Inquiry-Based Learning and Teaching

My teaching philosophy and goals have evolved many times over the years. Most transformative has been my change to inquiry-based learning.

What is Inquiry-Based Learning?

Essentially, inquiries surrounding a compelling question. This question must be specifically worded so that students could provide a complete evidence-based argument from many directions. The questions can be extremely broad. An example of a broad question might be – “Why do we have laws?” Questions can also be more specifically tailored, like, “Who should be blamed for the outbreak of the Revolutionary War?”

Given the multitude of standards required at the state level, I’ve found that it’s most possible for me to include more structured inquiries in my class. This means that students that are given a question surrounding a specific time period and topic. The formative lessons they complete build their content knowledge and help them to answer the compelling question.

As always, I have students build their content knowledge through interactive primary and secondary source analysis. Students are provided with a task through each formative lesson to ensure that they are building their content knowledge about the topic. Sometimes, these tasks can act as mini-inquiries in themselves if I ask the students to analyze the evidence surrounding one specific historical event. I usually have three or four formative lessons before having students address the compelling question. 

By the time students have reached the point in the Unit where they might complete a summative assessment, students have gathered enough content knowledge and points of view to develop their own argument. I’ve had students argue their compelling question through a variety of assessments, including essays, designing a monument, and mock trials

Why I Love Inquiry-Based Learning

With inquiries, students can tangibly see that history isn’t settled or dead. Although there is a multitude of evidence surrounding historical events, historians still argue about that evidence. Inquiry-based learning mimics that authentic historical inquiry.

I used to have students write simple DBQ essays. They were incredibly boring, both for the students to write and for me to grade! With basic DBQs, students were simply showing that they comprehended the historical documents and that they could summarize. While those are important skills, they challenge students at a very basic level. I could see that many of my high-level students were really bored by DBQs, and worse my students came to think that comprehension was all that history was. Ugh.

Now, students really think about how history occurred, who changed its course, and the way in which it should be remembered. They tackle all kinds of historical thinking through inquiry, and they still gain content knowledge through the process.

Inquiry for ALL Learners

I’ve also found that inquiries combine really well with differentiation. For SPED students I think about how they can still address the compelling question at their level. I might reword the question more simply, or require less detail in their summative assessment. Formative lessons can be modified also by requiring less detail or have students spend their time reading and comprehending information instead of collecting that information. I can reach SPED students at their level of understanding, and still challenge all my students with critical thinking. Inquiry-based learning has been one of the best changes I’ve made to my teaching practice.

(If you’d like to see some example inquiries, check out, or Bruce Lesh’s book Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer? I also have four inquires including on the on the events leading to the Revolutionary War, one on Shay’s Rebellion, and on one Westward Movement and an inquiry about Wilson and WWI.)

Have you tried inquiry-based learning in your classroom?  

8 Responses

  1. Do you teach world history? If so, it’d be great to hear more about the questions you use and how you structure your inquiries. Happy to share back of course! I’m currently working on an inquiry around the concept of identity, using Zheng He’s connections with Malaysia to create my case studies.

    1. Hi Abena! Basically, the formative lessons involve having students interact with the content more specifically. Although the summative assessment might have a more open-ended question, the formative lessons are more content specific. Then, when students go to answer the summative questions, they’ll have enough information to craft their answer.

      1. Thanks for the reply. I am fairly new to SS, and a colleague sent me some DBQs – I teach Grade 7 so definitely want to make them more interesting. I like the CSI idea so thanks for the inspiration!

    2. Hi Abena! I don’t teach World History, however, I could certainly write about this topic. I’ll add it to my blog list. Thanks for the suggestion!

  2. Hello! I am working with some social studies teachers and trying to move them away from DBQ to the Inquiry Design Model. I love what you wrote here. Do you have any specfic ways that inquiry and DBQ are similar and different? I am trying to get my teachers to see that what they have been doing with DBQ is not inquiry even though they insist it is.

    1. My primary experience is with the DBQs on NY State Regents. I’ve found that the questions they ask have more of a matter-of-fact answer. They have students utilize documents that specifically target that answer. With an inquiry-based question, students are asked to come up with an answer to a more open-ended question. I find it to be more authentic. In both cases, the students use evidence to support their answers. I also find inquiries to be more difficult. Therefore, if students have completed an inquiry, their ability to switch over to a DBQ shouldn’t be that hard.

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