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An inquirED Blog

The Social Studies Curriculum Review Guide

Updated: Feb 17, 2022

Student reading with text that says Social Studies Curriculum Review Guide: High Quality Instructional Materials in Social Studies

Choosing a social studies curriculum is one of the most important decisions that any school or district can make to improve student outcomes and develop the knowledge and skills students need to be active participants in civic life. We were joined on today's webinar by Shanti Elangovan, Founder and CEO of inquirED, and Elisabeth Ventling Simon, Co-Founder and Head of Learning Experiences to discuss inquirED's Social Studies Curriculum Review Guide (available for download). Scroll to the bottom of this blog post to view the webinar recording. This blog post and the associated webinar are sponsored by inquirED and the National Council for the Social Studies.


If you talk long enough with someone from inquirED, they're bound to use a metaphor to describe the importance of high-quality instructional materials. Shanti Elangovan compares teachers to surgeons and asks"should the surgeon have to make the scalpel, too?" Elisabeth Ventiling Simon, casts teachers in the role of chefs, pointing out that "you can talk to a master chef about flavors and describe the dishes you want - but if you don't give them ingredients and utensils, then they can't cook!"

There are a few more metaphors floating around our virtual meeting rooms, but they all share similar characteristics. In them, teachers are recognized as professionals who should be able to spend their time mastering the complexities of their craft and responding to the needs of students – not creating their materials or scouring the internet for resources,

Quality Matters

Providing teachers with high-quality resources matters not only because it allows teachers to focus on student learning, but also because the resources themselves are essential in shifting teacher practice and improving student outcomes. Research indicates:

But how can schools and districts evaluate whether social studies curricular materials are high quality? While there are powerful frameworks that define social studies skills and competencies, and a multitude of standards documents that dictate required content, there is little or no guidance as to what defines high-quality instructional materials.

That's why inquirED created the Curriculum Review Guide: to help address the lack of guidance and to support instructional leaders as they develop and search for social studies curriculum.

Definitions and Domains

We started the webinar by sharing the definitions of curriculum and high-quality instructional materials that we used as a foundation for the Curriculum Review Guide.

  • Curriculum is a coherent set of high-quality instructional materials, academic lessons, and content that teachers use to lead students toward mastery of standards.

  • High-Quality Instructional Materials (HQIMs) meet the demands of college- and career-ready standards. HQIMs must include fully developed lessons with instructional supports, cohesive unit structure, multimodal assessments, and integrated professional learning.

Those definitions are a helpful place to start. But they are general and apply across subject areas. To define HQIMs in social studies, inquirED relied on the insights of our Learning Experience Team, the thought leadership of social studies organizations like NCSS, as well as the data we collected from districts.

As a result of this analysis, we formulated five domains for evaluating high-quality instructional materials in social studies. Each domain has four separate criteria - and each criterion is broken into a set of indicators.

Breaking Down Specific Indicators

On the webinar, Elisabeth, Shanti, and I discussed how in the Curriculum Review Guide, sometimes it is very clear what someone should look for as evidence. Other times the concept is complicated or unfamiliar, so it's difficult to imagine a clear "look for." For example, in the "Integrates Inquiry-Based Instruction" domain. The first criteria "Investigates Compelling and Supporting Questions" lists the following indicator:

Indicator: Engages students in the investigation of a compelling question that connects social studies content to students’ background knowledge and lived experiences (INQ.1.1)

Looks can be deceiving with this indicator. Curriculum writers can cut and paste compelling questions onto their existing units and call it a day. So it's up to reviewers to dig into the details of the unit, looking for evidence like:

  • The compelling question is introduced to students in a dedicated lesson.

  • Students are given opportunities to generate questions in response to the compelling question.

  • Students reflect on the compelling question across the unit through the use of unit-long displays or anchor charts.

In the same domain, the criteria "Promotes Student-Centered Learning Experiences" contains the following criteria:

Requires the integration of student ideas and contributions to carry out investigations (INQ.4.2)

One of our webinar participants pushed for more clarity on this indicator ("It would be helpful for my understanding to see exemplars"). It's one of the reasons I included a link to Pilot Lessons from Inquiry Journeys in the Resources section below. You'll have to dig into the lessons. If you do, you'll see this indicator at work. In lessons (and across a unit), look for:

  • Students use student-centered thinking routines and discussion protocols repeatedly across lessons.

  • Students engage in structured feedback sessions to improve each other's work.

  • Students engage in structured protocols to shape the direction and impact of informed action.

Check out the webinar recording below for more discussion of domains, indicators, and look for.

Resources Shared or Requested

  • inquirED's Curriculum Review Guide: In consultation with our partner schools and districts, inquirED has created a Curriculum Review Guide to support instructional leaders as they develop and search for social studies curriculum.

  • Inquiry Journeys Pilot Lessons: Several of the participants on the webinar asked for concrete examples of the indicators. If you explore the lessons that are linked in the Inquiry Journeys Pilot Lessons, you'll find very specific examples of these indicators. As you explore, keep in mind that inquiry-based social studies doesn't just happen in just one lesson! Parts of each lesson are "greyed out" indicating tasks or resources that are meant to connect student investigations across a unit.

  • Social Studies in the Age of Disinformation: We mentioned this webinar when talking about sources, specifically in regards to research that indicates students have difficulty transferring media literacy skills from one medium to another.

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.


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