In inquiry-based social studies, students build deep content knowledge and flexible disciplinary skills. But that’s not all! They also use their knowledge and skills to solve real-world problems and meet challenges. We were joined on our webinar by LaKethia White (Implementation Coach, inquirED), Jaclyn Share (Instructional Coach, Riley Elementary School), and Rhonda Jackson (K-5 Master Teacher, Thirkell Elementary-Middle School) to discuss what inquiry looks like in action in elementary social studies. Read below for a summary blog post. To view the recording scroll to the bottom of the post.
Making the Shift to Inquiry in Social Studies
We started the webinar by asking LaKethia White, an Implementation Coach at inquirED, about how she helps teachers make the shift to inquiry - and to taking action - in their classrooms. “It starts with a mindset shift, “ she said, “one where the teacher believes that real-world connection is powerful.” According to LaKethia, this mindset shift extends to how teachers view their instructional practice. “If a teacher commits to inquiry in their own practice,” she said, “then they are more likely to persevere through challenges.”
Rhonda Jackson, a K-5 Master Teacher at Thirkell Elementary-Middle School, is one of those teachers committed to student-led inquiry. “My students love to talk about everything they see and think,” she shared, “it’s how they learn, so why not let them talk about social studies?” And that’s just what Ms. Jackson has done. She started using an inquiry-based social studies curriculum this year, and though it took time for students to get used to the new curriculum, now the questioning and discussion are on autopilot. “You have to trust the gradual release module,” she said, “students need to learn how to lead their learning.” Once they do, teachers can “guide students on the side” instead of dictating questions and answers to them.
The gradual release that Rhonda talked about is an important part of inquiry-based elementary social studies, especially when it comes to student-led projects. It’s a common misconception to think about projects as disconnected from the learning that happens in the unit and the skills that are developed along the way. But in reality, it’s the sustained investigation that occurs before students start a project that sets them up to be content experts who are invested in the outcome.
Setting Up Students for Success
Inquiry-based social studies begins with a complex and opened-ended inquiry question for students to explore. As they investigate, students build knowledge that is deep and lasting, because their learning connects to their curiosities and interests – and because they use the knowledge and skills they have developed to create and share a project that has an audience and purpose outside of the classroom.
One of the ways that teachers can help students connect projects and actions to their social studies learning is by using an Inquiry Challenge Statement. These statements describe the action students will take, the product they will create, the target group they will affect, the impact they want to have, and the goals they will work toward.
Jackie Share, Instructional Coach at Riley Elementary School, has helped teachers co-create Inquiry Challenge Statements. “It defines what students are passionate about,” she said, “and makes sure that what they are creating is authentic to them.” To help students understand the components of Inquiry Challenge Statements, Jackie and her colleagues crafted statements for the characters in the books they were reading during ELA instruction. “Using our literacy work as case studies,” she said, “gave students the language they needed to understand and begin to internalize that they can do this, too.”
Another strategy to put students in the driver’s seat with social studies learning is to work with them to co-create rubrics for their projects. Along with the Inquiry Challenge Statement, co-created rubrics can guide students as they work – and provide opportunities for reflection and assessment. According to LaKethia, rubrics are also tools for equity. “They create a more equitable classroom,” she said, “because all students know the expectations, there are no surprises.” Both Jackie and Rhonda co-created rubrics with students. “I used YouTube and Google Images,” Rhonda shared, “we looked at PSA posters: what students liked about them, their message and style.” Jackie and her colleagues found images of student-created work to examine. “We found a range of examples," she said, "and students developed their rubrics from those examples.”
Practice Makes Progress (and Inquiry Begets Inquiry)
Watch the recording below for the full discussion of student-led inquiry in action. To wrap up the webinar, we asked both Rhonda and Jackie to share advice for teachers who may be hesitant about shifting to inquiry in social studies. “Practice makes progress,” Rhonda said, “that’s what I would tell them: there’s a gradual release for teachers, too!” Jackie reflected on how engaged students had become in social studies. “You know the saying ‘Sleep Begets Sleep’ - well I think ‘Inquiry Begets Inquiry’ - because the more that the students engage in it, the more ownership they have of it, and the more they will be asking for the next inquiry!”
inquirED was founded by teachers with the mission of bringing inquiry-based social studies to every classroom. Inquiry Journeys, inquirED’s elementary social studies curriculum, is used in schools and districts across the country to help students develop deep social studies content knowledge and build the inquiry skills that are essential for a thriving democracy.