Social Studies

What Is Inquiry-Based Learning in Social Studies?

7 Min Read
What Is Inquiry-Based Learning in Social Studies

Definition of Inquiry-Based Learning for Social Studies

Students are naturally curious. Inquiry-based learning (or IBL) empowers students to ask questions and investigate the answers, which can create a more fulfilling learning experience. Researchers Michiel Voet and Bram De Wever provide a detailed definition of inquiry-based learning for social studies: IBL supports students in investigations that emphasize posing questions, gathering and analyzing data, and contrasting evidence-based arguments, and teachers help to facilitate learning while providing support along the way.

According to the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS), the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards is in place to help states progress their social studies standards. The Inquiry Arc, which is central to the C3 Framework, consists of the following four dimensions:

  • Developing questions and planning inquiries
  • Applying disciplinary tools and concepts
  • Evaluating sources and using evidence
  • Communicating conclusions and taking informed action

As described in this blog, there are four levels of inquiry-based learning in social studies: confirmation, structured, guided, and open inquiry. Guided and open inquiries allow students to be more independent than confirmation or structured inquiries. According to Heather Banchi and Randy Bell, guided inquiries let students investigate a teacher-presented question using procedures designed or selected by students. And open inquiries let students investigate questions they formulated themselves using procedures they designed or selected; teachers provide input to ensure the questions and procedures are appropriate.

Benefits of Inquiry-Based Learning in Social Studies

Inquiry-based learning sparks curiosity in students by having them investigate topics based on their interests, but the benefits of IBL extend beyond inspiration. The benefits of IBL also include the following:

Develops Critical Thinking Skills

IBL develops critical thinking skills in students. For example, an inquiry-based task might require students to complete the inquiry process by submitting their written findings after an investigation. Through this writing activity, students analyze and cite primary sources, similar to a historian, and present their findings to display a deeper understanding of an essential social studies question. Even if the task doesn’t require analyzing primary sources, it will, nevertheless, develop critical thinking skills essential to success in school and civic life.

Deepens Understanding of Social Studies Topics

Learning by listening to a teacher, reading materials, and studying key facts and terminology can support students in their learning. However, thorough investigating helps students understand topics they’re learning more in-depth. Allowing students to investigate primary sources, engage in research, and present their learning to their peers and teachers could help them forge a deeper understanding of the topic at hand.

Supports Differentiation in the Classroom

IBL in social studies provides various opportunities for differentiation. Teachers can provide multiple ways for students to explore inquiries, and what the student chooses can be guided by what specific inquiry they’re exploring. For example, students can analyze documents, videos, or audio. There can be differentiation in the assessment, too. For example, students can present the conclusions of their investigations and evidence through an expository writing assignment or a presentation using technology.

What’s the Inquiry-Based Design Model in Social Studies?

The inquiry-based design model is central to the C3 Framework. This model, according to research from 2020, features the following:

  • Inquires developed by teachers for students
  • Compelling questions for students to answer through scaffolded learning experiences
  • Specific standards from the C3 Framework
  • Supporting questions aligned with the compelling questions
  • Inquiries that can be explored for one day and up to several weeks

The model also includes formative performance tasks that students complete during the exploration phase and teachers use to check for student knowledge. Additionally, featured sources can guide students in answering inquiries.

The NCSS provides resources to teachers using the C3 framework, such as the guide Inquiry Design Model: Building Inquiries in Social Studies and a free downloadable resource that addresses different components to consider when implementing inquiry-based learning in your classroom. The resource provides a framework to think about compelling questions, staging the questions, supporting questions, standards and practices, formative and summative performance tasks, featured sources, and taking informed action.

What Are Examples of Inquiry-Based Learning in Social Studies?

IBL in the social studies classroom can take on many forms and can apply to students conducting investigations independently or in small or large groups. One common way to showcase inquiry-based learning in social studies is with an arts and crafts project. Students might research social studies topics they want to learn more about and create posters, bulletin boards, paintings, and other visuals to display their learning. In one of our Juneteenth activities, for instance, students plan a learning fair to explain why it’s important to celebrate the holiday. An activity like this could be used to explain how and why it’s vital to commemorate other past events.

Often, IBL results in a writing assignment where students explore inquiries through document-based investigations and writing tasks. For example, HMH Social Studies students who have access to Writable complete the inquiry process through evidence-based writing assignments, such as writing an organized essay using evidence from primary sources.

Teachers can tailor inquiry-based tasks based on students’ interests. For example, if a student is passionate about basketball, that passion can be explored with inquiries that address why the sport developed or how fandoms differ around the country. No matter what, inquiries involve students researching questions, analyzing sources, and presenting their learning.

In the video below, one teacher explains how her students analyze primary source documents, such as political cartoons, speeches, and other artifacts from the past, to learn about the Progressive Era and the reformers that helped to change American society. Her students use graphic organizers to collect data that support them in forming a thesis statement.

How to Develop Inquiry Questions for Social Studies

Researchers S.G. Grant, Kathy Swan, and John Lee give a name to well-formed inquiry questions: compelling questions. These questions serve as the foundation of the inquiry design model. They must address problems and issues found across social studies subdisciplines and appeal to students’ interests. These questions should also connect to social studies standards and the current unit that’s being studied in class. Compelling questions must fulfill the following two criteria:

  • Must contain academic value and address important ideas and issues worth examining
  • Must be relevant to students’ lives

Compelling questions help frame inquiries, and supporting questions make compelling questions more actionable, provide structure to inquiries, and offer an idea of the knowledge needed to answer compelling questions.

Inquiry-Based Social Studies Lessons

Social studies inquiry-based lessons can take many different forms and provide a way for teachers to integrate IBL into their classrooms, even if it’s only in the course of a single day’s lesson. These activities could also take as long as several weeks. In this section, we’ll explore two social studies inquiry questions. These examples of inquiry-based questions are appealing to students, simple enough for students to grasp, and complex enough to explore over time.

Activity 1: What Can a Map Tell Us about a Place?

Maps can tell us much about a place, such as the size of a country in relation to other countries or the water bodies and landforms located in a particular location. In this activity, students investigate what a map can tell us about Timbuktu, a city in Mali, Africa. Teachers ask students, “Why does the name Timbuktu sound familiar?” Then, students study a map of West Africa featuring Timbuktu in relation to other African countries and cities to determine clues that might reveal the importance of Timbuktu based on its location.

Activity 2: What Events Led to the United States’ Declaration of War on Japan?

War is a common topic studied in social studies. War and conflict have shaped so much of the world as we know it today, and students might wonder what leads to these events. By the end of this activity, students will know what caused the United States to declare war on Japan, which officially launched the United States into World War II. Students study a primary source, Roosevelt’s “Request for a Declaration of War.”

Developing Inquiry-Based Social Studies Lesson Plans

Social studies inquiry-based lesson plans can follow the inquiry design model as discussed earlier in the article. When developing inquiry-based lesson plans, consider these steps:

  • Select a Compelling Question
  • Connect the Question to Standards
  • Stage the Question
  • Help Students Communicate Their Findings
  • Reflect on Learning

The power IBL has to engage students and develop critical thinking skills is undeniable. Creating an environment where students feel comfortable asking questions, sharing their ideas, and making mistakes ensures the success of inquiry-based learning in the classroom.


Share your examples of inquiry-based learning in social studies with us at or reach out on Twitter (@HMHCo) or Facebook.

Looking for inquiry-based social studies lessons for your classroom? Immerse students in history with an inquiry-based social studies program for Grades 6–12.

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