Inspiring Student Engagement: An Inquiry-Based Approach

Inspiring Student Engagement: An Inquiry-Based Approach

As a past social studies teacher and current content specialist, I hear a couple different responses when I tell people what I do for a living. There are occasional comments like, "I loved history in high school. I had such a great teacher." But more often, I hear people say, "No offense, but I hated history in high school!"

The difference in such experiences is clear: engagement. How can we ensure students in our district are engaged? That twenty years from now, they'll still be enthusiastic about their experiences as a social studies student? I'd argue that the key ingredient in increasing engagement is an infusion of inquiry. And that means ensuring our teachers can confidently apply an inquiry-based approach in their classroom.

Many social studies teachers find that there is a lot of curriculum to "cover" and not enough time in the semester to help students truly question the material with curiosity. Sometimes, there's a concern that making space for questions will require too much time and keep the class from staying on schedule to reach targeted learning outcomes. But the problem with "covering" information is that it limits student engagement and doesn't allow students to follow their curiosity, develop a deeper knowledge, or strengthen skills.

The alternative to "covering" social studies content lies in using an inquiry-based approach to teach it. The benefits far outweigh the challenges; when teachers craft questions that are thoughtful and intentional, and teach students to do the same, those students can take charge of their learning, engage with subjects at a deeper level, and develop skills for success both in the classroom as well as after high school. As district leaders, we can provide our teachers with training and support in inquiry by showing them how to increase student engagement in their courses without engaging in a curriculum overhaul or falling behind schedule.

The Challenges of Adopting Skills-Based Standards

Our district's commitment to bringing inquiry into our social studies instruction began with the revision of our state standards. Starting around 2015, states across the nation including Connecticut, Oklahoma, and Arizona, began adopting new standards after determining that more should be expected of students in their social studies classes. Many of these new state standards included the development of key skills, including the ability to analyze a text, compare perspectives, and contextualize primary sources. Arizona's new Disciplinary Skills and Process Anchor Standards in particular were crafted to be supported by an inquiry arc comprised of six components (developing compelling questions; constructing supporting questions; gathering and evaluating sources; developing claims; communicating conclusions; and, taking informed action) (Arizona Department of Education 2018).

As a district supervisor, I was tasked with developing and implementing new curriculum based on the new standards, and it quickly became clear that many teachers were concerned about implementing them effectively. This was understandable; some teachers questioned how to fully use the curriculum, some still needed to attain the required skills, and some felt that adjusting to the new expectations would require too much sheer work. To facilitate its implementation, I defined three clear goals: 1) to help my teachers understand how to use the curriculum, 2) to show them how to implement it without inflating their workload, and 3) to provide training that would ensure they felt comfortable in their knowledge of the new skills they'd be teaching.

1. Helping Instructors Unpack the Standards and the Language of Inquiry

In Arizona, the new standards required teachers to transition from instruction centered around content delivery to instruction focused on skill development. To accomplish this, I worked with our Local Education Agency—teachers selected from the school district and divided up into content-specific teams—to develop a plan that would bring inquiry into our curriculum, embracing the notion that teaching through inquiry will help teachers successfully meet the new social studies requirements.

A fundamental part of the inquiry process is developing compelling questions; to create effective compelling questions, teachers needed a clear understanding of the standards-based student learning targets in our unit plans. So, the first step of implementation was to teach instructors how to unpack the standards and Student Learning Targets themselves.

The unpacking process revealed the specific skills and content knowledge for students by examining the language in the standards themselves (see Figure 1). The verbs highlighted the skills and the nouns clarified the extent of the content knowledge.

Fig. 1


I can analyze the origins, resistance, and legacy of slavery in America.


"Analyze" (the skill action students will develop)

Nouns/Noun Phrases:

"Origins, resistance, legacy of slavery in America" (the content to be analyzed)

Teachers, in their Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), use the context of the time period being taught in the curriculum along with other curriculum resources to determine what students need to know and be able to do based on the Student Learning Target or Standard.

This type of breakdown was effective in helping teachers understand the standards more clearly and consider how existing curriculum might be repositioned using an inquiry approach to directly address these skills-based objectives.

2. Bite-Sized Approaches for Inquiry

Instead of implementing a specific inquiry model, we elected to take a bite-sized approach. We worked to fit inquiry into our existing curriculum. To provide that support, I created opportunities for teachers to utilize inquiry in their teaching.

First, curriculum teams created resources that were tightly aligned to specific Student Learning Targets (SLTs) that both modeled what inquiry looks like and provided quality resources that would develop skills and content knowledge. For example: in a unit about the American Revolution, we selected an ABC-CLIO activity that posed the question "How did British economic policies provoke the American Revolution?" We linked the activity to the corresponding SLT to show teachers how it could help them both meet the required standard and give students room to explore the topic and strengthen critical thinking skills (see Figure 2).

Next, the district subscribed to digital resources that provide primary and secondary resources, along with inquiry questions and activities. From these materials, I selected specific resources that were tightly aligned to specific SLTs in the curriculum unit plans and embedded the aligned resources within plans through hyperlinks. This enabled PLCs to easily access resources that would give students the opportunity to learn through inquiry without overhauling their entire curriculum.

Third, to further promote the need for inquiry, our curriculum teams developed district benchmark assessments that would require both skills and content knowledge. These benchmark assessments are used as formative assessments. PLCs are encouraged to use them as planning tools; when PLC members work together to unpack the benchmark assessment, they can clearly identify the skills that will be measured and create a plan to scaffold the skill development. Then, they can use the data from the benchmark assessment to determine student proficiency and further planning for skill development.

3. Connecting Teachers with the Right Training

While unpacking standards and inquiry-based resources with teachers was helpful, more training was necessary to help instructors successfully embrace the new standards with an inquiry approach; the first step was to conduct monthly meetings with the department instructional leaders.

In these meetings, we spent time exploring new and creative ways to integrate inquiry into the curriculum. (For example: in an American History unit on the Great Depression, we explored possible primary sources that would introduce new perspectives, enabling students to consider the era through the lenses of men, women, children, African Americans, and Latino Americans, to see what new questions might arise.) After these meetings, the instructional leaders could bring new strategies back to the teachers in their department. These meetings proved so valuable that we still conduct them.

In addition, we took (and still take) advantage of the professional development provided by the companies to which we subscribe for additional training on how to use their inquiry resources. And after any formal training, I make it a priority to meet with individual teachers in their departments or PLCs, to celebrate their well-earned successes as they continue to implement inquiry, and offer specific support for their content as needed.

Inquiry, One Step at a Time

Some key philosophies can help reinforce a transition to an inquiry-centered classroom:

  1. Questions activate student curiosity and provide a clear and measurable purpose to learning.
  2. A complete inquiry model doesn't have to be adopted to get students to learn through questions.
  3. Teaching with an inquiry-based approach brings a focus to the process of learning in lieu of retrieving easily found facts.

As states across the nation adopt new social studies standards, they are expecting students to develop and demonstrate new skills; students are being asked to examine, analyze, compare, develop opinions, construct historical arguments, and more. The inquiry-based approach to teaching lends itself to developing these skills; in fact, the relationship between inquiry and these key skills is fully symbiotic. Teachers need to select rich content about which students think deeply through intentional questions. Through intentional questions, students can look at historical events from multiple lenses, defend or refute impactful decisions, and develop a deep understanding of how things were and why systems run the way they do.

Implementing new curriculum is always challenging. My school district has more work to do, even after adopting the new curriculum several years ago. But by laying groundwork that unpacks new standards, and layering inquiry into curriculum with care, we ensure that students both engage more fully with their social studies courses and build skills that will enable them to make important decisions as well-informed citizens and contributors to our society.

Work Cited

Arizona Department of Education. History and Social Science Standards, 2018.

Grant Skinner

Grant Skinner is the Social Studies Content Specialist for the Phoenix Union High School District (PXU). He has worked for PXU for 21 years, spending 19 of those years in the classroom as a teacher and instructional leader.

MLA Citation

Skinner, Grant. "Inspiring Student Engagement: an Inquiry-Based Approach." ABC-CLIO Solutions, ABC-CLIO, 2022, Accessed 4 Oct. 2022.

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