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An inquirED Blog

Up to the Task: How to Support Student-Led Learning in Elementary Social Studies

Updated: Aug 5, 2022

Student-led learning tasks in K-8 inquiry-based social studies not only build content knowledge and skills but also help students take ownership of their learning. We explored the benefits and challenges of designing student-led learning experiences in social studies in our webinar with Elisabeth Ventling Simon (Co-Founder and Head of Learning Experiences, inquirED) and Jillian Corr (Senior Learning Experience Designer, inquirED). Read below for a recap of webinar content. To view the recording scroll to the bottom of the post


What Makes Something an Inquiry Task in Social Studies?

Students in traditional social studies classrooms act primarily as record keepers. They write down information, memorize it, and then recall it on a quiz or test. Of course, developing deep background knowledge is important, but that kind of knowledge isn’t built through record-keeping (for confirmation of this, just try to remember the battles and dates from your experience as a social studies student!). In contrast, in inquiry-based social studies students aren’t acting as record keepers but as social scientists seeking to understand the world and share this understanding with others.

Students are Engaged in the Work of Social Scientists

What does it mean for students to be engaged in the work of social scientists? First, they are engaged in the fundamental inquiry work of scientists in any field:

  • asking questions

  • gathering & processing information

  • drawing and communicating conclusions

  • taking Informed Action from their findings

And second, students are investigating the themes, building the skills, developing the literacies, and using the tools of social studies, with opportunities to practice thinking like a Historian, Geographer, Economist, and Civic Participant.

“But it’s not just that they are doing the work of social scientists,” according to Elisabeth Ventiling Simon, Co-Founder and Head of Learning Experiences at inquirED, “it’s also critical that we can assess this work.”

On our webinar, Elisabeth brought with her several examples of tasks, objectives, and look-fors (i.e. specific, observable indicators of student learning). In the example above, students are introduced to winter counts, a form of artwork that serves as a visual timeline, a record of history, and a tool for storytelling. As they investigate, they engage in the work of historians (analyzing and describing sources, corroborating findings, and evaluating historical context) and are assessed with clear indicators of learning (classifies a historical source as a text, interview, artifact, etc).

The Task Connects to Others Across an Inquiry

Inquiry tasks don’t exist in isolation: they must be part of larger, sustained investigations of social studies content. Students should be able to draw a line from the task to the Compelling Question of the unit.

For Jillian Corr, Senior Learning Experience Designer at inquirED, it’s about moving from the “what” to the “so what” - then to the “what now.” Jillian shared that “non-inquiry instruction can be overly focused on the “what” - just making sure students get the fact nuggets.” “But that’s a problem,” Jillian continued, “because students have to investigate the ‘so what’ - exploring why this knowledge matters and how it connects to the important questions of social studies.”

Both Elisabeth and Jillian also agreed that beyond the “so what?” - traditional instruction rarely gets to the “what now?” - that moment when students use what they’ve learned to become a source of information or make an impact. “That’s when the learning can really become authentic and lasting,” Elisabeth reflected.

Another way that inquiry tasks connect to each other is in how complexity is scaffolded across an inquiry. An inquiry task should connect to those before it and after in the type of thinking students are engaged in and the depth of knowledge they are building. “It’s definitely not a straight line, though,” Jillian shared, “students are constantly circling back, getting lots of ‘at bats’ as they practice certain thinking skills.” Elisabeth agreed: “We think about complexity a lot when we design curriculum, we want students to be able to build their capacity for complex social studies thinking, we just need to be intentional about scaffolding it in the right way.”

We discussed these ideas and more in the rest of the webinar. To view the full discussion, watch the recording 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.

Webinar Panelists

Jillian Corr

Jillian is a Senior Learning Experience Designer at inquirED. She has worked in education for over 25 years. She’s served as a curriculum director, instructional coach, and classroom teacher in international baccalaureate, bilingual, special education, and early childhood classrooms. In addition, Jillian has managed and consulted on curriculum development initiatives for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, among others. She has a BA in American Studies and Spanish Literature and an MS in Elementary Education.

Elisabeth Ventling Simon

Elisabeth is Co-Founder and Head of Learning Experiences at inquirED. She is passionate about transforming education by empowering teachers. She worked in public education for over 16 years, where she saw a profound improvement in student achievement through project-based learning. In addition to working as a classroom teacher, Elisabeth has served as an instructional coach and professional development designer, focusing on the support of curriculum design and inquiry-based practices. Elisabeth joined the inquirED team in the fall of 2017, where she leads the development of culturally responsive, inquiry-based curriculum and professional learning experiences.


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