How to Introduce Inquiry into Social Studies

Inquiry is a term that has been bantered around frequently in the education world. For the sake of clarity, let’s keep the definition simple. Inquiry is seeking knowledge or information.

What is inquiry?

Inquiry has two foundational components. First, inquiry requires some rudimentary knowledge. That is, inquiry requires knowing enough about a topic to begin to ask questions. Second, inquiry requires curiosity about the topic. If you know nothing about the medical practices in the Middle Ages, it’s difficult to ask any questions beyond what they were.

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Who leads inquiry?

In the classroom, inquiry may be teacher-directed or student-directed. In teacher-directed inquiry, the teacher poses the questions. Students may choose which questions to pursue and which sources to use. In student-directed inquiry, the students take on the role of question-askers. The teacher may still guide the topic choice, such as an era of time, but students pose the questions that they want to pursue.

Why use inquiry in social studies?

Inquiry allows students to be curious, to wonder and ask questions (Coiro, Castek, & Quinn, 2016). Inquiry allows students to pursue questions they have and topics they find personally relevant or interesting.

Inquiry aids in differentiation of learning without stigmatizing students (Pellegrino & Hilton, 2012). Students who may struggle to read traditional texts can pursue video and photographic evidence while other students can read dense primary texts.

When? I don’t have time!

Some teachers are able to make inquiry a regular part of their instruction. They alternate inquiry units with more traditional units. If your curriculum doesn’t allow that kind of freedom, start small. Some teachers are implementing Genius hours, taking a cue from companies like Google. Google allows their employees to work on self-selected projects, believing that they will be more creative and productive if given company time to pursue projects of their own choosing.


What does inquiry look like in the social studies classroom?

I recently taught a lesson on Prohibition to a group of middle schoolers. I knew these students were unfamiliar with Prohibition and the constitutional amendments related to it. It would have been an exercise in frustration for me to ask these students what they wanted to know about Prohibition. I used these steps to begin inquiry:

1. Teach them something and make them curious 

Inquiry starts with some knowledge and curiosity. I use stories to begin to give information and to spark interest. In the Prohibition unit, my introduction was the story of Roy Olmstead, a police officer in Seattle during Prohibition. In my story, I hinted that at the same time Roy was a cop he also had a secret, illegal career. However, I hid the fact that he was a bootlegger who made a lucrative living bringing Canadian Whisky into the Pacific Northwest until the very end of the lesson.

2. Don’t start with an overview from the textbook

Textbooks or traditional texts offer overviews of information but often lack the hook that sparks students’ curiosity. Further, it’s sometimes more effective if students don’t know too much information before they start. Information that they discover will be remembered much longer than information that is given to them.

3. Let students ask questions

Even if you pose the larger topic or questions, it’s important for students to be able to pursue their own questions. This may start organically. For example, when I asked students to read a story about Roy Olmstead,they started asking questions such as why he was going to Canada, what was in Canada, what his career was,  why it was illegal, and more. By the end of this single lesson, they posed questions about Prohibition, the Mob, constitutional amendments, and the legalization of marijuana.

4. Highlight and honor their questions

It would have been easy to answer students’ questions in one or two sentences. However, when my goal is inquiry it’s important to honor these questions. One way is to make a list of questions that stays visible for the lesson or over several lessons. When students are ready to start inquiry, these questions serve as a reference. Inquiry is about student discovery rather than teacher knowledge.


5. Facilitate students’ research

In inquiry, the role of the teacher becomes a facilitator. The teacher is the conduit between content and knowledge but the students must make the connection. The teacher offers additional resources, models how to source and corroborate information, and redirects but doesn’t give a simple answer.

Further, the teacher is a co-wonderer. If the teacher appears to know all the information, students are less likely to pursue answers. Instead, the teacher models curiosity and wonder by posing questions and even finding answers along with students.

6. Celebrate new knowledge

An important part of inquiry is peer-to-peer interaction. Students with similar questions work together. Students who aren’t working together share their discoveries with each other. This happens informally by letting them share one thing they learned before they leave class. It can also be a formal presentation of the information.

7. Important or interesting?

Teachers notice that sometimes what is most important according to standards or curriculum is not what students view as interesting. There is no magic solution for this tension. However, I recommend encouraging students’ interest first. Interest is generative and creates more interest. Interest supports motivation. If students don’t get to what is identified as important, you can fill this in within a more traditional lesson or text that occurs parallel to inquiry projects.

Giving students a voice in their learning

I recently asked a group of middle schoolers about their learning. Repeatedly, they explained that they learned things online—everything from basketball plays and online gaming tips to information about airline pilots and the Punic Wars.

All of these topics were pursued on their own time for their own purposes. Students showed interest, engagement, and persistence with these topics.

Students are not only aware of events happening around the world, they are used to satisfying their own curiosity through the Internet (Coiro, Castek, & Quinn, 2016). We have an unprecedented opportunity to bring that kind of energy and learning into the classroom.

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Dr. Dixie Massey is the program coordinator of the reading endorsement at the University of Washington where she also teaches courses in the Department of Language, Literacy, and Culture. She has published in such journals as Social Studies and the Young Learner, The Reading Teacher, and The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. She is co-author of the curriculum series, Comprehension Strategies for World History and U.S. History in the Social Studies; Targeted Vocabulary Instruction, and the Seeds of Inquiry series published by Social Studies School Service.


Coiro, J., Castek, J., & Quinn, D. J. (2016). Personal Inquiry and Online Research. The Reading Teacher, 69(5), 483-492.

Pellegrino, J. W., & Hilton, M. L. (2012). Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills. Center for Education.

More to Explore

Galileo Educational Network. What is inquiry?

Genius Hour 

Wolpert-Gawron, Heather (2016). What the heck is inquiry-based learning?

Wright, Shelley. The power of student-driven learning. TedTalks

1 thought on “How to Introduce Inquiry into Social Studies

  1. Good afternoon,

    On my Thanksgiving Break blog dig, I came across this blog and loved the idea of starting off a unit with a story. I teach 8th grade US History and would love to use some of these. How did you find these? Where could I find some guidance?

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