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Framing a Social Studies Inquiry with a Good Overarching Question

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “Getting Inquiry Design Just Right” by Wayne Journell, Adam Friedman, Emma Thacker, and Paul Fitchett in Social Education, September 2018 (Vol. 82, #4, p. 202-205), no free e-link; the authors can be reached at,,, and
“Social studies is known for answers, but too much content can overwhelm students,” say Wayne Journell (University of North Carolina/ Greensboro), Adam Friedman (Wake Forest University), Emma Thacker (James Madison University), and Paul Fitchett (University of North Carolina/Charlotte) in this article in Social Education. They suggest a better way: crafting classroom inquiries that get at content through questions. Their work draws on the Inquiry Design Model contained in the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) social studies framework.
The first step in shaping a classroom inquiry is for teachers to identify an overarching, compelling question for a curriculum unit, to grab students’ attention and launch them into making evidence-based arguments. The question should be open-ended and have more than one plausible answer, using the available evidence. Once the overarching question has been framed, teachers develop supporting questions and related tasks that get students gathering evidence, practicing disciplinary skills, and coming up with good answers to the original question, then perhaps taking informed action based on their newfound understanding.
Journell, Friedman, Thacker, and Fitchett looked at dozens of teacher-created inquiries and identified those they considered effective. One example was a high-school civics teacher’s unit starting with the compelling question, Is voting worth the time? This provoked students to voice a range of opinions, and the teacher posed supporting questions around aspects of the Electoral College, the influence of non-governmental entities (political action committees, the media) on the outcome of national elections, and why so many people make the cost-benefit calculation that voting in presidential elections is not a good use of their time. Students then read articles about the Electoral College, the U.S. two-party system, and other documents on voter participation. By the end of the unit, students are able to make well-informed pro and con arguments on the compelling question.
As the researchers looked at history, civics, and economics curriculum units, their most frequent criticism was weak overarching questions and inquiry frames. “Too often,” they say, “the inquiries simply ask students to acquire more knowledge about a topic rather than use evidence to make an argument.” Some examples of less-than-stellar questions:
- What did America learn from the Pax Romana?
- What happens when a state does not follow federal law?
- Who decides how much a toy is worth?
These are interesting questions, but they all have “correct” answers that can be located through a Google search. Students gather factual information but aren’t asked to make an argument by grappling with evidence. “Successful inquiries,” say the researchers, “are both complex and delicate. Interdependent elements in an inquiry blueprint rely on each other; when one part falters, it affects the overall success of the inquiry.” Conversely, a well-framed overarching question almost always produces good follow-up questions, and the rest of the inquiry follows suit.
There are exceptions. The researchers critiqued a history unit whose compelling question was, What makes a good president? A good overarching question, they say – timely, subjective, and potentially of great interest to students. The teacher followed up by having students create a Help Wanted ad for the presidency, with a summary of the job, major duties, and key leadership qualifications, and what problems or issues within the nation a candidate should address in the first 100 days in office. This was also good, say the researchers – a creative way to get students gathering relevant information and thinking about the overarching question. But then the unit went off the rails as the teacher peppered students with questions and activities exclusively about George Washington: too narrow to promote understanding of the compelling question.
“Inquiry design is hard work,” conclude Journell, Friedman, Thacker, and Fitchett, because it “requires that teachers simultaneously balance multiple moving parts. Creating a solid inquiry involves disciplinary understanding as well as an awareness of students’ interests and abilities. In that sense, inquiries are a perfect example of social studies teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge on display.”

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