An Inquiry-Based Approach to Teaching and Learning: Helping History-Social Science CLIC for Teachers and Students

By Pisi, Frank | Social Studies Review, January 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

An Inquiry-Based Approach to Teaching and Learning: Helping History-Social Science CLIC for Teachers and Students


Pisi, Frank, Social Studies Review


If I memorize all parts of a carburetor, does that make me a mechanic? Does memorizing all the parts of a body system make me a doctor? If I can recite chapter and verse all the elements of a lesson plan or behavior management strategy, am I a teacher? Of course not. What makes someone a mechanic or doctor? Mastery of knowledge? No, mastery of the application of knowledge. Simply knowing information is not sufficient, knowing how to apply that information, with ample practice, is what makes someone a mechanic or doctor. What makes a teacher is the ability to help students learn to apply that information.

So, what does this have to do with civic engagement? Everything! Research shows that many youth (and adults) cannot identify major historical figures or institutions. This, while saddening, is not the shocking part. With access to data literally at our fingertips, what gives me more pause is the fact that youth cannot explain the cause or effect of these institutions or historical figures, or how they relate to students' lives today. That is something that Siri or Alexa cannot answer for me. Mastery of content is not the end goal, but rather how we apply that knowledge must be. Content must be the vehicle that we use to foster a greater understanding of how the past has helped determine the present and informs the future. Having all the knowledge in the world is useless if one is not able to use that knowledge in a meaningful way. Research also shows that the more students engage in simulations of the democratic process, the more likely they are to be civically engaged adults.

In our work with districts and schools to more intentionally infuse civic awareness and engagement across the curriculum, we've worked to fundamentally shift the context for teaching and learning. By using examples and data that are readily relevant to youth, teachers address the, "Why do we have to learn this?" question that we've all faced. In history classes, the concept is relatively easy. Rather than teach a lesson where students memorize and recall Martin Luther's 95 Theses, students can learn them, investigate and discuss them. Students can debate the idea that Martin Luther's posting of the 95 Theses on Wittenberg Cathedral could be seen as the "first viral posting" of an idea in the modern age. English/literature classes are also able to tap into this relevancy through the works of literature they use. Using economics thinking to post or not to post the 95 theses can be used as an example of benefit/cost analysis, investigating whether the posting was an informed or an uninformed decision. These historical examples can help students recognize the importance of thinking through their own decisions.

My daughter is currently in middle school. If I had a nickel for each time that I helped her figure out how many bushels of apples we needed to bake pies for a sale as part of her elementary school math homework, I would have enough money to buy an orchard. While she can technically complete the calculations, there is nothing inspiring in the work. Imagine if her homework assignment was to redesign the school parking lot to include more pedestrian space while maintaining the same number of parking spots or reconfigure the school grounds to offer more open space for grass. The same concepts of ratio and area and proportion would be taught and practiced, but the learning would be more meaningful with examples that are immediately relevant to her situation. In science classes students can take the technical knowledge of what causes air or water pollution and apply it to measure their school's air and water quality.

What flows from this is a conversation about how to improve or maintain this quality, which evolves into a discussion of policy and equity. This shift does not require teachers to scrap their current curriculum and start something totally new, but rather rethink the actual examples they use in class. In this way, the concepts are still being taught, but the more relevant content is the vehicle to provide a practical frame for the experience. …

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