Strengthening Civics Education With an Inquiry-Based Approach
By letting students drive the conversation, schools can prepare them for a lifetime of civic participation.
Take a moment to consider how much you’ve really thought about the U.S. Constitution—a document that informs and influences a surprisingly large aspect of our lives. I teach middle school social studies, so I’ve spent a considerable amount of time thinking about it. But many adults rarely ask themselves why we need three branches of government, what would happen if we rewrote the Constitution today, or even how the amendments impact their own lives.
When students enter middle school, these concepts are almost totally alien. Yet, I didn’t come up with the fascinating constitutional questions I just listed—which no doubt keep many lawyers busy—and I didn’t pluck them from a textbook either. My seventh-grade students wrote them after a foray into inquiry-based learning, a pedagogical process that prizes curiosity and critical thinking. Through it, these students have taught themselves more than any textbook could.
Inquiry-Based Learning and the Civics Classroom
Inquiry-based learning doesn’t put much stock in teacher lectures or worksheets, but instead it uses exploration and student agency to drive classroom routines and activities. Covering material is emphasized to a lesser extent than honing student curiosity, resourcefulness, and problem-solving skills.
This technique is particularly suited for the social studies classroom, since it teaches students how to interpret primary sources and engage in debate, rather than simply memorizing facts. Leading educational organizations, including the National Council for Social Studies and Educating for American Democracy, have placed inquiry at the heart of effective pedagogical approaches to teaching history and civics. Indeed, research shows that youth engagement in civics correlates with the depth and quality of the civic education that students receive. In short, when we equip our students with quality education in civics and history, we prepare them better to preserve and uphold the ideals of democracy.
Curricular Inquiry as a Framework for Inquiry-Based Learning
As I brainstormed ways to revise my introductory unit to the U.S. Constitution, I decided to adopt Stephanie Harvey and Harvey “Smokey” Daniels’s Curricular Inquiry Framework, an approach they outline in their book, Comprehension and Collaboration. Specifically, I was looking for a way to emphasize student voice and choice in a unit that had been more teacher-led and, therefore, less engaging for students than I had hoped.
The Curricular Inquiry Framework necessitates a slower pace, giving students ample time to devise questions, investigate, and eventually take action, while equipping them with the critical investigation skills needed to participate in our democratic process.
Following Harvey and Daniels’s model, I broke the curricular inquiry down into four phases, which we called “immerse,” “investigate,” “coalesce,” and “go public.” Here’s a snapshot of how each phase looks.
Immerse: In this phase, students dive deep into the topic, reading and researching whatever they can. They are given time and space to explore and develop their curiosity about the subject.
I began by gathering resources related to the Constitution. I wanted students to walk away with a basic understanding of the values and ideals present in a constitutional democracy, so I found print and online resources that explored both the Constitution and how it’s shaped and reflected our government and society throughout the ages.
I was pleasantly surprised by how excited my students were to be given the freedom to simply explore at their own pace. During the two class periods that students immersed themselves in this topic, I also tasked them with formulating at least 15 questions that arose as they read, listened, and watched. I took some time to coach students on the value of rich questions and how to transform a question from basic to researchable.
Investigate: Here students work together to formulate an inquiry that will guide them through the research process—and start to find answers to their questions.
After each student had their list of questions, it was time to let the collaboration begin. Divided into groups, students wrote their questions on individual sticky notes and placed them on a large shared piece of butcher paper. I saw students ask thoughtful, mature questions, such as “Did the Founding Fathers promise liberty for all, or just for some?” and “How have we made changes to the Constitution over time?”
With their wonderings pooled, each group began to narrow down their collective questions to the one that would become the subject of their respective research. Students quickly began to peel off the questions that were either too obvious and would therefore not lead to a worthwhile inquiry or too hypothetical, so that there was no clear path for investigation. Once each group had selected and tweaked a guiding inquiry, they began the research that would eventually become the subject of their presentation.
Coalesce: Team members collaborate to refine and share their findings. They formulate a plan to present their work.
This third phase of the inquiry process called on students to establish group expectations, devise a timeline, and divvy up tasks. Their assignment was to create a poster that presented their inquiry question and the conclusions they’d reached in a compelling and easy-to-understand way. The idea was that students would be contributing to the wider community’s awareness of civics by displaying their posters throughout the school. It was up to the students to consider how to present their inquiry, the results, and any further questions that arose as they completed their work. My role in the classroom quickly transformed into that of a coach, helping groups overcome challenges, refine their questions, and brainstorm ways to engage their audience.
Go public: Finally, students share their work with community members. This last phase can be framed as a pathway for student activism and contribution to a wider community.
By the final phase, it was clear that my students had taken ownership of their learning. What stood out to me most was that they could reflect on the process of inquiry. They were not fed information to simply transmit. Rather, they were genuinely curious to find the answers to the questions they had generated.
As a result, they confidently guided their school community through their complex inquiries, highlighting both the need-to-know facts and the nuances and tensions inherent in the study of the Constitution. Students recognized that while the framers of the Constitution strove to grant freedom to the citizens of their young nation, it would take decades for political rights to be extended to many living in the U.S. Realities such as this allowed students to grapple with the ideals and contradictions present in any study of our nation’s past.
Reflecting on this process, I found that when I flipped my approach to teaching and allowed student curiosity to drive learning, not only did I cover roughly the same amount of curriculum, but my students were more in control of the knowledge they acquired and, therefore, more invested in it. I can’t think of a better civics—or life—lesson than that.