Inquiry-Based Learning & NCSS’ New Definition of ‘Social Studies’

Inquiry-Based Learning & NCSS’ New Definition of ‘Social Studies’

Earlier in November, the National Council for Social Studies approved a new definition of social studies. You might be thinking, “Why is this important?” Well, it is for several reasons. 


Let’s start with the changes to the definition.


The prior definition, as interpreted by different states, led us to understand that social studies is intended to promote civic competence through the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities (NCSS, 2023). 


While the word “promote” was appropriate to use, the verbs have now changed in the newly revised version. Using phrases like “inquiry-based approach” and “examine vast human experiences,” the focus seems to have shifted to a more contemporary lens, depicting issues that impact all citizens, young and old. 


This new definition also reflects a more active role of the student, leading them to consider a myriad of perspectives when generating opinions about what has shaped our world. It has the potential to inspire students to question, think about what is just, and then find ways to resolve challenges for different groups of people. 


An emphasis on equity


It’s also worth noting the change in disciplines referenced as part of the new definition. While some remained, the newly crafted definition includes several areas that represent equity


The specific areas of study mentioned in the revised definition include history, geography, cultural geography, human geography, economics, government, citizenship, civics, psychology, sociology, political science, international relations, anthropology, archaeology, gender studies, LGBTQ+ studies, ethnic studies (African American studies, Asian American and Pacific Islander studies, Indigenous studies, and Latin American studies), human rights and social justice, including human rights education, social justice issues, international organizations, and genocide studies, financial literacy (different from economics), and finally, contemporary issues, including courses in current events and the study of one or more social studies topics in current contexts (NCSS, 2023). 


An inquiry-based approach


As previously stated, the primary purpose of social studies was to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world (NCSS, 2023). However, this updated version seems to lead educators and scholars to consider using an inquiry-based approach, one that “helps students examine vast human experiences through the generation of questions, collection, and analysis of evidence from credible sources, consideration of multiple perspectives, and the application of social studies knowledge and disciplinary skills” (NCSS, 2023).  


In asking students to examine the past while participating in the present and learning how to shape the future, the newly defined social studies will prepare learners for a lifelong practice of civil discourse and civic engagement in their communities. Social studies will now center on the knowledge of human rights and local, national, and global responsibilities so that we can work together to create a just world in which we want to live.


What we believe about inquiry-based learning


One of the things that we feel strongly about at Schoolwide is the importance of promoting active learning in the classroom. The role of discourse is crucial, which is why we strategically replace some of our direct instruction with questions that produce thoughtful conversations. This line of inquiry creates opportunities for students to learn more and develop deeper understandings because we incorporate a process that includes student thinking, reflecting, researching, conversing, affirming, and revising. 


Similar to science, true inquiry begins with a question that students explore as they learn. Through the use of a matrix, our Fundamentals units invite students to focus on an enduring understanding while exploring answers to essential questions and sub-questions.


Our goal in Schoolwide’s units is for students to assume the role of researcher. By using open-ended questions, students are not memorizing facts but instead are synthesizing information from multiple sources and determining what is important and relevant. 


Inquiry-based learning and its importance for the support of multilingual learners


When teachers use an inquiry approach, they are honoring the practice of using background knowledge as a launchpad for discussion and affirmation for multilingual learners. 


Inquiry also invites students to think, share, pose questions, and research in a safe climate while feeling supported by the modeling of their classroom teachers. By inviting students to activate and value their curiosity, exploration and discovery quickly follow. Content or interdisciplinary experiences provide natural scaffolds for students to learn through multiple genres, through discourse, and through activating their personal knowledge toolbox or schema. 


Because multilingual learners are learning new content and a new language simultaneously, how information and content are shared is critical (Jana Echevarria, 2022, “Reflections on Teaching Multilingual Learners”, Using Inquiry-Based Learning with Multilingual Learners). That’s why we provide objectives after an introductory exploratory activity. The exploration aspect is preserved, yet the purpose of the lesson and learning outcomes are clarified for students 


When thinking about content literacy, language and vocabulary become a focus. Our units provide the research, the practices, and the support (TPR, list-group-label, semantic gradients, visual representations of words, etc.). Provisions for linguistic and nonlinguistic representation of words are critical for students to develop a stronger understanding of unfamiliar words and phrases. 


How we are thinking about evolving our resources in the lens of inquiry 


So, what does this all mean for how we’re further developing our future resources? We know that we must create a renewed focus on knowledge attainment and inquiry:


  • We want to enhance the experience of building background knowledge 

  • We want to design lessons with the intention for each student to become an expert in an aspect of the content being studied

  • We want to create Inquiry lessons that resonate with students

  • We want to continue to create lessons that include meaningful activities that integrate the lesson’s concepts with opportunities to practice and develop reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills

  • We want to reinforce the notion that good researchers reflect on their outcomes and are open to affirm, revise, or learn from others


A final thought on inquiry and student-led learning 


Inquiry-based lessons that incorporate the use of primary sources, project-based learning, and a compelling question in every lesson will challenge and grow students’ critical thinking skills and abilities and prepare them for future roles in our society. 







National Council for the Social Studies:


Reflections on Teaching Multilingual Learners: Using Inquiry-Based Learning with Multilingual Learners

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