The face of an inquiry may be the compelling question, but the strength of an inquiry and its questions is grounded in sources. The most compelling of compelling questions can’t go anywhere if sources do not support it. Just like scholars’ research, student argumentation must be grounded in evidence. Without sources providing evidence, arguments are baseless opinions. There have been times where I wrote a compelling question, had determined clear and concise supporting questions, but was unable to find appropriate sources to support the inquiry.
On the other end of the spectrum is having too many sources.
In a previous blog post, I said a particular problem of social studies teachers is that often we know too much. Another way in which this problem rears its head is in selecting sources. Knowing too much means we often try to include too many sources within an inquiry.
Particularly when an inquiry topic encompasses a big concept, it’s hard not to feel that selecting particular sources means excluding others. However, in their recent book, Inquiry Design Model: Building Inquiries in Social Studies (2018), the authors warn not to “jump in the deep end” of sources (p. 89). As educators who have dedicated our lives to social studies, we love sources. However, if we are training students in disciplinary thinking, we need to focus on the relationship between our questions, the tasks, and the particular sources propelling the inquiry. This means carefully selecting which sources to use and not use.
Selecting sources is a delicate balance. We want our students to have a variety of perspectives on a topic, but we should not overwhelm students with sources. Too many sources means focus becomes about trudging through the material; rather, the focus should be about immersing students in the content, context, and evidence of a source.
Thus, sources within an inquiry need to have direction. Part of teachers’ role as curricular-instructional gatekeepers (Thornton, 2005) is to select and annotate/modify sources to help students construct focused, evidence-based arguments around the compelling question. For example, the inquiry, Did the Constitution Create a Just Government? could include a number of different content angles: the protections of slavery, omission of women, powers of the different branches, constraints of voting and democratic representation, the electoral college, restrictions on citizenship status, etc. Though teachers may address all of these ideas, the C3 inquiry focuses students’ attention to the US government’s structure, slavery, and the amendment process. Thus, the questions, tasks, summative argument stems, and sources, are aligned to this content angle.
Teachers’ source selection helps students meaningfully engage in the inquiry process by aligning disciplinary questions and analytical processes with sources. By providing students guided practice in doing social studies, we are preparing them for applying inquiry practices towards independent research. The inquiry, What Made Nonviolent Protest Effective During the Civil Rights Movement? illustrates this process. One of the supporting questions has students engage in guided research, where they are presented with a source packet on the Montgomery bus boycott. The next supporting question has students independently research another nonviolent action. The inquiry focused on particular sources to engage them in the inquiry, preparing students to individually explore another facet of nonviolent protests. Students are better prepared to wade through an ocean of source material.
When determining what sources to include in an inquiry, first take a deep breath and remind yourself that you can’t include everything. Second, determine your (1) content angle, (2) the compelling and (3) supporting questions, and (4) potential arguments students may construct. Use these to narrow your sources and focus in on the chosen content.
Kathy Swan, John Lee, and S.G. Grant (2018). Inquiry Design Model: Building Inquiries in Social Studies. National Council for the Social Studies and C3Teachers.
Stephen J. Thornton (2005). Teaching Social Studies that Matters: Curriculum for Active Learning. New York: Teachers College Press.