George Lucas Educational Foundation
Inquiry-Based Learning

Using Inquiry to Channel the Natural Curiosity of All Students

Elementary school social studies classes are a good time to guide students to ask important questions about the world.

June 14, 2022
Elementary student has a question in classroom
Drazen Zigic / iStock

Kids wonder about everything. If you’re an elementary school teacher, you undoubtedly fielded questions today such as “What’s for lunch?” and “How are caterpillars insects if they have so many legs?” Our students are naturally inquisitive and built for inquiry.

Using the inquiry method is engaging and full of opportunities. In addition to being developmentally appropriate, inquiry is at the heart of social studies standards in many states. Although teachers sometimes hesitate before implementing inquiry in their classrooms, inquiry is easy to implement in elementary school social studies classrooms.

How Does Inquiry Work? 

There are several models of inquiry. In social studies, the C3 Framework’s inquiry arc is particularly popular. It involves four dimensions: questioning, applying disciplinary concepts and tools, evaluating sources, and communicating conclusions and taking informed action. Each dimension fosters curiosity, flexibility, and independence, all of which are important for learning in and beyond social studies. 

Inquiry provides various inroads and opportunities for the variety of learners in your classroom. Thinking of inquiry through a universal design lens can facilitate for all students. To tailor your instruction, first consider your target outcomes for the inquiry. From there, you can modify your teaching and sharing of materials or how students take action and express their learning.

For example, to meet students where they are, you can substitute an audio text or text-to-voice technology for a written source, or you can support students to read with a partner or in a small group. You can also give students the choice to represent their learning in writing, orally, or pictorially. Many inquiries explicitly provide suggestions for multimodal formats. If you get stuck, consider browsing inquiries for younger grades to see what types of processes and tasks they are taking on and with what types of support. 

All Kids Have the Skills and Knowledge for Inquiry

Elementary teachers are excellent observers of their students and know it’s essential to meet them where they are in order to develop skills, content knowledge, and dispositions, all of which are aspects of inquiry. When we work with educators around inquiry, they are generally enthusiastic and in favor of inquiry-based practices in the abstract. It can be more difficult for them to envision inquiry in their own contexts, however. We often encounter resistance based on students’ skills, knowledge, and experience. We hear statements like “Inquiry is great, but I couldn’t do it with my kids because they’re so behind” and “My kids aren’t ready for that type of independence.” 

The good news is that inquiry is for all students, including those who are still building the skills that inquiry requires—perhaps even, and especially, for those kids because it provides so many opportunities to adjust instruction and scaffold learning. So if your students don’t yet have the skills they need, that’s OK. This is an opportunity to teach them in a motivating context. You can do so by embracing their questions, like “Why do we have to follow rules?” or “What does it mean to be a citizen?”

The power of student-generated questions is that they increase motivation to engage in productive struggle as students learn new skills like reading to understand a primary source; writing to complete a sentence, a paragraph, or a graphic organizer; or presenting one’s ideas to an audience in any number of multimodal ways. 

Inquiry Teaches Independence

Some teachers worry that their students aren’t independent enough to participate in inquiry. None of us wake up one morning independent; we learn to be independent. Independence is a skill that can and should be scaffolded for our young learners within the inquiry process. So if your students don’t yet have the skills they need, that’s OK. This is an opportunity to teach them in a motivating context. Many elementary educators use an “I do, we do, you do” model of instruction. 

As students learn content through inquiry, they also learn disciplinary and interdisciplinary skills. For example, rules are a key social studies concept in the elementary grades; a teacher could begin a study of the topic by prompting students with the question, “Why do we follow rules?” To make the exercise more concrete, teachers might ask specifically about rules for home, classrooms, or the playground. In each of these places, rules exist to keep people safe.

If students are not yet ready to brainstorm and record their own lists of ideas, the teacher might first model recording a few of their own ideas in response to the compelling question using shared writing (I do). This gives the teacher the opportunity to help students build literacy (i.e., composition, spelling, grammar) and inquiry skills (e.g., reflecting on social concerns, applying personal experience to broader concepts) as needed.

Following this experience, it may be that some students would benefit from working in a small group with the teacher (we do). This small group might explore various examples of rules from “Clear your dishes after dinner” to “No running in the hallway,” and share and debate their perspectives on them. This, again, builds overlapping literacy and inquiry skills in the form of making claims and supporting them with evidence. Exploring specific examples of rules that students experience in their everyday lives sets the stage for teachers to ask probing questions and further engage students in the inquiry process.

Students don’t always move through the full “I do, we do, you do” sequence in one lesson and may or may not make it to the “you do” stage of independent work. They may need more or less time in each stage, depending on which skills are being built and students’ previous experiences. Though pace and pathways may differ, all students can gain skills through repeated opportunities to engage in inquiry processes (e.g., asking questions, exploring evidence, making claims). These opportunities help students as they gradually move from more supportive (teacher-led) to less supportive (independent) practices of inquiry.

Most of us don’t have the vast knowledge base that it would take to answer the questions and curiosities that our students have about the world. The beauty of inquiry is that it gives teachers the opportunity to model leveraging skills for the authentic purpose of gaining knowledge and satisfying (or increasing) curiosities. In every classroom there are children who fall along a spectrum of skills and knowledge. Inquiry is for all of them.

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Filed Under

  • Inquiry-Based Learning
  • Social Studies/History
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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