top of page

An inquirED Blog

Inquiry Unit Design

Updated: Nov 10, 2022

inquiry unit design

What’s your personal inquiry? Do you want to visit every country in the world? Are you looking to master the art of French cooking—or just searching for the perfect slice of pizza? What about your professional inquiries? Are you trying to improve your teaching practice? Have a greater impact on student learning? Whether personal or professional, the inquiries we explore challenge us, make our lives more meaningful, and give us a sense of purpose.

And isn’t that the future that we want for our students as well: lives full of meaningful inquiries? If that’s the case, then let’s engage students in authentic, meaningful inquiries right now in our classrooms. In this guide, we're going to help you get started designing an inquiry unit for your classroom!

Table of Contents:

Inquiry Process

What is Inquiry?

Inquiry is a process - one that’s hardwired into our brains. It’s activated whenever we seek to solve a problem or respond to a challenge. The inquiry process launches when we ask a question that sparks our curiosity. We then move through a sustained investigation to build knowledge and test our ideas. Finally, we use that learning to take informed action that impacts the world.

Let's look at how to embed the inquiry process in the structure of your unit, first by developing Essential Questions, and next by crafting an Inquiry Question, or what the C3 Framework calls a "compelling question".

Crafting The Inquiry Question

An Inquiry Question is a complex, open-ended question that frames the learning of a unit. Inquiry Questions should:

  • Be compelling and open-ended, igniting student curiosity and driving them forward into their investigation

  • Be formulated simply so students can understand and share

  • Contain a “call to action” - laying the groundwork for the action students might take later in the unit

Explore the Inquiry Questions in the graphic below, each taken from inquirED’s Inquiry Journeys K-5 social studies curriculum. Check to see if the questions are compelling, open-ended, and drive students forward into investigation and action.

Inquiry Questions

To create an Inquiry Question, start by reviewing the Essential Questions you have created (or considering the overall content of your unit if you have not yet created your Essential Questions). Brainstorm a list of questions that will hook students into the unit and carry them through a sustained investigation.

Don’t forget: The question should lead to a response that requires students to take action!

Developing Essential Questions

Essential Questions help to structure the sustained investigation of content in your unit. They should:

  • Be open-ended and compelling

  • Lead to an investigation of the content

  • Connect to the standards, objectives, and broader Inquiry Question of your unit

Explore the mini outlines below, both of which describe the same 5th grade social studies unit. As you explore, consider how the unit structured with questions might more effectively spark curiosity and scaffold understanding.

Essential Investigation Questions

To develop the Essential Questions that structure student investigation, follow these steps:

Step One: Identify Your Topic and Unit Objectives

  • Many of you will have predetermined standards to follow or may be working with a set of objectives from a textbook or other resource.

Step Two: Group Objectives into Content Sections or Categories

  • Group objectives into four named categories based on similarity of content.

Step Three: Brainstorm and Draft Essential Questions

  • Brainstorm and draft your Essential Questions. Remember: Questions should be open-ended and drive students forward into their investigation.

Gathering Sources for your Unit

Now that you have created the question structure of your unit, it’s time to begin collecting and curating sources. Inquiry units require high-quality sources for students to explore and investigate. Consider the practices and guidelines below during the phases of your search.

Before You Begin...

  • Train your lens: You need some critical context before you can evaluate content critically. Investigate stereotypes and biases prevalent in educational materials, and key understandings absent from them.

  • Define the purpose of your search: Are you looking for a source that enables students to briefly build background knowledge? If so, something that presents key information might be needed. Are students investigating a topic in depth? If so, they should grapple with sources that allow them to identify and analyze evidence in order to draw inferences or conclusions.

  • Commit to Diverse Representation: The sources you select should represent diverse voices and perspectives, challenging a singular, dominant narrative. Students should be able to see themselves in the sources you select and learn about the perspectives of others who are different from them.

As You Search...

  • Use a Protocol: Keep the basics in mind by using a checklist to evaluate accuracy, authority, objectivity, currency, and coverage. Practice Lateral Reading when vetting online sources. In this practice, you spend time reading about the authors of an article or the organization behind a website to check for bias.

  • Mix it up: Include non-text resources (image analyses, songs, videos, infographics, and maps). Variety in sources keeps students engaged and helps to differentiate instruction.

  • Stray from the “kids’ menu”: Consider sources that aren’t expressly for children. Certain poems, speeches, letters, and other resources can be accessible to the youngest students.

  • Follow the leader: When you find a quality source, dig into the sources that it cites and the articles it mentions. You may discover a treasure trove of other sources.

Once You’re Finished...

  • Adapt: No resource is perfect. Frame and modify resources to meet the needs of your students. If used solely within your classroom and not-for-profit, these actions fall under the principle of “acceptable use.”

  • Audit: Even though you may have trained your lens and committed to diverse representations, seek out others with different perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds to review your selections.

As you gather and curate sources, connect with your colleagues to see if they have favorite sources to share. Your school librarian could also be a great resource for you. Make sure to share your guidelines and values with anyone who is helping you.

Designing Inquiry-Based Lessons

Once you’ve gathered your sources, you can begin to design the learning experiences of each lesson. Lessons are divided into the following three parts:

  • Opening: During the Opening of an inquiry lesson, teachers spark student curiosity and connect the lesson to the Essential Question of the module and the larger inquiry. The use of protocols for activating prior knowledge, wonderings, and questions work well during the Opening.

  • Active Inquiry: During the Active Inquiry students engage in the exploration and investigation of content.

  • Closing: During the Closing, students reflect upon their learning; teachers take the opportunity to check for understanding.

Lessons are made up of learning tasks, the specific actions students take in response to content (ie. sources, student-generated content, etc.) in order to meet learning goals. For learning tasks to be inquiry-based, they should give students the opportunity to lead their own learning as they question, investigate, and take action. Use the inquirED Online Field Guide resource as you create original lessons.

When you create your own learning tasks, keep in mind the following inquiry-based criteria:

Student-Directed and Teacher-Facilitated

  • Prompt students to investigate and construct meaning together as a class.

  • Allow students freedom and responsibility of choice when possible

  • Position teachers as guides, providing needed scaffolding and support for independent and collaborative work


  • Tied to standards and connected to formative assessment

  • Engage students in productive struggle

  • Promote sustained investigation of content

Culturally Responsive


  • Provide opportunities to engage in a variety of tasks

  • Make use of a wide range of tools to meet learning needs

  • Offer multiple entry points and opportunities for deeper exploration

Taking Informed Action

Imagine if students questioned, planned, and researched but only ever took a test to demonstrate and validate their learning. How about if they skipped the research and investigation, and instead just performed an action assigned by the teacher? The former is information without real action, leaving students to wonder what the point of their learning was. The latter is action without information, which limits the depth of learning and the effectiveness of action. Both options drain the meaning from an inquiry unit.

Taking informed action

When designing inquiries for students, teachers are looking for the sweet spot of informed action, when the challenge, purpose, and audience of student action come together to create meaning and deepen learning. If students are only informed during an inquiry, they might pursue an inquiry question but only be challenged to show their understanding to their teacher for a letter grade on a test or deliverable. And if students only take action, then their challenge might be limited to participating in an activity that’s vaguely related to their learning - even if they are addressing a public audience. It’s not that there’s no purpose for a test, stand-alone project, or activity; during an inquiry they can serve to assess learning, engage students, and check for understanding. But these can’t be the point of an inquiry.

When an inquiry promotes informed action, however, the point becomes clear and resonates with students. They identify a challenge that is informed by learning and addresses a real-world problem—one matters outside the walls of their classroom. Their audience is outside the classroom as well, whether it’s students in a different grade or the wider community. And while they may receive a grade, the grade isn’t the point of their action. Students are trying to make an impact on the world—whether it’s to solve a problem, inform, inspire, or change behavior.


Explore the following resources to continue your journey

The "Inquiry Journeys Social Studies in Action" video describes the 3rd Grade "Global Connections" unit of Inquiry Journeys, inquirED's elementary social studies curriculum. It provides a look at how a unit's Inquiry Question and Essential Questions frame an investigation.


What is Inquiry-Based Social Studies?

Keep exploring the fundamentals of inquiry in the "What is Inquiry-Based Social Studies?" blog post. The post contains a simple explanation of inquiry in social studies - and links to a slide deck that you can share with others.


inquirED's Curriculum Review Guide

inquirED has created a Curriculum Review Guide that provides evaluation rubrics across five key domains: Inquiry-Based Instruction, Culturally Responsive Education, Standards-Based Instruction and Assessment, High-Quality, Diverse Sources, Learner Supports and Continuous PD.


Explore some of the amazing work our partner districts and their students have created with Inquiry Journeys! These projects are the culmination of an inquiry unit and demonstrate students' deep understanding of social studies topics!


About InquirED

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.


bottom of page