What does inquiry look like?  Though often used, “inquiry” can be a fuzzy ideal.   With the publication of the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for State Social Studies Standards (National Council for the Social Studies, 2013), inquiry discussions and initiatives are trending right now in social studies.  My colleagues, S.G. Grant (Binghamton University) and John Lee (North Carolina State University) have worked since the publication of the C3 Framework to make inquiry more accessible for teachers through the development of the Inquiry Design ModelTM (IDM).

IDM is a distinctive approach to creating instructional materials that honors teachers’ knowledge and expertise, avoids over-prescription, and focuses on the key elements of envisioned in the C3 Inquiry Arc. Unique to the IDM is the blueprint TM, a one-page presentation of the questions, tasks, and sources that define a curricular inquiry (Grant, Swan & Lee, 2017; Swan, Grant & Lee, 2015). The blueprint offers a visual snapshot of an entire inquiry such that the individual components and the relationship among the components can all be seen at once.

Request a sample of the Savvas K-8 myWorld Interactive Social Studies solution today. 

Request a sample of Savvas High School Social Studies solutions today.

Questions initiate and sustain inquiry, and two types of questions – compelling questions and supporting questions – give shape to an inquiry. Compelling questions address issues found in and across the academic disciplines of American history, civics and government, and geography that make up social studies, but they also reflect the interests of students and the content with which students may have little experience. Supporting questions scaffold the necessary knowledge and insights behind a compelling question; these questions focus on descriptions, definitions, and processes, which assist students to construct explanations that advance the inquiry.

Tasks provide pedagogical structure to, and an opportunity for assessment in, an inquiry. Formative performance tasks are learning exercises designed to help students practice the skills and build the content knowledge needed to perform well on the summative task, an evidence-based argument. These tasks are built around the supporting questions and are intended to grow in cognitive sophistication. The performance tasks threaded throughout the inquiry provide teachers with multiple opportunities to evaluate what students know and are able to do so that teachers have a steady loop of data to inform their instructional decision-making. Each inquiry ends with a summative performance task in which students construct an argument (e.g., detailed outline, drawing, essay) that addresses the compelling question using specific claims and relevant evidence from sources while acknowledging competing views.

Sources round out the Inquiry Design Model. Originating from the disciplines of American history, civics and government, and geography that make up social studies, sources help students build their understandings of the compelling and supporting questions and practice the work of historians and social scientists. To that end, sources can be used toward three distinct, but mutually reinforcing purposes: a) to generate students’ curiosity and interest in the topic, b) to build students’ content knowledge, and c) to help students construct and support their arguments related to a compelling question.

The IDM blueprint offers a visual snapshot of an entire curriculum inquiry such that the individual components and the relationship among the components can all be seen at once. As such, the IDM blueprint illustrates the following elements necessary to support students as they address a compelling question using disciplinary sources in a thoughtful and informed fashion:

  • Standards (relevant state standards anchor the content of the inquiry);
  • Compelling questions (frame the inquiry);
  • Staging the compelling question tasks (create interest in the inquiry);
  • Supporting questions (develop the key content);
  • Formative performance tasks (demonstrate emerging understandings);
  • Featured sources (provide opportunities to generate curiosity, build knowledge, and construct arguments);
  • Summative performance tasks (demonstrate evidence-based arguments);
  • Summative extensions (offer assessment flexibility);
  • Taking informed action exercises (promote opportunities for hands-on civic engagement activities).

Consider a second-grade inquiry example from C3 Teachers (c3teachers.org), our website for IDM inquiries. The blueprint for this inquiry highlights the compelling and supporting questions that frame and organize this inquiry; the formative and summative assessment tasks that provide opportunities for students to demonstrate and apply their understandings; and, the disciplinary sources that allow students to practice disciplinary thinking and reasoning (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Civics Inquiry—2nd Grade:

In this example, the compelling question—Do we have to have rules?—asks students to examine the relationship between rules and values as well as the role that rules play in maintaining a civil society. This question acknowledges outright that many students wonder about their roles in and responsibility for rule making. It gives voice to their legitimate concerns about the source of rules, the benefits of following them, and the consequences of not doing so. This inquiry taps into a common set of ideas that students have about the authority of rules and validates their honest hesitancy to follow rules simply because they are told to do so. Students learn that there is a key relationship between what we value and the rules we develop, follow, and enforce. Rules and laws are intended to express the shared values of a community, acting as statutes to uphold and protect such principles as fairness, equality, respect, and safety.

In this inquiry, the supporting questions sequence as:

  • SQ1: What are my values and how do I show them?
  • SQ2: Can we make classroom rules that reflect our values?
  • SQ3: What would happen if we did not have rules?

The IDM blueprint requires teacher expertise and individual craft to fully come to life.

To underscore this point, IDM inquiries on the C3 Teachers website (https://www.c3teachers.org/inquiries) are available as both PDF and Word documents so that teachers can adapt and improve the inquiries for their particular classroom contexts.

In the Rules inquiry, the formative performance tasks provide opportunities to develop the knowledge (e.g., the relationship between values and rules) and practice the skills (e.g., analyzing sources and supporting claims with evidence) necessary to construct a coherent, evidence-based argument. The formative tasks sequence in the following way:

  1. List examples of values and explain how we show our values.
  2. Categorize values and establish a set of classroom rules.
  3. Create a two-sided argument chart with reasons for and against having rules.

Formative performance tasks are purposeful exercises designed to support student growth and success as they engage the summative argument task and answer the question, Do we have to have rules? Reflecting the purpose and structure of the summative and formative performance tasks, summative extension exercises offer alternatives through which students may express their arguments. For example, in the Rules inquiry, students have the opportunity to write a letter to a younger student who wonders why rules exist.

Taking informed action opportunities are included in every inquiry as a way to extend the student’s arguments into present day civic conversations. In the Rules inquiry, taking informed action is expressed as three steps at the conclusion of the inquiry:

  • UNDERSTAND Review the school rules in light of whether they reflect all students’ values.
  • ASSESS Discuss any rules that do not reflect the class values and consider whether there are alternative rules that would be more satisfactory.
  • ACT Write a letter to the school principal requesting a meeting to discuss any rules that could be revised.

The variety of tasks offered within the IDM blueprint allow students to surface their content knowledge, to synthesize that knowledge by constructing an evidenced-based argument, and to extend and apply that knowledge through a variety of means.

Sources complete the IDM blueprint. The Rules inquiry includes six different sources, including the parts of the image banks, excerpt from the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), and two newspaper articles. Students read these sources closely, mining them for evidence to answer the inquiry’s central question, Do we have to have rules?

Of course, we like our model for designing inquiry but recognize that inquiry has been around a long time.  Think John Dewey!  We also know that there are other great curricular resources that help teachers do inquiry.  We hope that our work around IDM allows teachers to have a framework for evaluating inquiry-based curriculum by using the elements of questions, tasks, and sources as a framework for doing so.

Request a sample of the Savvas K-8 myWorld Interactive Social Studies solution today. 

Request a sample of Savvas High School Social Studies solutions today.

For example, when looking at Savvas Learning Company’s recently published Quests, we see a compelling question that anchors the investigations.  In the 5th Grade Government Quest, students examine the question: What makes government work?  Through a series of formative activities, students explore the question.  Students learn about the three branches of government through an examination of the Constitution and they explore primary source documents that uncover the foundations of our democracy.  Ultimately, students are asked to answer the question by presenting to an audience their findings.

Although set up slightly differently than IDM, the Quests are anchored in questions, tasks, and sources that are the foundational elements of inquiry.  As you explore other curricular resources, you might consider using this framework as you bring inquiry into focus for your classroom!

If you would like to see additional IDM inquiries and resources, please visit our website C3 Teachers (c3teachers.org).  We would love to hear from you.


Grant, S. G., Swan, K., & Lee, J. (2017). Inquiry-based practice in social studies education: Understanding the Inquiry Design Model. New York: Routledge and C3 Teachers.

National Council for the Social Studies. (2013). The college, career, and civic life (C3) framework for       social studies state standards: Guidance for enhancing the rigor of K-12 civics, economics,    geography, and history. Silver Spring, MD: Author.

Swan, K., Lee, J., & Grant, S. G. (2015). The New York State toolkit and the inquiry design model: Anatomy of an inquiry. Social Education, 79(5), 316-322.

Share This

Kathy Swan

Kathy Swan

Social Studies Author

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.