Imagine that an American history teacher begins a lesson by telling the following story.
In 1837, a youngboy named John lived on a farm in a beautiful, mountainous, wooded area in Eastern Tennessee. His family planted corn and raised animals for meat, milk and eggs. His father participated in the legislative branch of government. His mother taught English in a local school. He had four brothers and three sisters. The family appeared happy and prosperous. In 1839, the family moved to a treeless, dry, flat prairie. [Because they were b]arely able to raise enough food to feed the family, two of John's brothers and one of his sisters died. The father remained a member of the legislature. The mother helped publish the local newspaper. John and his family missed their beautiful home in the mountains.
Following the telling of this puzzling story, the teacher poses the question: "Why did John and his family leave their beautiful home in Tennessee and take a hard journey to a hot and barren land?"
Rather than conduct an open-ended discussion, students engage in a strategy called a discrepant event inquiry. Students work, individually and in small groups, to figure out the story by asking questions that the teacher can answer with a "yes" or a "no." Because of the structure of the questioning, students must focus their probes and think through the problem. The questioning begins.
Student: Did John's dad move to get a better job?
Student: Why did they move?
Teacher: I can't answer that; please rephrase it so I can answer with a yes or no.
Student: Did they move because of a natural disaster?
Student: Did they have to move?
The questioning continues until the teacher pauses to allow students to confer in small groups. They discuss what they know, come up with hypotheses, and formulate new questions. Questions build on questions and answers build on answers until the students begin to formulate their hypothesis. (1)
Discrepant Event Inquiry
In the mid-1980s, I first came across discrepant event inquiry, a teaching strategy built around intellectual confrontation. Although I found some similarities to the more traditional open-ended inquiry that is well-known to social studies educators, I discovered distinct advantages to this strategy. To begin with, it is motivating. From my senior high school government and economic classes to my seventh-grade history classes, it is one of the most motivational teaching strategies that I have used and a natural for social studies and history classes. It involves not only teacher-to-student but also student-to-student communication, with students analyzing, focusing, structuring their questions and thoughts, and hypothesizing.
Teachers can use anything in their curriculum that has a surprising outcome, is unexpected, is paradoxical, or is a mystery. The story must somehow conflict with what would normally be expected. Additionally, because the goal is to have students inquire and develop possible explanations, the puzzle should be solvable. (2)
Although discrepant event inquiry became an integral part of my teaching strategy repertoire, I initially struggled with the development of the inquiry stories and puzzling statements. My use of this strategy received a boost when I came across a book titled Learning Social Studies through Discripant Event Inquiry by William C. and Jean K. Bruce. (3) The book contained more than seventy discrepant event stories, such as the one cited at the beginning of this article, for use in the social studies classroom. Although considerable crossover exists among the themes, the seventy stories were grouped by social studies discipline (i.e., sociology, American history, economics, political science, anthropology). …