Using Inquiry to Teach Honest History

Use inquiry to teach honest history!

Learning for Justice’s Teaching Hard History: A Framework for Teaching American Slavery—available at both the K-5 and 6-12 levels—offers a foundation for teaching honest history through inquiry. The framework and its accompanying resources provide teachers with tools to accurately teach this history and allow students to dig deeper into the content by exploring essential questions, engaging in performance tasks and acting for justice.

Using the framework in conjunction with The College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards, this PD Café will guide you through a high school Inquiry Design Model (IDM). We hope these strategies help you support students as they examine the history of American slavery through compelling, rigorous questions. This approach to using IDMs with the Teaching Hard History framework is included in our publication Teaching American Slavery Through Inquiry.

Illustration of a large question mark on top of a historical document.

Inquiry Design Model

Teaching history through inquiry helps students make meaning of the world. They can analyze historical content, treating it not merely as a collection of facts but as information they research. They can construct questions and evaluate multiple sources of information to draw conclusions. Inquiry offers students the opportunity to do the following:

  • develop a passion for questioning interpretations of the past
  • explore and analyze content to shape their understanding of the present
  • think critically about the world they live in
  • pursue their ideas about an essential question
  • become more engaged in the learning process
  • awaken their curiosity
  • navigate the world beyond the classroom

IDMs highlight key elements of the instructional design process, avoiding overly rigid curricula and honoring educators’ knowledge and expertise.

How to Use the Inquiry Design Model

The IDM is organized into three elements of inquiry:

  • questions, which include a compelling question that frames the inquiry, along with aligned supporting questions
  • performance tasks, which provide students with learning experiences and teachers with opportunities to evaluate what students know
  • featured sources, which offer substance and content for inquiry, such as primary and secondary documents         

Here, we will model how to plan and facilitate an IDM using the high school emancipation inquiry focused on the compelling question, “Does it matter who ended slavery?”

Unpacking an IDM: “Does It Matter Who Ended Slavery?”

Step 1: Design the compelling question and a summative performance task.

A strong compelling question frames the IDM by encouraging students to join a historical debate, evaluate the facts behind these arguments and weigh the significance of the arguments themselves. Compelling questions also engage students by asking them to make present-day connections to historical events. After determining the compelling question, you’ll design a summative performance task that will ask students to craft arguments and present their findings to that question.

For example, the question, “Does it matter who ended slavery?” draws students in by asking them to understand a contemporary debate about teaching accurate history while using primary and secondary documents. The summative performance task requires students to construct arguments using claims and evidence from the IDM. An optional extension activity asks students to apply their learnings by analyzing a history textbook and proposing revisions. These tasks are strong because they require students to act like historians: They must study 19th-century laws that provided gradual emancipation, including the 13th Amendment, and draw conclusions about the work of 20th-century historians who represent differing positions.

Step 2: Map the compelling question to the Teaching Hard History framework.

After you craft the compelling question and summative performance task, you will map it to a Summary Objective in the framework. When you do that, you will see which Key Concepts the question connects to as well. If you’re an elementary educator, follow a similar process, mapping your compelling question and performance task to an Essential Knowledge from the K-5 framework.

For this example, the compelling question ties into the framework in Summary Objective 15.F, which is about the Emancipation Proclamation. This compelling question also maps to Key Concepts 2, 5, 7 and 10.

Step 3: Design the supporting questions and formative performance tasks.

Next, you will design the supporting questions and align each one to a formative performance task. Supporting questions flesh out the compelling question by organizing and sequencing the main ideas and help students build their understanding. Formative tasks follow the same logic; they provide smaller “steps” for students to reach the summative performance task, which also allows you to evaluate their understanding throughout the IDM. Formative performance tasks should still require students to practice higher-level thinking while gaining background content.

For example, in the emancipation inquiry, the supporting questions sequence this way:

  • Supporting Question 1:
    What legal steps were taken to end slavery?
  • Supporting Question 2:
    What arguments do historians make about who ended slavery?
  • Supporting Question 3:
    What are the implications of the debate over who ended slavery?

The sequencing of performance tasks requires students to understand background content and then identify and analyze arguments from historians. Formative performance tasks align with each supporting question. For example, for the first supporting question, students’ formative performance task would be to create an annotated timeline that describes legal steps taken between 1861 and 1865 to end slavery.

Step 4: Choose sources that align to the compelling and supporting questions, and design instruction.

For this step, you will select the sources (from LFJ’s Teaching Hard History Text Library or other sources) that students will use to dialogue about their responses. The best sources allow students to analyze competing perspectives and draw their own conclusions. Once sources are selected, you should plan how you will use them with your students through inquiry-based teaching throughout the IDM.

For example, at the beginning of the IDM, invite students to grapple with the compelling question, “Does it matter who ended slavery?” Students can read and discuss Joe Heim’s article “On Emancipation Day in D.C., Two Memorials Tell Very Different Stories” from The Washington Post. Then, students can compare that initial source with photos of the Emancipation Memorial and the African American Civil War Memorial. Facilitating the learning from these featured sources, you can engage students in a conversation about the process of emancipation and how historians and citizens have interpreted events like emancipation. (Note that both these sources are linked in our sample IDM for “Does It Matter Who Ended Slavery?”)

Step 5: Teach from an inquiry stance by facilitating the IDM.

Through deliberate design of the IDM, teachers can position themselves as facilitators, rather than knowledge holders, during this stage. Even careful attention to the order of the IDM can help build a more student-driven space. For example, you could start the IDM by staging the compelling question with aligned resources to hook students and then repeating the process with each of the supporting questions. You would then direct students to complete a summative performance task and, if possible, the extension activity. You can conclude the IDM by helping students take informed action.

You can also facilitate inquiry-based learning through the formative tasks. For example, students create timelines when responding to Supporting Question 1, “What legal steps were taken to end slavery?” After students have completed their timelines, you can facilitate dialogue around the supporting question and then invite them to record their first responses to the compelling question.

Step 6: Students work on summative performance tasks.

After answering each of the supporting questions through its counterpart formative performance task, students can address the compelling question through a summative performance task. This stage of the IDM pulls the inquiry together and asks students to draw conclusions based on the cumulative knowledge they have gained.

At this point, pose the compelling question, “Does it matter who ended slavery?” Students can construct their arguments through essays, detailed outlines or posters. They should use specific claims and evidence from their engagement with the IDM. As an extension activity, they can continue acting as historians by critiquing and revising a history textbook.

Step 7: Students take informed action.

This final step can take a wide range of forms (e.g., discussions, debates and presentations) and can occur in a variety of contexts—inside and outside of the classroom. Key to any action, however, is the idea that it is informed by students’ participation in the IDM and compels them to apply what they learned in a real-world setting.

In the IDM “Does It Matter Who Ended Slavery?” students can take informed action by watching the film Lincoln, evaluating its historical accuracy, and writing and publishing a review on IMDb.com. This helps students synthesize their understanding of the content and act on it in a 21st-century way.

The complexity surrounding American enslavement and its legacies, as well as the lingering effects of white supremacy, requires deep engagement from students. Using an IDM to teach American enslavement supports such engagement. The ​​IDM, with its focus on questions, tasks and sources, provides a structure for this natural desire to inquire. As James Baldwin said, “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” Our capacity to teach about challenging topics—like enslavement and white supremacy—makes the reality of a future rooted in equity, justice and liberation more possible.

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