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Creating an Inquiry-Based Learning Culture in Elementary Social Studies

Updated: Feb 12, 2019


Build a culture of inquiry in your classroom.




Anthropologists define culture as “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterize a society, institution, or organization.” Let’s add classroom to that list, because we all know that each classroom has its own culture.


What’s yours like? How do you create it? The amazing thing about any culture is that it’s something we help to create - and it, in turn, helps to create us - influencing our habits, beliefs, values, and experiences.


So what does a Culture of Inquiry look like - and how can we begin to create it in our classrooms?


A Culture of Inquiry is created in your classroom when students feel a shared ownership over their experience. This happens when students have a voice in the creation of goals, processes, and even the classroom space, and when their reflections and opinions are valued throughout the learning process.


One opportunity to create a sense of ownership might be when preparing to design a solution that addresses the Inquiry Question. For example, you might ask the students:

  • How do we want to respond to our challenge?

  • What impact do we want our work to have?

  • What types of products might we design?

Another opportunity for ownership could happen when debriefing, providing a chance for students to share their thoughts around what they liked, what worked well for them, and what frustrated them. For example, after a day of student-driven research, you might ask:

  • What did we discover about our topic?

  • What did we discover about our work habits?

  • What changes might we implement next time to make our research more effective?

Another important condition that helps create a Culture of Inquiry is when students feel that the classroom is a safe place for failure and honest feedback. This happens when students accept that failure is part of the learning process - not something to fear or avoid, and when they feel like they can be honest with themselves about their work (and the work of their classmates) without fear of repercussions. To promote this cultural element, you might:

  • Create a “Fabulous Failures” wall where you celebrate a failure from the day or week’s work.

  • Give ample time to critique sessions, praising feedback that is given with care and received with poise

  • Model honest self-reflection and call it out when you see it.

  • Make team building activities a regular part of your schedule.

It may feel like you are losing content time, but the time spent investing in the classroom community pays off down the road when students can function as a team to communicate and accomplish tasks.