By Alicia McCollum and student inquiry travelers

As an educator venturing into the world of inquiry design for the first time, the experience can feel remarkably similar to learning to play a musical instrument. I recently started relearning to play the piano and quickly realized that much of what I’d learned from childhood lessons were long forgotten. I recalled both the excitement of learning to play my first song, and the mistakes and “do-overs” along the way. The idea of playing was there, but the mechanics were no longer at the tips of my fingers. Like knowing the sound of a favorite song, but lacking the ability to read the sheet music or find the right key, having an idea and crafting an inquiry around it requires skill, reflexivity, and some practice.

C3 Teachers followed six secondary and middle level preservice teachers at the University of Kentucky as they designed inquiries for their social studies methods class. Each of the reflections below is titled by the student’s final compelling question and is followed by an answer to the question: How did it feel to write your first inquiry?

Finding Inspiration

Musicians often take their inspiration from life experience, and songs are tasked with making a fond memory or deep personal experience relatable. Inquiries, too, can breathe new life into the events and people of the past. It starts with a content angle. But what do we want students to inquire about? Social studies affords endless possibilities for inquiry. The challenge comes in turning that breadth into depth around a question that will remain relevant to students and rigorous to the discipline.  

How was music weaponized during the Cold War? 

By Kelsey Dickerson

Finding the right content angle was one of the most difficult parts of creating my inquiry. In the world of social studies, there are a plethora of topics to cover. If you can find a topic that interests you when you write your first inquiry, it will be much more fun. Finding the right content angle and the right amount of tension in a topic will make or break your spirit in the inquiry writing process. First, start with something that you find interesting about the topic. Don’t be afraid to do some research here! Once I knew I wanted to incorporate music into my inquiry, I had to do some research to find the tension in music made during the Cold War. It didn’t take long to find what I was looking for: music was used as propaganda by the U.S. government abroad, while people living in the U.S. were using music as a form of protest.

Making it Stick

I love good song titles. The best ones perfectly capture a mood while leaving the listener curious. In the same way, a thoughtful compelling question should linger with students throughout the entirety of the inquiry. It’s an exciting start, but it isn’t always a simple one. First-time inquiry writers quickly realize that a wealth of ideas await them. 

Has Disney’s Pocahontas done more harm than good? 

By Emme Smith 

I had a general idea of what I wanted students to get curious and inquire about, Pocahontas and her representation in the media, but I needed help generating an actual question that invited research and response from students. 

I struggled greatly with imposter syndrome, as many teachers do. It is often hard to believe you have good ideas and take pride in them. It is challenging to pick one topic out of many and gather all the materials in ways that make sense for your students and the research, but designing an inquiry from start to finish offers a feeling of accomplishment similar to how we hope our students will feel as they go through and complete the inquiry we have designed for them. The confidence gained after completing an inquiry is great as a student and a teacher, and I also believe that this is what makes inquiry, as a concept and a practice, worth it. 

Setting the Tone

Like the opening notes of powerful music, a well-designed staging task sets the tone for an inquiry. An inquiry’s opening salvo should peak students’ curiosity and provide intrigue and interest. But how do you start? Which learning experience hits the right note?   

Who tells the best story of women’s suffrage?

By Vivian Haggard

I discovered that writing an inquiry for the first time is like opening a door to a world of questions, exploration, and discovery. It can be daunting to attempt to create your first inquiry, making sure it’s an active and engaging approach that puts the learner at the center, fostering both curiosity and critical thinking. I had seen many examples of staging tasks through using a set of images. I knew I wanted to take this approach, but I struggled to find the images that highlighted the work of women’s suffrage. This was more difficult and time consuming than I had expected. Telling the story of women’s suffrage meant opening students up to varying perspectives. Once I found the images, I was able to annotate them, which was the truly fun part.

Building Complexity

Powerful music builds. Lyrics become themes that drive the song’s message and provide direction and complexity. Instruments help provide rhythmic structure to the words. Likewise, supporting questions create the direction and structure for an inquiry. But which comes first, the music or the lyrics? 

What do artifacts tell us about immigrant experience?

By Anna Peterson

I found it difficult to decide which supporting questions I wanted to include and how to order them. As I perused resources and designed formative performance tasks, I realized that my questions did not align to the ideas I wanted students to grapple with. When I ran into this unexpected barrier, I decided to work backwards; I was going to let the sources guide me instead of the supporting questions determining my research. I started with browsing an exhaustive amount of websites, academic journals, blog posts, digital museum tours, primary sources etc. about the extremely broad topic of immigration in the late-19th- and early-20th-centuries. Then, I gradually narrowed down the endless possibilities into a more selective list that I was drawn to the most. Once I knew what I wanted my featured sources to be, I referred back to my compelling question and crafted a way to connect the overarching theme to the very specific questions that would help students build arguments.  

Bringing the Variety

When it comes to instrumentals, the more chords you know, the more options you have to build complexity into a song. Some of the most beautiful music relies on just a few well-harmonized chords, while others layer multiple instruments to create a symphony. Students need good evidence to build an argument. Sources provide students with relevant information that builds off their interest in multiple perspectives and promotes meaningful deliberation. Thoughtful source selection builds on students’ reasoning skills with information that allows them to create claims that are relevant, well-reasoned, and evident-based. 

How should we remember the dropping of the atomic bomb? 

By Austin Vaughn

When viewing the inquiry outline for the first time, it seemed overwhelming like it would take a really long time to complete, let alone finding a topic that had plenty of sources I could use to make an informative and interesting inquiry. For my topic, I used an idea that I had been interested in writing about for a while–nuclear attacks on Japan and their lasting effects on the world. This topic allows students to investigate the history, geographic, economic, and the civil effects on the world in the attacks aftermath. I wanted a topic that is as relevant to today’s world with current international relations as it was then. One of the more difficult aspects of the inquiry was sorting out what sources to use and how to use them, if I needed to trim them down or if I was able to use the full source. 

Preparing for Performance

If the summative argument is the recital, formative tasks are the preparation. With each piano lesson, you learn a new skill. You add a few more chords and test another transition. You also become more confident that by recital night, you will be ready. Formative performance tasks build students’ inquiry confidence through a logical progression of skills. Each task is content-driven and helps students to answer the supporting question. It’s the work done in each individual piano lesson that makes a successful recital attainable. 

Do presidential campaigns matter anymore?

By Elizabeth Sullivan

The hardest part of completing the inquiry was developing the formative performance tasks. I wanted students to gradually develop and hone in their argumentation skills. During my practicum, I noticed that students struggle to write concise and clear arguments. I made the Formative Performance Tasks a gradual build up to making a full claim. Students start with a bulleted list, a news story, tiered writing, and then finally a claim. I wanted to maximize student engagement while still developing t their writing skills. 

Whether you are a beginner or an inquiry veteran, developing teaching practices around inquiry-design takes an openness to creativity and a willingness to continue trying new techniques. Whether it’s turning historical inspiration into a compelling question or finding the right tasks to help students practice their critical thinking skills, inquiry is a continuous process of experimentation, reflection, and adjustment–one that offers us continuous growth in our teaching practices to create inquiries that strike the right chord.