“Why do we need to learn this?” “Will this be on the test?” “Is this for a grade?”

Most teachers are familiar with these student refrains.  Such questions reveal a larger challenge that teachers face on a frequent basis: how to create compelling, meaningful, evocative lessons that resonate with students and their fundamental needs to learn and grow.  The recent adoption of the new Connecticut Social Studies Frameworks provides an opportunity for teachers to begin the transition to a more inquiry-based approach to curriculum design and lesson planning.  Using the C3 as a guiding document and inquiry as a philosophical foundation, the Connecticut Social Studies Frameworks are the manifestation of many months of advocacy and the continuous efforts of numerous social studies educators at all educational levels.

Now that the Connecticut frameworks have been approved and adopted, the pedagogical shifts prompted by the frameworks will necessitate a gradual evolution in how we utilize common planning time and resources, how we conceptualize and implement instructional strategies, and how we think about and incorporate content, literacy skills, and assessments.  The curricular design of full units, lesson plans, and even elements within individual lessons must now respond to the prospects for inquiry.  As such, there are three outstanding qualities to consider when designing inquiry-based lessons:

 

Inquiry Lesson Design Consideration #1: Relevance and Connections

Students need to make meaning of content and connect it to their understanding of the world around them.  For many students, however, topics in their social studies classes often seem distant in both time and place.  Focusing on current events and delving into their respective historical and cultural roots can enhance the relevance of a lesson.  Likewise, examining meaningful and age-appropriate cultural, political, economic, and social issues will facilitate students’ understanding and allow them to appreciate personal, local, and contemporary connections to national and global events and issues.  For example, in an Africa unit we use in my school, we examine and discuss not only the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but we also compare and contrast these atrocities with present-day instances of human trafficking.  Lessons that are relevant to students and sensitive to the way they make meaning of the world and their place in it will undoubtedly enhance overall student interest and understanding.

 

Inquiry Lesson Design Consideration #2: Authenticity and In-Depth Analysis

Similar to developing lessons that emphasize connections to students’ lives, we must create lessons that authentically tap into students’ innate desire to learn about the world around them in a genuine manner.  Perfunctory, prepackaged lessons that involve a collection of seemingly disparate facts and concepts fail to leave a lasting impression on students and rarely foster the sort of deeper interest that derives from authentic learning experiences.  Authentic lessons, even those that are controversial, should generate discussion and should provoke introspection and self-reflection.  Moreover, such activities should encourage critical analysis and should help students become lifelong learners.  In our Africa unit, we use primary documents, images, and media reports to help students understand the perspectives of those involved in human trafficking past and present – while allowing for age-appropriate analysis of the inherent dilemmas and real-world implications.

 

Inquiry Lesson Design Consideration #3: Enduring Understandings and Engagement

Too often, subject matter is presented in a way that encourages short-term action – i.e. for simplistic regurgitation on a summative assessment.  Of course, this is what students are accustomed to, and many have been socialized to engage with course material in such a fashion.  When lessons are meaningful for students, they become more invested in the learning process and their overall performance will improve. But, it’s more than just a test score.  As students increase their capacity to direct their own learning under the expert guidance and tutelage of their teachers, they will be better situated to seek learning opportunities themselves. Dimension Four in the C3 Framework – Taking Informed Action – is one way to ensure that lessons are meaningful, memorable, and stay with students long after a unit has concluded.  A lesson focusing on the trans-Atlantic slave trade provides opportunities for further investigation into modern-day slavery by analyzing statistics, researching non-profit organizations, reading firsthand accounts, and heightening community awareness. All of these activities increase the likelihood that students will have a more profound and enduring understanding of, and connection with, course content.

Whether they articulate it or not, students yearn to grow – to learn more about the world, to care deeply and passionately about something, and to make a difference.  Teachers, as lifelong learners, also want to grow as professionals – to continuously improve our craft, to become experts in our respective disciplines, and to better ourselves for our profession and our students.  Inquiry lessons that are relevant, authentic, and focused on enduring understandings encourage students and teachers to embark on a paradigm shift together that leads to new ways to engage with content and skills.

If students’ participation in a lesson simply means knowledge acquisition for a test or a grade, we are responsible for perpetuating an educational culture that inadvertently encourages expediency and superficiality.  Inquiry lessons – designed with relevance and connections, authenticity and in-depth analysis, enduring understandings and engagement in mind – offer a robust and valuable alternative.