In classrooms, we use inquiries to deepen student understanding of content and to sharpen student skills towards making evidence-based arguments, asking important questions, and taking informed action. In the past, I’ve worked with teachers on adopting the language of inquiry, not only as they learn to create and deploy inquiries, but as general praxis. In my own work, inquiry has become much more than a way to deploy content and sharpen skills; the lexicon of inquiry has become the way I think about teaching and learning more broadly.

For example, when I write a syllabus, I always start with questions. Then I think about the kinds of disciplinary sources I want to feature and the kinds of formal and informal performance tasks I’ll use to assess student learning (Swan, Grant, & Lee, 2015). Throughout the semester, I rely on questions, tasks, and sources to propel my students towards asking important questions themselves about American schooling and society. As they do this, I want the students to be active in the learning process and I want them to be critical, but I don’t want to influence them so much that I do the work for them or crush their spirits. Most importantly, I want the course content to be relevant to their lives as future teachers, and I want them to see themselves as civic and political actors. Therefore, when I learned that I would be teaching a social studies assessment course as part of a cross-content assessment course this spring, I started thinking about some of the tension points surrounding not only teacher education, but also student assessment. After hours of reviewing the cannon of assessment texts that I read when I was a preservice teacher and thinking about the assessment courses I took as a graduate student relative to my experience assessing students’ learning in the classroom, I began to wonder what it might look like to teach assessment through the IDM.

Like all good teaching, I started planning backwards. At Syracuse University, this assessment course is combined with our teacher candidates’ second student teaching placement. In other words, assessment is one of the classes they take right before entering the field. Therefore, in this four-credit course (three credits for the assessment class and one for the student teaching seminar), students learn about assessment as they plan lessons that they will deploy in their practicum placements and beyond. Like many culminating courses in teacher education, the final assignment for our course included a portfolio of work informed by the assessment components of the four-credit course and implemented during their student teaching. As I imagined what this summative task might look like, I envisioned the kind of portfolio a would-be first-year teacher might take with them to their first interviews. With this end product in mind, and knowing that I wanted my six preservice teachers to (1) learn the language of inquiry; (2) create an inquiry using the IDM; (3) become familiar with a number of cross-content performance tasks; (4) gain proficiency in UbD, writing KUD statements, and constructing measurable objectives; and (5) see the ways that inquiry serves justice-oriented pedagogy (specifically antiracist teaching), I started to fire up my own inquiry about teaching social studies assessment through the IDM.

First, using Wiggins and McTighe’s (2005) Understanding by Design (UbD), I created what I call a UbD strand. I use UbD strands to frame curriculum and inquiries in their initial construction phases and to check myself against my intended curricular aims. UbD strands are interconnected Big Ideas, Essential Questions, and Enduring Understandings that frame the inquiry, or even an entire course.

Once I had my UbD strand I started looking at content angles and tension points surrounding social studies curriculum and university adopted proficiency standards for preservice teachers. Deciding on Critical Race Theory (CRT) as a tension point, I arrived at a compelling question: If teaching is a political act can we really keep politics out of the classroom? Once I had my compelling question, like all good inquiry praxis, I stress-tested my question by writing argument stems focused on what I wanted my students Know, Understand, and be able to Do (KUD).  

Argument Stem #1: No, you cannot keep your personal politics out of the classroom.

  • To support this claim, preservice teachers might bring up the inherently political components of language preservation projects, food sovereignty, linguistic justice, abolitionist teaching, and/or culturally relevant pedagogy (Nickman, 2009; NK 360, 2018; Lyiscott, 2014; Baker Bell, 2020; Love, 2019; Ladson Billings, 1995; 2014). In making these claims, preservice teachers might describe the intimate connection between literacy and broader democratic political projects, suggesting that the curation of sources is a political act in itself and, as such, points to the teacher’s personal politics. To these ends, they may cite Bettina Love and describe the ways that teacher activism in the classroom translates to how teachers select and construct questions, tasks, and sources (Swan, Lee, & Grant, 2018a; 2018b). Within this perspective, a sustained commitment to social justice or abolitionist teaching may dictate a “certain kind” of education that pushes back against oppression and the status quo (Hill Collings, p. 6; Love, 2019). As such, literacy becomes a political project designed to help students develop a core set of values, beliefs, and morals based in liberation and social justice, which are all informed by the teacher’s political beliefs.

Argument Stem #2: Sometimes, you should try to keep personal politics out of the classroom.

  • In support of this claim, preservice teachers may convey that although teaching is a political act, teachers should not feel compelled to reveal the totality of their political perspectives to their students. In fact, using Vygotsky’s sociocultural learning theory, they might argue that in some situations disclosing your personal politics could cause some students to shut down or disengage (Tolentino Teaching, 2020). From this perspective, students enter the classroom with already existing perspectives and overtly disrupting these perspectives might have adverse effects on the learning environment. For example, if a teacher is pro-choice and teaches in a community highly influenced by strict religious affiliations that do not believe in abortion, it might be more effective to ask students questions like “Can people be anti-abortion and pro-choice?” than to disclose their perspective on abortion. In support of this argument, preserves teachers might point to the idea that disciplinary thinking relies on carefully selected sources that propel students towards critical thinking (Muetterties, 2019). Preservice teachers who argue this perspective may believe that while some moments might call on us to make our political beliefs known, we can also rely on inquiry as a means to help students wade through controversial topics.

Argument Stem #3: Yes, you can teach politically without fully disclosing your politics.

  • In support of this claim, preservice teachers may point to the ways that inquiry can work to interrogate complex topics while allowing students to come to their own conclusions. They may cite Bonnie Lewis’ inquiry and blog, suggesting that while Lewis selected the resources, such as Margaret Bourke-White’s photograph The Louisville Flood, which obviously points to a specific view of unsettling white supremacy, the student-centered nature of inquiry “creates an environment of investigation not indoctrination” (Lewis, 2021). In Lewis’ inquiry, students focus on analyzing text for meaning in order to better understand and make arguments about why Wilkerson’s book hits a nerve. From this perspective, the focus on skills, such as describing how the text conveys meaning, supports analysis over simply stating opinions. Therefore, while the selection of this book points to some of the broader political agendas related to Antiracism and social justice, the difficult and fruitful conversations that come out of this inquiry focus on text analysis rather than personal opinions.

Once I had the building blocks of my assessment course, I started mapping out the Blueprint that would guide my course. In the blogs that follow, you will read more about how teaching assessment through inquiry panned out, what we all learned, and if we would do this again!

About MaryBeth Yerdon

MaryBeth Yerdon is a Curriculum and Instruction doctoral candidate at Syracuse University's School of Education. Her work looks at the intersection of Practice Based Teacher Education and justice-oriented frameworks. Formally, MaryBeth taught in South Korea and in Las Vegas, where she was a Social Studies content specialist. Before coming to Syracuse MaryBeth served as an education product developer at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.