sHelping Students
Develop Social Studies
Inquiry Skills
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Read the following passage from the beginning of an interview. Respond to the
questions that follow.
My name is Elly Van Aspert. My family's name was Neeter, and my
Christian name is Esther. I was born in Utrecht, in central Holland, on
February 12, 1924. I am the oldest of four girls in my family. My sisters
are Miep, Jos, and Emi. We were an ordinary Dutch family who were
My parents owned what today we would call an electronics store in
~ersfoort, 20 Kilometers from Utrecht, but this was before modern electronics,
so the store sold electrical items like radios and vacuum cleaners.
Mother was always in the shop.... She always welcomed people to the shop
and would give them a cup of coffeewhether or not they bought anything.
After the Germans came into Holland in 1940, we had to wear the yellow
star on our clothes so everyone would know we were Jewish. Dutch
Jewish children could not go to high school after age fourteen and a half, so
I could no longer go to my high school. So, I went to a school for Jewish
children in Utrecht .... After a while, all Jews were told that we had to
turn in our bikes because we were no longer allowed to have bikes. So, I
could not get to school in Utrecht any more.
Of course, the Nazis wanted more than just our bikes! They wanted our
gold and other valuable things. My parents gave our bikes but not our gold,
even though we were always afraid of the Nazis. My parents knew we probably
would need the gold sometime and maybe need it to survive. But, we
gave in' our bikes because we never wanted to confront the Nazis. When we
would walk down the street, we would try to walk with other children, not
alone', because it was safer. Many Jewish people never came out at all.
(Personal interview by Cynthia Szymanski Sunal on July 21, 2005)
1. Why do you think Ms. Van Aspert is being interviewed?
2. What do you think happened in her life through the period ending in April
3. What evidence db you find in this early part of the interview to support
your responses in questions 1 and 2?
4. Because only part ofthe interview is available to you, what conclusions can
you make about how your responses are limited by having partial data?
5. What social studies inquiry skills have you been using in reading this passage
and in responding to questions 1 through 4?
The entire interview with Ms. Van Aspert can be found on the Companion
Website. Some questions follow the interview. The questions will help you to reflect
on the interview and also consider how you might use it to help your students further
develop an inquiry skill.
Inquiry in social studies involves the diverse ways in which we study our social
world and propose explanations based on evidence for various events. Inquiry also
refers to the activities students engage in as they investigate the social world and
develop their knowledge of ideas in social studies. Students ask, find, and determine
answers to questions growing out of everyday experiences. Learning involves
developing thinking, or inquiry, skills (National Council for Social Studies, 1994b).
Table 4.1 lists the general abilities students need to carry out social studies inquiries.
Most elementary and middle school students are ready for experiences that
give them concrete foundations for understanding abstract social studies ideas
(Anderson, 1997; National Council for the Social Studies, 1994b). These foundations
constitute the inquiry skills: (1) early inquiry skills, (2) social studies inquiry skills,
(3) inquiry attitudes and dispositions, and (4) integrative thinking skills.
TABLE 4.1 ----------------
Abilities Needed to Do Inquiry
Ask a question about phenomena/events in the
social world
Plan and perform simple investigations
Usesimple equipment, technology, and tools to
gather data
Usedata to develop descriptions and explanations
Plan and conduct investigations
Usetools and technology to gather, analyze, and
interpret data
Usea range of inquiry skills to develop
generalizations and models using data
Communicate procedures for investigations and
Communicate descriptions of investigations and
Inquiry skills help us develop an "explanation" for what we observe or investigate.
The explanation students develop is the social studies "idea" or "knowledge" to be
learned in the lesson. Students at various age levels and with various types of experiences
develop different explanations from their personal experiences depending
on the inquiry skills used or available to them. The challenge for the teacher is
to make common experiences meaningful to students through the use of inquiry
skills. Skill development requires classroom instruction during which students interact
with each other. Assessment of inquiry skills is essential. Such assessment
is communicated to students to help them understand that a high value is placed
on learning inquiry skills.
1. Explain the importance of planning for the development of social studies inquiry
2. Describe types of skills needed by students to develop meaningful social
studies learning.
3. Describe the difference in emphasis when planning social studies inquiry
skills for the' early childhood and middle childhood levels.
4. Describe the process of teaching social studies inquiry skills.
5. IdentifY conditions necessary for effectively teaching social studies inquiry
6. Describe methods for assessing social studies inquiry skills during a lesson
or unit.
elopment: Using Inquiry Skills to Develop Students'
ial Studies Ideas
Knowledge develops through our experiences with the world and other individuals.
Students use their prior knowledge and information from their experiences to construct
new social studies knowledge. The success of this learning process depends
on the level and kind of inquiry skills available to students. Teachers help students
develop meaning from their experiences by encouraging the development of their
inquiry skills. Throughout the year, inquiry skills are developed, practiced,' and
" ds used in every social studies unit (Sternberg, 1994). The transfer of an inquiry skill
from one context or topic area to another is an important goal. Transfer does not
occur automatically when a skill is first learned (Anderson, 1997). Transfer of an inquiry
skill is likely to occur automatically only after a student has had many opportunities
to practice the skill. For example, in a unit on landforms, students should
identify and classify landforms to learn to distinguish hills from mountains. A few
weeks later, the class begins working with a unit on economics in the community.
The classification skill students developed in the earlier unit on landforms does not
automatically transfer when they try to classify types of community businesses,
such as manufacturing and service companies. The following discussion describes
and examines inquiry skills in an effective K-8 social studies program.
People use their five senses to investigate the environment: sight, hearing, taste,
touch, and smell. Preschool children apply their senses to develop numerous early
inquiry skills as they play. Early inquiry skills include pushing, pulling, sliding,
and rolling. Children run their fingers through people's hair, touch clothes of different
textures, feel the warmth generated by sitting in a comfortable adult lap,
taste everything they can get into their mouths, and listen to the cadences of a
caretaker's speech in varying social situations. These skills facilitate the investigation
of the very young child's world. Later, other inquiry skills such as observation
develop through continued experiences.
These early skills are learned before children experience any social studies·
content. For example, very young children feel the textur~ of a variety of clothing
items before they understand how money is exchanged for clothing or how the seasons
determine which clothing items are worn at various times. These early skills
are basic prerequisites for understanding social studies concepts such as wants
and needs, money, and production and distribution of goods. They are also prerequisites
for later social studies inquiry skills.
Early social studies experiences are important and focus on building these
early inquiry skills. A table found on the Companion Website for this book describes
some activities that develop early inquiry skills. It shows relationships be-
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Kindergarteners begin school with numerous early
inquiry skills developed through interactions with
those around them and with their physical environments.
Very young students are usually skilled at filling
and emptying containers, smelling objects and
people, spreading sand and mud, throwing objects,
running, whining, whispering, and so forth. Such
early inquiry skills enable young children to investigate
social situations, often testing others' reactions-
for example, how significant adults around
them react to a thrown object, to whining, or to a
whispered confidence.
Every student has a different set of early experiences.
The culture of the home and its occupants
dramatically affects the student. The neighborhood
also exerts an influence, as do the media and the
larger regional and national cultures. These in"fluences
are diverse, so children start school with different
levels of skill development. Some students have
advanced classification skills, while others' skills are
limited. Some students have had lots of opportunities
to talk with adults, while others have had few
opportunities. Children use their inquiry skills to examine
their social worlds. Teachers expect wide
ranges of skills among their students and engage
them in physical activities that foster early inquiry
skills among those who lag in development and
build on existing inquiry skills among others, creating
a foundation for social studies inquiry skills.
tween early inquiry skills and those learned later. Rich and diverse experiences at
home. and school provide learning opportunities and create students' prior knowledge.
The social environment in which such experiences occur is important in the
development of a child's attitudes toward learning.
The early inquiry skills developed by very young children are incorporated into
school social studies activities to develop social studies inquiry skills. These skills
include both basic and higher-level integrative thought processes. They are important
in social studies because they are necessary for exploration and investigation
of the social world. Most children, and many adults, however, are not very good at
using them (Glatthorn & Baron, 1991; Turner, 1994). Examples of social studies inquiry
skills include observing, classifying, estimating, using maps, inferring, predicting,
isolating and using variables, and interpreting data. The basic social
studies inquiry skills are prerequisites for more complex inquiry skills. Table 4.2
provides examples of student behaviors related to each skill.
Each inquiry skill is built on a number of subskills, which need to be
addressed. Table 4.2 describes behaviors that are necessary for elementary and
ABLE 4.2 --------------
Social Studies Inquiry Skills K-8
1. Identify and name characteristics of an object or event by using at least
fou r senses.(Useof the senseof taste is restricted to specific teacherdesigned
2. Be aware of the need to make numerous observations of objects and
3. Pose questions focusing on observations of objects, people, and events.
4. Construct descriptive and quantitative statements of observations.
5. Construct statements of observations describing observable changes in
characteristics of an object or during an event.
6. Distinguish among statements based on observations and those based on
'1. Describe the characteristics of an object or event in sufficient detail so
that another person can identify it.
2. Describe changes in the characteristics of an object or during an.event.
3. Use pictures, maps, tables, and graphs to communicate results obtained
from observations.
4. Describe relationships and trends orally, in writing, in drawings, and using
1. Identify and name observable characteristics of objects or events that
could be used to group them.
2. Order a grol-lp of objects or events based on a single characteristic.
3. Construct a one-, two-, or multistage classification of a set of objects or
events and name the observable characteristics on which the classification
is based.
4. Construct two or more different classification schemes for the same set of
objects or events with each scheme serving a different purpose.
5. Construct an operational definition of a single object or event based on a
classification scheme.
1. Construct one or more statements or explanations from a set of observations.
2. Identify observations supporting a given inference.
3. Describe alternative inferences for the same set of observations.
4. Identify inferences that should be accepted, m(j(jified, or rejected on the
basis of additional observations.
1. Construct a forecast of futu re events based on observed events.
2. Order a set of forecasts or predictions in terms of your confidence in
3. Identify predictions as (a) interpolations between observed events or
(b) extrapolations beyond the range of observed events.
1. Demonstrate the use of simple tools to describe length, distance, and
2. Describe objects and events using measurements consistently during investigations.
3. Construct estimates of simple measurements of quantities such as length
and area.
4. Apply rules for calculating derived quantities from two or more measurements.
5. Distinguish between accuracy and precision.
Organizing, Interpreting,
and Drawing Conclusions
from Data
1. Describe the overall appearance of a graph or map and the relationships
between individuals and groups of data.
2. Construct maps, tables, and graphs using information from observations.
3. Construct one or more statements of inferences or hypotheses from the
information given in a table of data, graph, map, or picture.
4. Use and construct maps and graphs of various types to interpret data.
5. Describe data using the mean, median, and range where applicable.
6. Use technology hardware and software to gather, analyze, and interpret
1. Distinguish between linear and nonlinear relationships in data.
Isolating and Using
Solving Problems, Making
Decisions, Investigating,
Thinking Critically, and
Thinking Creatively
1. Identify factors that may influence the behavior or characteristics of an
event or set of events.
2. Distinguish among variable5 that are manipulated, responding, or held
constant in an investigation or description of an investigation.
3. Construct a test to determine the effects of one variable (manipulated
variable) on a second variable (the responding variable).
4. Distinguish among conditions that hold a given variable constant and
conditions that do not hold a variable constant.
.1. Distinguish among statements of inference and hypothesis.
2. Construct a hypothesis relating potentially interacting variables.
3. Construct a test of a hypothesis.
4. Distinguish betwe(:n observations that support a hypothesis and those
that do not.
5. Reconstruct a hypothesis to increase its power to explain.
1. Acquire background information.
2. Establish initial conditions for the investigation.
3. Write focus questions to guide inquiry.
4. Collect and analyze data while attempting to develop explanations.
5. ReeXamine and rewrite explanations/plans if necessary.
middle school students to use each inquiry skil~ effectively. For instance, as
young~.r students learn the skill of observing, teachers address the need for them
to make many observations using all their senses. Teachers also encourage students
to examine both qualitative and quantitative characteristics. If an !'lvent involves
change, students are encouraged to make observations of the event during
the change process as well as before and after it.
Social studies inquiry skills can be grouped into four areas by their functions:
data gathering, data organizing, data processing, and communicating (see Table
4.3). This sequence is used when planning an inquiry lesson or unit. Early in the
lesson, several data-gathering skills are used. Later, data-organizing and data-.
processing social studies skills are encouraged. Student activities involving communication
occur throughout the lesson. A stronger focus on communication occurs
near the end ofthe lesson when final conclusions are made, shared, and evaluated.
A well-planned social studies lesson or unit involves skills from each area.
Data gathering is where learning begins. A number of skills are used to gather
data in social Eitudies: observing; measuring and estimating; researching and referencing;
questioning; interviewing and surveying; interpreting books, charts,
graphs, and maps; hypothesizing; and using technology to gather data. Students
Look closely at the photograph in Figure 4.1. Then answer the following questions without
looki ng back at it:
• What is your first impression of where this picture was taken?
• What do you think the people in this picture are doing?
Look at Figure 4.1 again and respond to the following questions:
• What details do you notice on a second look that you did not notice when you first looked?
• Do these details support your first impression of where this picture was taken? If not,
where do you now think it was taken?
• Do the details you noticed on a second look support your first impression of what these
people are doing7 If not, what do you now think they are doing?
• What can you remember seeing, experiencing, or reading that supports your idea of what
these people are doing?