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An inquirED Blog

Beyond Polarization: Centering the Practice of Inquiry in Social Studies

Updated: Nov 12, 2021


Centering Inquiry in Social Studies

“The Power of Questions” emerged as one of the themes of our webinar today, as we explored how to counter the negative effects of polarization. Of course, the focus on questioning wasn’t surprising considering who joined us as panelists.

Ashley M. McCall is a 3rd-grade teacher and Teach Plus board member who brings an inquiry-based instructional approach to her Chicago classroom. Dr. Emma Humphries, Chief Education Officer at ICivics, was on the Executive Committee of The Educating for American Democracy initiative, helping to craft the thoughtful questions woven throughout its Roadmap. And Elisabeth Ventling Simon, Co-Founder and Head of Learning Experiences at inquirED, works every day to create and refine the questions that frame the units of Inquiry Journeys, inquirED’s elementary social studies curriculum.

So how, exactly, can questions counter polarization? Ashley McCall recommends that when things start to get heated, we should ask questions to clarify meaning. McCall shared that questions like “Where did you hear this? Why does this concern you? What does this mean to you” can be a simple way to deescalate and refocus before we start “going down the rabbit hole of he said, they say, she says.”

Emma Humphries shared questions from the Educating for American Democracy’s Roadmap, offering them as examples of how to frame investigations into polarizing subjects. Questions like “How can we balance critical and constructive engagement with our society, our constitutionalism, and our history, and still be proud to be Americans?” help to center inquiry. These types of questions, according to Humphries, serve as a “beautiful invitation to discuss any number of polarizing questions from a place of humility and confidence, empathy and pride.”

Finally, Elisabeth Ventling Simon offered guidance about how to develop questions like those above – and the kind that appear in inquirED’s curriculum. It's important to take a careful approach when developing questions: all questions are not created equal, and some questions can even lead to greater polarization. According to Ventling Simon, “when we look back at History to judge who was a hero and who was a villain, we aren’t being authentic in our questions, and we are leading students down the path of taking sides, of binary thinking.” Instead, she says that we should not ask “moral questions” (ie. Was someone a hero or a villain?”) but instead, ask ethical questions (ie. How can we use what we have learned to inform our choices?).

These topics are only a few of those we covered in our engaging conversation. We also discussed how best to support teachers, what to do when polarization rears its head in your classroom, and how to respond when people are triggered by words like “informed action” or “culturally responsive education.” Check out the full recording below, as well as a selection of resources mentioned by panelists during the webinar.


View the recording of the webinar below.


About inquirED

inquirED has moved beyond the textbook, offering a customizable, digital curriculum that supports teachers in shifting to student-centered instruction. inquirED delivers year-long, student-centered curriculum and assessment with engaging content and activities for students and embedded professional learning for teachers. Inquiry Journeys is inquirED’s core elementary social studies curriculum. Inquiry Journeys is a comprehensive inquiry-based curriculum with embedded PD that helps teachers shift their practice to a more inquiry-based approach. Learn More.


Panelist Bios

Ashley M. McCall

3rd-grade teacher, Teach Plus board Member

Ashley McCall s a 3rd-grade bilingual English Language Arts teacher at César Chávez Multicultural Arts Center in Chicago, and a Teach Plus Illinois Teaching Policy Fellow. Ashley was a 2012 Teach For America corps member and taught 3rd-grade general education at LEARN South Chicago and 2nd-grade bilingual education at Peabody Elementary School. She served on LEARN Charter Network's Social Studies C3 Framework Design Team to develop and align benchmarks for a new standards-based curriculum as well as develop K-8 plans and identify instructional materials for teachers. As a community organizer with Illinois for Educational Equity (ILEE), Ashley partners with teachers, families, and community leaders to advance for a more equitable education system for students. She graduated from Amherst College with a BA in Political Science and Spanish and received her MAT from Dominican University.


Dr. Emma Humphries

Chief Education Officer, ICivics,

Executive Committee of Educating for American Democracy

Emma Humphries is the Chief Education Officer at iCivics, an educational non-profit dedicated to reinvigorating civic learning through interactive and engaging learning resources. She also serves as the Deputy Director of CivXNow, a national cross-partisan coalition of over 160 organizations focused on improving our nation’s K-12 in and out-of-school civic education. In this dual role, she serves as iCivics’ pedagogical expert and ensures its resources evolve to a place of greater equity and deeper learning for all students. In her role with CivXNow, she supports the coalition’s mission to improve and expand civic education and advance equity. Emma has devoted her professional career to teaching, learning, and advocating for civic education. She has served as a social studies teacher in north Florida where she taught all levels of American Government and History, as a civics instructor and program coordinator at the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida, and as an instructional consultant for the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship. Emma has degrees in political science and education and was awarded a James Madison Fellowship in 2004. She earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Florida with a concentration in civic education and teacher professional development.


Elisabeth Ventling Simon

Co-Founder and Head of Learning Experiences


Elisabeth is passionate about transforming education by empowering teachers. She worked in public education for over 16 years, where she saw a profound improvement in student achievement through project-based learning. In addition to working as a classroom teacher, Elisabeth has served as an instructional coach and professional development designer, focusing on the support of curriculum design and inquiry-based practices. Elisabeth joined the inquirED team in the fall of 2017, where she leads the development of culturally responsive, inquiry-based curriculum and professional learning experiences.


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