Tips for Inquiry in the History Classroom

...Or, our third week back at school.  What's been going on in the History room?

Some time ago, I participated in a twitter chat where the discussion turned to student-centered project-based learning.  Some of the participants were skeptical about a student-centered classroom and project-based learning.  The skeptics believed chaos would reign in a student-centered classroom where student inquiry was happening.

This week in the 6th grade we have been learning about ancient civilizations.  Before we could discuss specific ancient civilizations, however, we needed to understand what a civilization is.  I created six focus groups or discussion groups of 4 students each.  Each group was tasked with the responsibility of discussing a definition of civilization.  Groups were instructed to agree to at least 6 characteristics of a civilization.  Groups were warned that they must provide valid reasons or support for including those 6 characteristics.

Next, students were instructed to discuss what it would take to have an advanced civilization.  More discussion ensued.  Students were engaged, focused and at some points, perplexed.  As one student remarked, "I knew what a civilization was until you instructed us to define it.  This is so exciting...but hard!"

All the while, I acted as a fly on the wall.  I was in the room listening to conversations, but not trying to influence or direct.  If a group was stumped, then I offered suggested questions, but I mostly wanted to stay out of their conversations.  Every characteristic that the groups came up with was their own.  For all 6th graders the activity was engaging and liberating:  this was one of the first times they had so much freedom on an assignment in school.  For some, they didn't know how to get started, but once the conversation started flowing, they were on their way.

Students engaged in inquiry, using all kinds of technology, even traditional book sources.

In the 8th grade, there was a different sort of inquiry going on.  Students were instructed to research the Albany Congress, pick three of the most prominent leaders of the Congress and research their influence and role there, then create a presentation complete with timeline and results of the Congress.  The 8th graders were engaged in a completely different way.  All the while, they were engaged with an essential question:  Demonstrate how the events of the French and Indian War ultimately laid the foundation for the Revolutionary War about 15 years later.

They went right to work.  In their groups, they divvied up the project:  One person was checking out who attended the Albany Congress, another was figuring out what it was and its purpose, while a third member was already setting up a preliminary timeline of events. 

This sort of inquiry is essential to real learning:  it allows for group collaboration; it provides the student with the opportunity to understand people and events within an appropriate historical context.  When students engage in inquiry, the facts and events they find and research are more meaningful, because they are solving a problem or trying to understand an issue.  They are finding answers to questions they come up with on their own, rather than answering a question from a teacher.

More groups conferring on History Inquiry project.  8th Graders collaborating. Everyone is engaged and focused.

Some tips for History inquiry and project-based assessments:

1) Establish clear guidelines and expectations.

2) Explicitly state the purpose or ultimate goal of the inquiry:  What are the students trying to do?  What problem are they trying to solve?  What issue are they investigating?

3) One expectation of inquiry is presenting the findings; students must expect to share their problem, process and findings.

4) Give the students choices regarding how to present their findings.

5) Collaboration is key.  Even when students are assigned individual inquiry projects, we expect to have periodic status check-ins.  We use this opportunity to discuss problems or issues the students have encountered; students will offer suggestions for improving the focus or direction of the project, or redirect attention to other resources, web tools, databases for research or primary sources.  These debriefings are crucial for understanding that students are on the right track, or that they have foundered and need redirection.  Or, even better, students have discovered on their own that they have found a better plan of action (or have already helped each other to redirect).


It seems that in science it is easy to set up a desire "to want to know" and that questions flow naturally due to the hands-on nature of the subject. All too often important dates and people in history get reduced to timelines and outlines. I think that it is great that you are actively involving your students in the construction of knowledge. I know that you tweeted about primary sources last week. Therefore, I was wondering if you are having your students create hypotheses (What makes an advanced civilization? Why would someone at the Albany Congress emerge as a prominent leader?) as part of the inquiry process and then confirm or revise them after finding and examining evidence.

Absolutely, yes. We definitely alter our conclusions or change our understandings or expectations based on inquiry. I don't see how it's any different from what goes on in science. That is why it's so important for the students to report on the process so I can see the evolution of their thinking and understanding. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

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