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Fostering an engaging and collaborative learning environment is paramount in today’s rapidly evolving educational landscape. This is especially true in social studies education, where the shift is from traditional memorization to analyzing deep historical questions, investigating perspectives, and connecting new understandings to our context today. At the forefront of this transformative pedagogy is inquiry-based learning, a framework that Bornblum is implementing.

Inquiry-based units commence with a thought-provoking question that progresses through a thorough sustained investigation and concludes with a call to action. For instance, fifth-grade students are exploring how we might better honor our land’s cultural heritage within a unit on Native America. Since the initial encounters with Europeans, Indigenous Americans have endured a history of misrepresentation in popular culture and historical documentation. This inquiry prompts students to delve into various sources, ranging from artifacts to oral traditions, to foster a more profound comprehension of Indigenous Americans’ diverse and intricate cultures and histories. Subsequently, students are encouraged to contemplate ways to actively engage in their community to enhance the recognition and celebration of the cultural heritage inherent to their land.

Inquiry questions are intricate, linking to students’ existing knowledge and propelling their learning. This kind of learning transcends the mere completion of worksheets; it demands research and critical thought. This approach aligns nicely with our school’s focus on design thinking because it culminates in informed action. Informed action enables students to convert their knowledge into meaningful practice, connecting it with real-life encounters. It calls for students to apply their learning to inspire, resolve challenges, or serve a particular audience. When an inquiry encourages informed action, it provides students with a clear purpose that resonates with them, making learning more engaging and content more memorable.

Inquiry-based learning takes a significant departure from traditional rote memorization. A significant emphasis is placed on primary sources and the authentic work of history. Throughout a unit, students are exposed to various sources that allow them to compare how different sources can be used to learn about the past and synthesize their understanding. Students are encouraged to make observations and connections with these authentic materials, deepening their understanding of historical events and honing their critical thinking skills as they work to uncover the answer to the inquiry question and determine how to take action. This fosters a broader understanding of history and promotes empathy. According to one of our fifth graders, “I learned that I had a lot of misconceptions about indigenous people. I learned that each tribe had their own culture and traditions.” 

Students in fifth grade are now working on a related design thinking project. They were captivated by how many Indigenous Americans view the first Thanksgiving and hope to share their new understanding of Thanksgiving with our first graders in November. 

Inquiry-based social studies education imparts knowledge and empowers students to actively participate in their learning journey. By incorporating design thinking, hands-on experiences, primary sources, interdisciplinary connections, and informed action, students are equipped with the skills, knowledge, and motivation to navigate the world’s complexities confidently and competently.

Blog Authored By

Jill Cross is a Nationally Board-Certified Teacher and ASCD Emerging Leader with almost 20 years of experience in public, charter, and independent schools. She frequently presents on teacher leadership, object-based learning, social studies and literacy pedagogy, partnership cultivation, personalized professional learning, and curriculum writing across the country. Jill has coordinated curriculum development in public and private schools.

Cindy VanGunda has a master’s degree in education and a rich fifteen-year background in teaching students across various grade levels, including K, 2, 4, and 5, enrichment and support classes. She is now in her second year serving on the Teacher Advisory Committee at the National Constitution Center. She actively participates in the Civic Spirit cohort at Bornblum. Cindy is currently in her eleventh year of teaching at Bornblum, where she assumes key roles as the co-chair of the Sunshine committee, chair of a SAIS accreditation committee and mentor teacher.