Using Inquiry-Based Learning in Four Easy Steps

Students learn at a deeper level when they ask lots of questions, according to John Nabors, Studies Weekly product manager and former educator.

In a recent webinar, Nabors showed a graph that revealed that the older children get, the fewer questions they ask. He suggested this might be because children’s curiosity decreases as they learn more. But more likely, it is because of teaching strategies that don’t encourage students to ask questions.

“Giving students the opportunity to make inferences and opinions is key to creating a culture of inquiry in your classroom,” Nabors said. “Good questions will always lead to better questions. That is where they find the answers they seek. So invite your students to question everything. Don’t be afraid of their questions; embrace them.”

Inquiry-based learning — a strategy of letting students ask and answer questions — has proven to help students do better in science and math, according to Sarah Sparks in her Education Week article from October 2019. A different study, led by Sophie von Stumm, found that intellectual curiosity leads to greater academic performance.

Nabors encouraged educators to nurture students’ curiosity by following the same inquiry-based learning approach used to create Studies Weekly’s curriculum.

Compelling Question in Studies Weekly Social Studies Issue for Inquiry-Based Learning

Step 1: Define Compelling Questions

According to the National Council for Social Studies, compelling questions “focus on enduring issues and concerns. They deal with curiosities about how things work; interpretations and applications of disciplinary concepts; and unresolved issues that require students to construct arguments in response.”

“What I love about compelling questions is they have a lot of different answers,” Nabors said. “I’d tell my students, ‘You can’t be wrong when answering a compelling question so long as you can justify your answer. If you can do that, you’re right.’”

Before you ask students to come up with a compelling question, make sure you give them plenty of background information. Then, have them define their compelling question and explain why it matters.

The types of questions your students may come up with include:

  • Yes/No — e.g., Are laws always fair?
  • Evaluative — e.g., Was the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s successful?
  • Mystery — e.g., When did the Civil Rights Movement really begin?
  • Broad Brush — e.g., Does freedom mean equality?

Once students have their compelling questions, teach them how to make strong arguments. For elementary students, create “Make a Claim” formulas, such as:

  • “Based on _____, my claim is____.”
  • “I know ____ because ____.”

“Give them that structure so they can make claims about what they are studying,” Nabors said.

Step 2: Think of Supporting Questions

Teach students how to strengthen their arguments by thinking of and answering supporting questions.

As Nabors put it, “supporting questions are there to help our compelling question make sense.”

If students ask the compelling question, “Was the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s successful?” supporting questions might include:

  • “What laws changed as a result of the Civil Rights Movement?”
  • “How did it impact public education?”
  • “What signs of systemic racism do we see today?”

Answering these questions allows students to answer the first one in greater detail.

To help your students brainstorm supporting questions, have them write down one question from different standpoints. For example, how would a historian look at the Civil Rights Movement versus a political scientist, an economist, or geographer? What questions would they ask? This exercise produces more specific questions, broadens students’ perspectives, and propels them to dig deeper.

Step 3: Analyze and Evaluate Research

As students hunt for answers, show them how to analyze the sources they find.

“Teach students to look at the author and when a document was written,” Nabors said. “Then, students can look at the context: what else was going on when this was written? This helps students build a bigger picture.”

Analyzing sources also involves the four historical thinking skills from Stanford History Education Group:

  • Sourcing — looking into the origin of a source.
  • Contextualization — finding out the context of that source.
  • Close Reading — carefully considering what a source says.
  • Corroboration — finding similarities and differences between sources.

Developing these skills prepares your students to research more complicated subjects in the future.

Nabors recommends using the Fisher and Frey Text Dependent Question model to show students how to closely read and contextualize sources.

Step 4: Communicate Conclusions and Demonstrate Subject Mastery

After your students gain this wealth of knowledge, you may wonder, “Now what?”

Solidify your students’ knowledge by assigning them a performance task. You could ask them to create a tangible project, give a presentation, or perform an original piece in front of the class. By having your students incorporate what they’ve learned to complete an assignment, they will internalize their research on a deeper level.

Make sure you provide students with a rubric so they know what to focus on for their performance task. If you use Studies Weekly, each performance task in our curriculum comes with a ready-made rubric.

“When creating for inquiry, I think it is very important that the artifacts students create should not only build awareness but also inspire discussion,” Nabors said.

Prompt class discussions by having students give each other feedback as they work on their performance tasks.

Inquiry-Based Learning That Supports You

Regardless of which state you teach in, your criteria mostly likely involves these four pillars: standards, instructions, curriculum, and assessment.

“Inquiry is designed to connect and transcend all four of these areas,” Nabors said. “It will not take the place of your standards or your core instruction.”

Nabors also explained that inquiry-based learning does not do away with surface-level questions; those are still important, especially when teaching elementary students. But they’re only the tip of the iceberg.

“The student isn’t asking what they’re reading about or why it matters,” Nabors said. “They’re not getting a chance to ask questions, form opinions, or understand the author’s purpose.”

Use surface-level questions to introduce students to a topic. Then, build on that by guiding your students through the four stages of inquiry-based learning.

Empowering Your Students with Inquiry

With inquiry-based learning, you have an incredible opportunity to make a profound impact on your students by building and their self-confidence. They’ll see that they can find and fill information gaps, which helps them problem solve and create change.

“It was important in building this product to give kids an opportunity to see themselves making a difference,” Nabors said. “It’s not something other kids can do. They can do it too.”

Engage your students with inquiry-based learning in our K-5 curriculum.

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