An inquiry-based approach to civics can do much more than help students understand the different branches of government, also equipping them with the tools and confidence to engage and take civic action on their own. But designing such a curriculum requires educators to craft questions that both test students’ knowledge and push them to contextualize and link information to current events.
The difference between this style of learning and memorizing facts is the difference between challenging students to think more deeply or having them learn “bar trivia,” said Shannon Pugh, president of the National Council for the Social Studies.
Educators should shy away from questions that have clear, conclusive answers, said Donna Phillips, vice president and chief program officer for the Center for Civic Education. Instead, questions should be designed where they don't have simple right or wrong answers.
Strong, compelling questions form the basis of inquiry-based civics education. For example, Pugh said asking students to know the three branches of government is important, but there’s more meaning when they understand the role of each branch and how they impact the world today. Creating effective questions, howeverh, requires work, she said.
“You want to ask if these questions are inclusive and accessible and get students to think beyond their own experiences and comfort level,” Pugh said. “For example, asking students if women should have been given the right to vote allows them to argue the opposite, which is not inclusive.”
“A compelling question is highly debatable and intellectually meaty,” said Phillips. “What that does for students is give them permission to enter into their own learning and come to their own conclusions.”
Educators can find good examples of how to design an inquiry-based civics curriculum online. Phillips points to the NCSS’ College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework as a good place to start, adding that the framework allows students to generate their questions, too.
Pugh said while she understands inquiry-based teaching can be challenging, she encourages educators to try. She’s concerned about pushes to turn away from this style, or from what some call “divisive” topics, and replace inquiry-based learning with a structure that is more fact-based.
“When did ‘inquiry’ become a bad word?” Pugh said. “There is a fear in the classroom about dealing with open-ended dialogue, and if [students] learn facts, school boards won’t get complaints. But inquiry is a best practice and grounded in a lot of research.”
“Ultimately our goal is to create students who are informed and can take action,” added Pugh. “I don’t necessarily mean marching through the streets. But if they have a concern in their community, they know how to use these skills and knowledge to get an issue addressed.”