Whether this is your first fall in the social studies classroom or your twentieth, you’re likely looking for resources that will inspire curiosity, motivate discussion, and spark new ideas in your students. I find that inquiry-based instructional strategies are designed to do just that: they create an active and engaged classroom by offering a diverse set of learning opportunities designed to appeal to the varying learning styles of the students in your classroom.

The C3 (College, Career, and Civic Life) Framework has at its bedrock a focus on incorporating the inquiry-arc in the social studies classroom. The heart of framework focuses on how we should think about how students learn content. Inquiry is the shift from “studying” to “doing” social studies. Inquiry learning provides the opportunity for students to put on the lenses of a historian, geographer, economist, or political scientist to gain knowledge and deepen their understanding of the past and the world today.

Download a FREE Sample Lesson from our new K-5 myWorld Interactive Social Studies program:  Grade 2 Lesson Sample | Grade 5 Lesson Sample

You can bring exciting inquiry learning into your classroom with some key considerations and steps:

  1. Select a guiding or compelling question for your inquiry. Make sure it’s “sticky”. These questions are what Jacob’s calls the “mental velcro” that students use to grab the content. A good essential or compelling question will usually apply to multiple time periods, issues, or topics. Ex. “When is war justified? or “How do people get what they need?”
  2. Teach your students to ask questions. Thomas Berger, Pulitzer prize-winning novelist said, “the art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge.” Questions are the fuel upon which the inquiry engine drives.
  3. Provide touch points or “inquiry connections”  for your students to summarize and categorize their data along the way. Providing students with supporting questions and opportunities to process their learning, reaffirm their assertions, or redirect their inquiry are critical opportunities for clarification during the inquiry process.
  4. Provide a framework for students to communicate their findings through a relevant action or product that validates the inquiry.  Inquiry outcomes can take many forms such as multimedia projects, expository writings, projects, or some real-life opportunity to take informed action on an issue or topic.
  5. Support students in active reflection during and after their inquiry learning process. This is an important stage for students to think about the process of inquiry and how to refine their approach or build skills for future opportunities. Students can also reflect on transferrable, 21st century skills they may have exercised during the inquiry like working in teams, meeting deadlines, or applying a new technology skill.

Pearson’s K-12 social studies programs integrate a similar teaching and learning cycle that incorporates an inquiry mindset in your daily instruction and provides larger inquiry projects that include Project-Based Learning, Collaborative Civic Discussions, and Writing From Sources or DBQs (Document Based Questions). The programs encourage students to Connect, Investigate, Synthesize, and Demonstrate.


No matter what grade level you teach, these strategies are intended to create continuity and foster connections to your content area for your students. Listed below are some great examples of  inquiry learning ideas to use in the K-12 classroom.

Grades K-5:

Introduce inquiry-based instruction to your classroom by encouraging your students to examine something they experience every day: their community. C3 Teachers’ Community History lesson gives your students the opportunity to consider what it means to be part of a community and explore how their community impacts each of them individually and as a group. For students in older grades, you can ask them to define what “community” means to them before they design their own self-directed inquiry project.

View sample lesson for Community History .

Download a FREE Sample Lesson from our new K-5 myWorld Interactive Social Studies program:  Grade 2 Lesson Sample | Grade 5 Lesson Sample 

Grades 6-8:

As students enter middle school, their curiosity extends to the past — and its implications on their present and future.  Students can start to consider the meanings of fair and equal. Can FAIR and EQUAL be applied to all situations? Students will examine text and images related to these key concepts as they learn about the the structure of modern European governments and their relationships within the European Union.

View sample lesson for European Union–Is Equal Always Fair?

Grades 9-12:

For older students, educators can help their students expand their understanding of the concepts of community and national history by unpacking the considerably more complicated saga of civil rights in America.

View sample lesson for Civil Rights

Students will evaluate the effectiveness of citizen-based and institutional action in addressing social and political problems at the local, state, tribal, national, and/or international level.

View sample lesson for What Makes A Movement Successful?

Students will use social science skills to understand civil liberties and civil rights as they relate to the accused.

View sample lesson for What Rights Should the Accused Have?

I hope these resources resonate with you and your colleagues and collaborators, inspiring you to try inquiry-based strategies in your classroom. If you’re interested in additional resources and lessons along these lines, check out Pearson’s Social Studies Learning Resources and C3 Teachers: College, Career & Civic Life.

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Keishla Ceaser-Jones

Keishla Ceaser-Jones

Humanities Specialist

Note: Fresh Ideas for Teaching blog contributors have been compensated for sharing personal teaching experiences on our blog. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.