Teaching Social Studies = Inquiry (C3 + ?)

The New York State K-12 Social Studies Field Guide was released last week and the idea of inquiry is a prominent feature of the document, especially as it defined in the C3 Framework. In fact the word “inquiry” or “inquiries” is used 32 times in the Field Guide! Inquiry and research also figure prominently in the Common Core Literacy Standards for Writing. So what are we talking about when we discuss inquiry in the social studies classroom? What does it look like? What does it mean for teachers? One of the C3 Framework’s Senior Advisors and Contributing Writers, S.G. Grant offers his thinking on that topic. (Grant 2013) Let’s see what he has to say…

First, some background: What is the Inquiry Arc? The C3 Framework defines the Inquiry Arc as “a set of interlocking and mutually reinforcing elements…that speak to the intersection of ideas and learners.”

The four dimensions of the Inquiry Arc are:

  1. Developing questions and planning inquiries;
  2. Applying disciplinary concepts and tools;
  3. Evaluating sources and using evidence; and
  4. Communicating conclusions and taking informed action. (National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) 2013)

So what does that mean for the classroom teacher? Grant suggests that the Inquiry Arc can be used by teachers to develop lessons and units that focus on compelling and supporting questions to engage students and drive instruction. In Grant’s opinion, “Teaching through an inquiry approach demands the skilled use of questions to frame units of study and to develop the necessary scaffolding so that even young children can examine issues of substance and interest.” (Grant 2013)

If we place inquiry at the heart of social studies instruction, Grant proposes that teachers who want to dig deeply into an inquiry approach with their students need to consider six inter-related elements:

  1. Questions matter. Successful inquiry is based on developing compelling and supporting questions. Compelling questions are both intellectually “meaty” and student-friendly. They need to deal enduring issues that are also interesting and engaging for students. Supporting questions scaffold students’ understandings and knowledge that lead to forming an argument about the compelling question. These are not questions that check for understanding, but questions that help students build conceptual knowledge in social studies.
  2. Students’ questions matter. Questions are most often posed by teachers, but we must think about handing the responsibility for crafting compelling questions to our students. Teachers need to help students develop the skill of asking good, developmentally appropriate questions, not just answering
  3. Language matters. Teachers need to help their students not only build their understanding of the language of inquiry and questioning in social studies, but they must support students in expressing their ideas and questions in discussions and in writing. We cannot assume that students understand the concepts and discipline-specific words we are using, we must anticipate the words that they will struggle with and teach them explicitly, so that students can use them to communicate their ideas about the compelling questions.
  4. Resources matter. Students bring their life experiences into the classroom to help them build understanding of social studies. For those students whose life experiences are limited, teachers need access to high quality resources to help students construct those connections.
  5. Writing matters. We know that research, analysis and argument are essential to the discipline of social studies and writing is the medium of communication for both teachers and students. Students must learn to write well and teachers must understand how to teach writing well.
  6. Trust matters. Inquiry involves an element of risk. When teachers and students begin an inquiry, there is no predetermined path, no foregone conclusions. Mistakes and missteps need to be seen as opportunities for learning rather than terminal judgment. Students and teachers must operate in environments where risk is encouraged and supported and where learning from success and failure is the norm. (Grant 2013)

Inquiry is at the heart of the new K-12 Social Studies Framework, the C3 Framework, and the Common Core Learning Standards. This is 21st century teaching and learning that involves an emphasis on compelling questions, student engagement and participation, writing and a growth-mindset. How will you incorporate these in your classroom?

To help support teachers and administrators grasp the shift to inquiry that is embedded in the new Social Studies Framework, we have established the Social Studies Leadership Network. The Network meets monthly to share information, to think strategically about the changes in social studies and to explore how we can best approach these with a willingness to “have a go”. Social Studies LogoCheck out the OCM BOCES Social Studies page for information about this and other social studies events and resources





Grant, S.G. “From Inquiry Arc to Instructional Practice: The Potential of the C3 Framework.” Social Eudcation, November/December 2013: xvii-xx.

National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards: Guidance for Enhyancing the Rigor of K-12 Civics, Economics, Geograpy, and History. Silver Spring, MD: National Council for the Social Studies, 2013.

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