education Center Thesis Development webpage.

Step 5: Communicating: Tell us a Story

When you first introduce the historical inquiry project to your students, make sure to share with them that they will publicly present their final product to an audience of peers and judges at the schoolwide history fair. This introduces a measure of accountability as students understand that they are conducting research and writing about the past for an authentic audience. It elevates the importance they place on their project and will help maintain their motivation throughout the learning process.

Just as it is important to provide your students with the element of choice in picking their topic, maintain their investment with the research process by allowing them to choose from one of five ways to communicate their learning: website, exhibit, paper, documentary, or performance.

The emphasis that you place on encouraging your students to showcase their learning in a public forum creates a classroom community where their voices are valued. Just as in-class academic conversations initially will teach your students how to articulate their thinking, presenting and being able to justify their final product will increase their investment and allow you to place them at the center of learning.

AUSL Historical Inquiry Highlight

This past year, students at National Teachers Academy and Chicago Academy High School had the opportunity to showcase their historical inquiry projects at city-wide, state-wide, and even national History Fair competitions. Check out these great Chicago Tribune articles about two of our CAHS students who excelled at the national competition!

If you are interested in reading more about my journey with historical inquiry, check out an article I wrote in TNTP’s report, Unlocking Student Effort.


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