Applying Learned Concepts: Fostering Inquiry in History, Geography, Economics, and Civics

Think back to a moment when you as a student sat in a social studies class and struggled to spit out a memorized date of an important event your teacher said would be integral to remember. Were those moments as dreadful for you as they were for me?

I always felt I could have easily talked about the details leading up to that event and maybe even talk about the people involved, but for me the pressure to remember the exact date posed a challenge.  As a student, I always felt like I enjoyed learning about history and all the stories connected within the lesson, but I never enjoyed the simple regurgitation of the specific event date with no context or meaning connected to it.  As a student, history was impersonal to me. I never felt like I had the opportunity to connect with the learning.

In today’s society, I  describe myself as a modern day humanities student. I need to see the whole picture of an event, not just the date or facts about what happened. The C3 Framework and Inquiry Arc give teachers opportunities to help our students dig deeper into the content, connect with the information, and discover all the wonder history can teach them, not just regurgitate facts and dates.  But, the age old question still remains… How do I give my students the opportunity to dig deeper with inquiry into the content that I am teaching?  Is it even possible to do within the confines of the curriculum that I have been given?   Can I help my students to see beyond the one moment in time for that historical event and see the bigger picture and learn to ask questions to inquire about the events before, during, and even after the moment they are studying?  The answer is YES!

Plan curriculum with the “big picture” in mind

There are many blogs and resources available to help teachers develop inquiry skills and integrate the C3 framework into their social studies curriculum.  If you simply think from a humanities perspective, it will help make what seems like a huge impossible task a little easier to manage.

In planning any lesson or unit, we always start with the big idea: what is it that I want my students to take away from this lesson? For example, during a unit on the Middle Ages, my students need to comprehend how important religion was to the lives of Europeans during that period in history.  I knew going into the unit that most of my students had a general understanding about religion of the region from a previous curriculum, but their knowledge beyond that was limited.



Use previously learned concepts to guide student thinking

Starting with my understanding of their previous knowledge, I could now gather various print and visual sources for my students to explore.  I created a research approach utilizing stations with a graphic organizer to help my students organize their thinking and discoveries.  I used a simple chart structure with a column for the source number, a column for details learned from that source, and a column for the impacted area (economics, civics, geography, and history). Then my students were ready to examine the resources! Beginning with an essential question, I would then ask different things to guide their thinking (what role did religion play in life in the Middle Ages?), and look for more resources to help them dive deeper.  I intentionally pulled resources that had my students look at the impact from all four content perspectives.  This lesson did take three class periods but the students were able to clearly describe and explain the importance of religion on life during the Middle Ages.

Terrie Epstein in her article Preparing History Teachers to Develop Young People’s Historical Thinking” reminds us that “while it’s never been an easy task to teach young people to think as historians do, it is possible and desirable to challenge their misconceptions about how we come to understand the past. While most may never acquire the subtle and complex understanding of historical epistemology that years of graduate training and professional practice make possible, all young people can become better educated about how history is practiced and historical accounts are produced” (Epstein 2012).  I like to think of my role in my classroom as the facilitator to helping my students to one day be functioning members of society, not event memorizers.  I want my students to learn how to think critically, inquire about the details of an event, and have a respectful conversation with someone who may or may not agree with what they think.  If we as educators can help facilitate these skills in all our students, then our job will have been successful.

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Epstein, Terrie. “Preparing History Teachers to Develop Young People’s Historical Thinking: Perspectives on History: AHA.” Perspectives on History | AHA, American Historical Association, 1 May 2012,

Karla Wienhold has been an educator for twenty-two years. She earned a bachelors’ degree in Elementary Education Education at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland in 1997, a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from Loyola University in 2004, and her Administration 1 Certification from Towson University in 2009.  Karla has also been a National Board Certified teacher since 2007.  In her work as a certified trainer for Active Classroom, she builds curriculum maps and trains educators on using the program, as well as leads webinars on various topics. In her spare time, she loves spending time with her family, attending musicals, and various sporting events.

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