Using Inquiry to Achieve Equity: Inquiry-Based Learning for Social Studies

Using Inquiry to Achieve Equity: Inquiry-Based Learning for Social Studies

Today more than ever social studies teachers have an opportunity. We have an opportunity, and an obligation, to provide our students not with static, one-dimensional content from a textbook, but rather content that will provide students with the disciplinary knowledge from multiple perspectives from all those that have contributed to our collective history. When teachers break away from the textbook, they can provide customized content to meet the needs of their students academically while also enhancing their critical thinking skills about the content. The zenith of this opportunity is when social studies teachers combine student choice, with literacy and deliver this content through inquiry-based instructional strategies.


Don’t Get Trapped by a Textbook!

small group activityThere is nothing better than walking into an engaged social studies classroom. I have yet to walk into a classroom of engaged social studies students when they are reading a textbook. Sure, textbooks have pictures and maps, and content that will allow you to get through the standards, but is that our goal as social studies teachers? If getting through the standards is your goal then we have missed that opportunity.

My students love it when I tell them at the beginning of the year that they don’t need to take their textbooks home. I have students keep their textbooks under their desks and we primarily use them to reference maps. In my classroom, students get individual readers to not only help with their content knowledge but also their literacy. In addition, I give them the freedom to research topics online. But before all that, the lesson starts by igniting that spark of interest and I achieve this spark through inquiry-based tasks in the classroom which not only increases the student’s level of thinking but also leads to a deep understanding of the topic.


What is Inquiry-Based Learning?

student with laptopInquiry-based learning is active learning. It allows the teacher to become the facilitator of the content rather than the deliverer of the content. Providing students with compelling questions rather than answers is the key to a successful inquiry-based learning model. One of my favorite quotes about inquiry learning comes from, The Synergy of Inquiry by Paul Jablon, “Every time you answer a student’s question you stop them from learning. The hardest part for a teacher in inquiry teaching and learning is to stop talking.” As the teacher, you simply provide students with the historical or social dilemma or scenario and allow students to explore and discover solutions.


Why use Inquiry-Based Learning in Social Studies?

Social studies is the perfect discipline for inquiry-based learning. Inquiry-based learning is relevant and applicable in all social studies disciplines. Whether you are an elementary school teacher teaching elementary economics, or a middle school teacher teaching national history, or a high school teacher teaching with Document-Based Questions the process of inquiry will work for you. It will allow students to become history detectives, amateur economists, budding geographers, and practicing political scientists.


For many social studies teachers, you may feel I am pointing out the obvious and you may already understand these aforementioned benefits of inquiry-based strategies in social studies. But I would like to expand beyond the obvious because inquiry-based instruction also offers an opening for equity!


Inquiry-Based Lessons and Equity

Equity in the classroom can mean different things to different people. I would like to focus on equity with the curriculum and resources we as social studies teachers choose to utilize. To have a truly equitable classroom the curriculum and resources must be inclusive of all perspectives and stories not just what is limited to the textbook. The resources you use for your social studies lesson should include the viewpoints of women, minorities, immigrants, the homeless or those living in poverty, and people with physical and mental disabilities as much as possible. The more students see themselves and their stories and even images reflected in the resources the more equitable you are making your lessons.


Practicing inquiry-based strategies to foster equity:

  • Give students choice and they will be more engaged.

    • Allow students to find their own materials, bring in numerous viewpoints, and accept different answers to questions.

    • Give students multiple ways of showing what they know through projects and presentations.

    • Let students chose who they will work with and chose specific roles in groups that play to their strengths.
  • Ask compelling and open-ended questions.

    • Questions should create opportunities for critical thinking and use evidence to support their thinking.

    • Use follow-up questions that are specific and align with the content.

    • Use a primary source so you don’t even need to ask the specific question, the source will elicit the question from the student.


  • Start with an activity that will initiate a question to stimulate student inquiry. Here are some activities to get you started:

    • The Guess Who Activity:teacher student who is raising their hands
      I start with a topic and put 5 to 10 pictures of different people up on a PowerPoint with no names. I have students try to identify who these people are or at least take some guesses as to who they may be. The next slide reveals their names and students get to see who guessed correctly. The next step is to allow some time for students to research a person of their choice. Then we come back as a class and students share what they discovered in their research and then we look for commonalities and try to identify the topic or subject for the unit or lesson. Here are a few examples I have used in class:

      • Revolutionary War People – to introduce the Revolutionary War

      • Entrepreneurs – to introduce any economic topic

      • Political Leaders (Past or Present) – to introduce community, government, leadership, etc.

      • Explorers (on one slide) Native Leaders (on the next slide) – exploration and age of “discovery”

NOTE: Keep equity in mind. The best time to use this activity is when you are trying to cover a basic standard, such as the Revolutionary War. The textbook will limit you to what and who they put in the book. This is your chance to fill in the gaps and provide multiple viewpoints from the various contributors in our collective history.

  • African American Boy with paper airplaneThe Build It First Activity:
    Start with a topic that has a connection to some simple activity that students can create. A paper airplane, a pendulum, a roller coaster, a house, or a bridge. There are potentially many others, just think creatively and think about what materials you have and what connections to topics you can make. Give each group the same materials to use and then have each group share their final product. Then look for the basic elements of the construction to connect the social studies topic. Here are a few examples I have used in class:
  • Pendulum – to introduce the Korean War – the back and forth and ending in the same place

  • Rollercoaster – to introduce the business cycle in economics

  • Bridge – to introduce community support and connectedness (note: I combine all the student bridges at the end to show the connectedness)

  • Paper Airplanes – to introduce inventors or the trial and error and experimentation needed to invent, success and failures, perseverance, etc.


students raising their handsWhat’s Next?

Inquiry-Based learning gives students agency over their learning and develops student-generated questioning skills. When educators apply active-learning techniques in social studies, students aren’t just students, they’re historians and researchers. For additional inquiry-based strategies, watch our free on-demand webinar.



In this webinar, participants will: 

  • Engage in active learning techniques to promote student-generated questioning.
  • Apply strategies to analyze any primary source to support inquiry-based learning.
  • Utilize student-centered techniques to build civic knowledge.
  • Apply learning from the past to today’s democratic society.

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Download this Essential Guide to Teaching Outside the Textbook to discover new approaches to teaching social studies that are more inclusive, relevant, and engaging.

Essential Guide to Teaching Outside the Textbook


Author bio

Marc Pioch

Marc Pioch, Assistant Principal at Da Vinci Connect, K-16

Marc Pioch is the Assistant Principal at Da Vinci Connect High School and Da Vinci Extension. Marc has 23 years of teaching experience and has taught a multitude of social science courses including World History, US History AP, Government AP, Economics, Geography, and Contemporary Issues. Marc also spent two years as a professor at USC’s Rossier School of Education teaching social studies methods in the master’s program. Additionally, Marc was an editor and contributing author to the second edition of Teaching Social Studies Today for Shell Education, a division of Teacher Created Materials (TCM). Marc is also an education consultant for TCM, where he provides professional development and training on TCM curriculum materials and Shell Education professional resources for school districts, teachers, and educational trainers across the content areas and grade levels.