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An inquirED Blog

The Steps Toward Inquiry in Social Studies (Series Launch)

Updated: Aug 5, 2022

Powerful questions, student-led tasks, and diverse sources are the essential steps toward inquiry in social studies. We were joined on today’s webinar by Natacha Scott (Director of Educator Engagement, iCivics), Dr. Scott M. Waring (Professor and Director of Teaching with Primary Sources Program, University of Central Florida), and Sarah Milo Hoskow (Director of Partner Experience, inquirED). Read below for a recap of webinar content. To view the recording, scroll to the bottom of the post.


Questions, Tasks, and Sources

Questions, tasks, and sources are the essential elements of social studies instruction in any classroom, but these elements are used differently in traditional vs. inquiry-based models. Most adults probably experienced a traditional form of instruction as learners. Take a second to think about your own experience as a student in social studies. What comes to mind? Maybe a history class from high school? An economics class from college? Whatever the setting, the use of questions, tasks, and sources was probably limited to

  • Requests to recall specific, concrete information (questions)

  • Filling out worksheets, copying down information (tasks)

  • A textbook or teacher’s lecture (sources)

Traditional vs Inquiry-Based Instruction

During the introduction to the webinar, Shanti Elangovan (CEO and Founder of inquirED) compared this traditional use of questions, tasks, and sources with an inquiry-based approach. The example she shared of traditional instruction came from a popular textbook. It required students to write out an answer to a specific question based on a passage from the text about the Jamestown colony. Shanti referred to this as the “Lord of the Rings” approach (i.e. one question, one task, one source to rule them all).

In contrast, inquiry-based social studies begins with a complex and open-ended question for students to explore. In the alternate inquiry-based example that Shanti shared, the essential question “How do cooperation and conflict affect the survival of a community?” frames students’ investigation of colonialism and the Jamestown colony. Guided by this question, students interrogate multiple primary sources, gather information, and construct a claim.

The graphic above illustrates how questions, tasks, and sources operate within an inquiry-based classroom. The shelf represents the role of the question - supporting the entirety of the investigation. The jars are the disciplinary tasks of the social scientist, which can be used to analyze diverse and varied sources, represented by the marbles.

In this model, students aren’t acting as record keepers but as social scientists seeking to understand the world and share this understanding with others. As they investigate, students build knowledge that is deep and lasting, because their learning connects to their curiosities, interests, and lived experiences.

Watch the Webinar Recording

Panelists provided a lively discussion during the webinar, and participants shared their thoughts, ideas, and questions in the chat. Questions included:

  • Why are questions, tasks, and sources so foundational to inquiry? What's the role of each component?

  • What's different about using questions, tasks, and sources than the traditional textbook model?

  • What is the role of inquiry in a highly polarized space?

  • How can we support educators in shifting to an inquiry-based model?

View the full webinar below.


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.


Panelist Bios

Natacha Scott is the Director of Educator Engagement at iCivics. Before joining iCivics, she worked with Boston Public Schools 14 years beginning her journey as a third-grade teacher, then curriculum writer and instructional coach, and finally as K-12 Director of History and Social Studies. She served as a Steering Committee member and Educator Workshop Lead for the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap project. She is also a part-time lecturer at Northeastern University, facilitating a courses on history and social studies pedagogy.

Dr. Scott M. Waring is a Professor and the Program Coordinator for the Social Science Education Program at the University of Central Florida. He is the current Chair for the Teacher Education and Professional Development Committee of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). Dr. Waring serves as the Editor for Social Studies and the Young Learner, Editor for Teaching with Primary Sources Journal, Editor for Trends and Issues in Social Studies, and the Interdisciplinary Feature Editor for Social Studies Research and Practice. He has published three books, including Integrating Primary and Secondary Sources into Teaching: The SOURCES Framework for Authentic Investigation, and over forty-five journal articles and book chapters focusing on the teaching and learning of history, teaching with primary sources, and the utilization of technology in teaching.

Sarah Milo Hoskow is the Director of Partner Experience at inquirED, where she leads a team of educators and professional learning specialists as they support the implementation of Inquiry Journeys, inquirED’s elementary social studies curriculum. Before joining inquirED, Sarah served as a lead teacher in Early Childhood and Upper Elementary classrooms, in Washington State, California, Illinois and in Santiago, Chile. Sarah also mentored pre-service teachers both in her own classroom as well as through work with Northwestern University.


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