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An inquirED Blog

What is Inquiry-Based Social Studies?

Updated: Dec 7, 2022

inquiry-based social studies
Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUImages

In inquiry-based social studies, students learn through investigation, similar to the kinds of investigation that happen in experiment-based science classes. Investigations start with a question that students explore as they learn. Then, they gather evidence from different sources to help them answer the question. Finally, they come to conclusions and share their findings with others.


Not Your Traditional Social Studies

Take a second to think about your past experiences 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, most people’s memories of social studies instruction include the following:

  • A teacher, standing in front of the classroom lecturing

  • A dusty, out-of-date (and expensive!) textbook

  • Worksheets and multiple-choice tests

Inquiry-based social studies turns the page on this traditional form of instruction in three key ways.

From Record-Keeping to Investigation

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. It’s good training for Final Jeopardy! but has little real-world value in the age of search engines. 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 social studies classes!).

In contrast, inquiry-based social studies begins with a complex and opened-ended inquiry question for students to explore. When students investigate this question, they 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 and interests – and because it has a real-world purpose: They use it to inform others, improve their community, or help set goals for the future.

Check out the short video below describing a third-grade inquiry-based unit to see what this looks like in action. For examples of the complex questions used in social studies inquiry, look at the examples used in Inquiry Journeys, inquirED's elementary social studies curriculum.

From Single to Varied Sources

Unlike traditional social studies instruction, in which a textbook or lecture is the main source of information, inquiry-based social studies guides students to investigate varied, diverse sources. It’s an important shift that supports investigation, builds future-ready skills, and helps to combat bias and issues of representation.

  • Supporting Investigation: Investigation can’t happen if you only have one source of information to examine. It’s bound to lead to misinformed conclusions. Inquiry-based social studies uses diverse primary and secondary sources across a range of media types to provide students with varied evidence, so they can reach informed conclusions.

  • Building Future-Ready Skills: Think about all the sources of information students have available to them: websites, videos, social media, and more. Students need to develop skills that help them sort through all these sources and analyze them for accuracy, credibility, and bias. That kind of practice can’t happen when students use a single textbook, so inquiry-based social studies provides varied and diverse sources to support students in building their source analysis skills.

  • Combatting Bias and Lack of Representation: When you rely on one source of information, it also means you are listening to one voice and seeing one perspective. In this scenario, individual bias is inevitable. Single sources have also typically excluded the voices and perspectives of historically marginalized groups, so their use can also continue harmful and discriminatory narratives. Inquiry-based social studies uses a variety of sources that offer multiple perspectives and integrate the voices of historically marginalized groups.

From Recall to Impact

After a unit of study in a traditional social studies classroom, students take a test to prove they can recall the right information. If they perform well, they get a good letter grade, then move on to the next unit and repeat the process. Is it any wonder that students in traditional social studies classes consistently rank it as their least favorite subject?

In inquiry-based social studies, however, the purpose of student learning is more than a single letter grade. Students use the knowledge and skills they have developed during their unit to create and share a project that has an audience and purpose outside of the classroom. Just take a look at an example from this 2nd Grade classroom, where students used their learning about economic needs and wants to successfully advocate for and create a community garden.

Preparing Students for Inquiry-Based Social Studies

Want to keep exploring inquiry-based social studies? The resources below will help you navigate the work of selecting a curriculum, build your background knowledge of inquiry-based unit design, and start you on the path of sharing your knowledge with others. Good luck on your journey!

inquirED's Curriculum Review Guide

Curriculum Review Guide

Providing 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.

inquiry unit design

Inquiry Unit Design

Designing an engaging Inquiry Unit requires a focus on questions, tasks, and sources. Read about the essentials of Inquiry Unit design, from crafting compelling questions to taking informed action.

What is inquiry in social studies?

Intro to Inquiry Slide Presentation

Use this slide presentation (along with the blog above) to help others understand the basics of inquiry-based social studies.


About InquirED

inquirED was founded by teachers to bring 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.

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