Part I. Combined Topic: Content vs. Skills, Inquiry and the C3 Framework

The topic I have chosen integrates the debate between content versus skills, inquiry-based learning and the C3 Framework inquiry arc, since these are all interconnected.  The C3 Framework provides an inquiry and child-centered structure for social studies to fill in gaps where content-heavy state standards are lacking.  Inquiry-based learning enables students to engage in social studies by connecting their personal interests and daily lives to current events, and by asking questions and investigating sources for evidence, through collaboration.  The state standards, as applied with the C3 Framework, are more balanced between content and skills than with the standards alone, which have traditionally been tipped in favor of content, meaning knowledge of facts and dates.  Emphasizing skills such as reading and evaluating primary and secondary sources, as well as encouraging debate and discussion provides students a space to practice civics and democracy within the classroom itself–aspects which they will need as informed, literate and critically-minded citizens.

A. Content vs. Skills

In the traditional social studies curriculum, memorization and recitation formed a large part of the content knowledge and discipline methodology, however, with the increased emphasis on testing for reading, literacy skills have been emphasized, yet this does not mean that content should fall by the wayside entirely (Wexler, 2015).  According to Wexler (2015), “For students to understand what they’re reading, they need relevant background knowledge and vocabulary,” so you cannot just teach students how to research, find the main ideas or summarize; there has to be something for them to summarize about.  The authors of the Common Core standards intended them to guide content through the curriculum, with states specifying more of it. 

A balance between skills and content in nearly equal measures seems practical and sensible in application, proven by research, given that the C3 Framework links literacy skills to the social studies as needed for college, civics and future careers as part of understanding what the humanities entail for domain transfer (Voet & De Wever, 2018).  David Didau (2011) relates that students need both in balance to gain knowledge and then apply it in new ways.  For example, students can learn about the history of child labor and economics and use what they know to critique its presence in today’s world.

B. What is Inquiry-Based Learning?

Inquiry-based learning is primarily the act of questioning, gathering sources and evaluating these in research.  It aligns with John Dewey’s conception of the term.  As Sam Wineburg states: “We need to show students that the self-assured figure lecturing from the podium is not what a historian looks like in his or her office, puzzling through difficult texts” (Wineburg, 2003, p. 3).  During the Progressive Movement, John Dewey developed inquiry-based learning in a general sense, and interestingly, in times of war and political conflict, the “citizenship-transmission” model overshadows inquiry leanings to find what unites Americans as opposed to the “citizenship transformation model,” which encouraged more community and school participation, more in line with Dewey (Bruger & Whitlock, 2018, p. 112).  In the 1960s and early 1970s, Jerome Bruner promoted the rise of inquiry in social studies through the New Social Studies Project (NSS) and curriculum experiment called MACOS (Man: A Course of Study).  During the time of this project’s implementation, it caused an uproar and was suppressed by some teachers and administrators who did not want their children to be transforming the status quo.  Parents and administrators didn’t want kids questioning society’s values using the inquiry method, which is one of its strengths.  So, the political and social climate of the time does affect the debate between skills vs. content, with it now leaning towards skills to de-marginalize the discipline (C3 Framework; Thornton, 1994).

C. Inquiry Skills

The skills of inquiry include asking and formulating questions under the umbrella question tied to the standards given by the teacher, or even brought up by the students themselves, researching deeply through investigation while evaluating sources and finding possible solutions while considering their consequences, as well as acting on understanding (Bennett, 2018; Gedeon, 2019).  Collaboration and problem solving are key elements that provide students choice and individual voice, as well as self-reflection.  Students who are not normally high achievers can also excel in inquiry learning.  Main categories include: literacy skills, critical thinking skills, research-based literacy strategies, learning strategies, and collaborative and civic engagement strategies (Bruger & Whitlock, 2018).  One challenge for the teacher is to provide enough structure in the lesson so kids can share the workload equally, focus in on the questions and receive helpful feedback.   

Other skills supported by the inquiry process include using timelines, map skills, compare and contrast, cause and effect thinking, evaluating primary and secondary sources, and looking into the relevancy of audio and visual sources.         

D. Examples

An example of using inquiry skills in the classroom, as put forth by the C3 Framework, is asking an engaging question at the beginning of class that students can respond to on a personal level, that might be be opinion based.  One possible question could be: historically, do you think immigration in the U.S. has been too restrictive or too lax in terms of its culture and laws?  Should it be more open or more closed at the current moment and why?  Allowing students to research a topic in groups or on their own provides them with more motivation to address the question and piques curiosity (Bruger & Whitlock, 2018).  This also places the teacher in the role of facilitator rather than one who only transmits knowledge and asks students to take copious notes on facts and dates.  By synthesizing information through posing and answering questions, students develop deeper literacy skills.    

Another example using the research skills in inquiry could have students investigating the Great Depression through Dorothea Lange’s photographic portraits of the people in that era, to further explore the relationship between the impacts of that time period on biography (Bennett, 2018).

Additionally, a pertinent example is teaching kids skills to use websites and evaluate sources.  According to research by Sam Wineburg in a 2016 study, 82% of students can’t tell the difference between an ad and a real news story.  An important skill that teachers can impart is digital literacy, which includes asking who wrote the article, evaluating sources for validity as well as bias, and checking out what other websites say (Lander, 2018; Elliot, 2018; McGrew, Ortega, Breakstone, & Wineburg, 2017).  So, the skills of social studies can be applied to digital sources, using inquiry to find out what is real information when doing research in a project.

In conclusion, inquiry-based learning is tipping the balance scale of traditional social studies content slightly more to the skills side of the curriculum while continuing to carry content like a snail shell on its back.  This links social studies learning to literacy standards as well, thus helping to bring it back to the central focus in schools and legitimize its position.


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