studentInquiry-based Learning for All

Inquiry-based learning is an active process that addresses meaningful questions. It's a process that crosses grade levels and subject areas.

Inquiry is "a process that involves asking questions and searching for evidence that can be used to design arguments, make decisions, and draw conclusions" (Lamb & Callison, 2010).

Librarians focus on helping students conduct inquiries across the curriculum. Historians conduct inquiries that have elements similar to and different from other disciplines including questioning, sourcing, contextualizing, corroborating, gathering evidence, interpreting, etc.

The Common Core State Standards indicate that students need knowledge and skills related to conducting investigations across the curriculum. Some examples for Grades 7-12 include:

inquiryThink about the inquiry process. Consider ways that primary sources could be woven throughout the inquiry process to held students learn. Danny Callison identified the following areas:

Inquiry is a recursive process. In other words, inquirers are constantly revisiting earlier stages in the process such as questioning.

You can find lots of standards-based resources by simply doing a search for a standard in quotation marks.

Let's explore how an inquiry-based approach can be applied to historical investigations including questioning, exploration, assimilation, inference, and reflection.


What is the question I’m trying to answer, the problem I’d liked to solve, or the key issue I need to resolve?

The Montana Heritage Project explores the natural and cultural environment Montana.

Use images to stimulaThink about the inquiry process. Consider ways that primary sources could be woven throughout the inquiry process to held students learn. Danny Callison identified the following areas:

Inquiry is a recursive process. In other words, inquirers are constantly revisiting earlier stages in the process such as questioning.

te questions. When you think of child labor what comes to mind? What are your questions?

How can primary sources jumpstart student questioning. Are you ready for a pandemic? How do Congressional Acts help with preparedness? Read the 2013 Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act.

Ask yourself, "how do I encourage students to ask deep questions rather than surface level questions?" 

Try It!
Generate a list of questions about Egyptian mummies. Then, look at photographs from Wikimedia Commons and refine the questions. What's the impact of the visuals on your ability to generate questions? How could audio, video, or animation be used in another situation?

Inquiry Starters

Think about how graphics, video, audio, data, and interactives can be used to jumpstart inquiry.


Explore sources for images students can use:

Start at Flickr Creative Commons and Wikimedia Commons. Check out the National Archives collections page.

Check Flickr the Commons for large-scale imaging projects from museums and libraries.

Focus on government image websites to stimulate questioning. You can find many photo collections at FirstGov. You can also check out image galleries by state.

General Photos

US Government Resources

Global Government Resources


Infographics has become a popular way to visually represent many forms of information. An infographic is a graphic representation of information. It provides the "big picture" that might otherwise be difficult to understand by using visuals to quickly convey the key ideas.

Read the article Infographic: The Slave-Slip Chart that Kindled the Abolitionist Movement. It shows the primary source document and new versions of it. Also read Description of the Slave Ship Brookes, 1788.

Use Google Images to search for additional examples. Search for slavery infographic.

Explore lots of examples:

Example (Social Studies): How to become president of the USECORNomicsTravel and TourismThe Lottery EconomyAn Old CityImmigrant LaborIllegal ImmigrantsHow Our Laws Are Made, Where Americans Are Moving,  Visualizing Human MigrationAmerica's Poor,  On the Rise: Poverty in America,  The State of the United States,  What Americans Love and Hate About the U.S.AWhere We VolunteerVolunteer Portrait,  Volunteers, California Vs the WorldAverage Age of CongressmanThe True Size of AfricaNapoleon

Video Infographics: Two-Party Vote,

Want to try making one? Soon you can use easel.ly, infogr.am, visual.ly. Or, try combining tools like Wordle and create-a-graph.


Maps are a powerful way to meet the visual needs of young people. They can help students identify locations, routes, and patterns. This type of visual thinking can be very helpful across the curriculum:


The Archive.org website contains lots of historical footage.

Go to Teacher's Domain: Social Studies. Locate short videos to serve as background information.

Explore the PBS Social Studies Videos for 6-8 and 7-12.

Video Content Sites

Video Sharing Sites

If YouTube is filtered, be sure to check the new YouTube Schools.

Keep in mind that you can use tools such as KeepVid to download video clips.


Explore sites with music and speech.


Data is a collection of facts that are the result of observation, experience, or experiments. Students can use charts and graphics to better understand data and convey their own work. Student enjoy timely information that connects with their life. Involve students in using information from the 2010 US Census in their inquiries. Start with national data, then ask them to look at state and local trends. Use existing data to create a chart, graph, or map.

measuredIn The First Measured Century from PBS, data are used to show trends from 1900-2000.

You can download the book at PBS as a PDF, read much of the book on Google Books, and also explore the PBS website for text, graphics, and video.

Think about shared class experiences that an jumpstart an inquiry.

Use neoK12 to find images, audio, video, and graphics.

Look for visual kits at KitZu for free visual ideas.

Starter and Background Information

Students need stimulating primary source starters. However they also need background information. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?... the primary source starter or the background information?

The key may be moving back and forth between primary source starters and background information.


Try It!
How do you deal with the "chicken or the egg? issue?
How do students get background information they need?

Background information is essential for students exploring a new topic. Professionally produced videos can provide a context for students. By seeing representations of the people and places discussed, they can gain valuable insights into the general place and time.

You might start with a video on Manhattan's history. Then, analyze maps and more maps.

Let's explore the pros and cons of different ways to provide background information for inquiry:

The Power of Sharing Questions

Think about the power of sharing using basic and advanced sticky walls.

Basic stickywalls provide notes that can contain text, images, video, and links. These notes can be organized.

Complex stickywalls provide more complex tools and organization of stickynotes and online resources.

Try It!
Go to the Consumers through History padlet example. Notice how students can post their primary source document and brainstorm questions.

Try It!
Go to Then and Now. Add an idea related to this image.


The image above is from the Imperial War Museums. "Soldiers of 'A' Company, 11th Battalion, the Cheshire Regiment, occupy a captured German trench at Ovillers-la-Boisselle on the Somme. In this photograph one man keeps sentry duty, looking over the parados and using an improvised fire step cut into the back slope of the trench, while his comrades rest."

Many students are looking for the quick answer. Encourage students to move from the shallow to the deep end of thinking through supporting cycles of questioning and exploring. In Info Tasks for Successful Learning, Koechlin and Zwann (2001) suggest evaluating the quality of student research questions by asking:
Focus - Does your question help to focus your research?
Interest - Are you excited about your question?
Knowledge - Will your question help you learn?
Processing - Will your question help you understand your topic better?

Teacher and students are both involved in developing and asking questions during inquiry. Generally, teachers are interested in addressing the essential questions posed by the curriculum and standards, while students are interested in meaningful questions. Think about how you'll combine both types of questions to meet the needs of your learners.

Try It!
What role does questioning play in teaching and learning?


During exploration, we ask students to look closely at primary sources. Look closely at documents from OurDocuments.Gov

When asked to explore, students will Google. Unfortunately, they're not likely to find primary sources. Encourage students to seek information that will extend their knowledge using the wonderful databases at Pioneer: Utah's Online Library.

Providing a list of websites such as US Mexican War from PBS is useful for background information, however it lacks the raw materials essential for deep thinking.

Instead, provide the raw materials to get students started.

Consider providing questions to guide exploration:


Pioneer: Utah's Online Library is the best starting point for database access in Utah. For example, Utah Government Publications Online has the Report of the State Fish and Game Warden 1897-1898 that contains an interesting report on fishing in Davis County on page 15.

For any topic, do a Google search for your topic and add "primary resources" and "lesson" for lots of examples such the lesson Manifest Destiny and its Critics from The Historian's Appentice.

Google Exploration

Young people often focus on a Google Everything Search and miss out on great resources. Let's say you've been reading a book about Helen Keller called Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller by Joseph Lambert. Use the many Google search options to explore this topic by simply searching for Helen Keller using different Google options.

Helen Keller

Use Google Images to search for images. Try dragging an image into the search area. Drag the photo below into Google Images. Is this Helen Keller?

Helen KellerAnnie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller

Google search process:

  1. Generate Questions
  2. Identify Key Words
  3. Select Google Tools
  4. Analyze Snippets
  5. Identify Main Ideas
  6. Connect to Questions
  7. Evaluate Resource
  8. Compare Resources
  9. Revisit Questions
  10. Draw Conclusions
  11. Cite Sources
  12. Reflect on Process

womanTry It! 1: Google Images
How could you use this in teaching and learning?

Let's try out some ideas.
Break up into small groups.
Each member should use Google Images to answer their question. 

What information skills or content-area standards could you address using this type of assignment?

1. The Woman. 
I found an old photo that looks like Annie Sullivan from the graphic biography. Is it really Annie Sullivan or another famous woman? How will I know for sure?

Organizing for Exploration

Rather than simply providing a list of resources, consider innovative ways to present information and resources to students. Also, give young people the opportunity to create fluid environments that others can explore.

Young adults enjoy learning about revolutionaries. These people present different perspectives on the world. They can also lead to interesting discussions about specific time periods and people who sought to change the world. Seek out graphic biographies and other unique ways to explore a topic.

Read Che: A Graphic Biography by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon. Use a variety of information resources that provide background information and varies perspectives.

Click the image below to see a bigger version of the image. Then, click on the buttons.

Che Graphic

An image map is a great way to provide information for a fluid environment.

Explore a Variety of Primary Source Document Types

Different primary source document types may require slightly different approaches to analysis. Many historians have created specific criteria and approaches to evaluating particular types of documents.

Approaches to Examination

Parts and Wholes: Cut up historical photos for analysis. Use child labor photos as examples (1 and 2).

Analysis Tools

Analysis Tools: Specific Worksheets


Deb Brown and Amanda Jesse suggest the following graphics organizers for analyzing different types of primary sources:

POSERS  – visuals, photos, paintings
Example: 1861 - Pony Express Rider (photo)

Setting – place and/or time
Engagement / Action

MUSEUMS – artifacts and objects
Example: 1360 - Treaty of Calais (artifact)

Used by
Exact Description
Used for
Modern equivalent
Significance / Story of the artifact

LUKCAS – charts and graphs
Example: 1890 Wages by Manufacturers

Assumptions or attitudes

TOADSKI – maps
Example: 1870 Mortality from Malarial Disease

Insets / Index

Example: 1866 - Map of Utah Territory (map)

Source. What type of source (i.e., photo, letter, cartoon)?
Occasion. What is happening?
Audience. Who is the intended audience?
Purpose. What is the creator's purpose?
Speaker. Who is the creator?
Subject. What is the main idea or of the document?
Tone. What is the attitude of the creator?

Example: 1911 - Marathon (photo)

Place and Time
Prior Knowledge
Reason Why Produced
The Main Idea

SPRITES – events
Example: 1983 - Sally Ride (photo)


TACOS – cartoons, comics
Example: 1813 - A boxing match (cartoon)


Try It!
Visit at least three of the analysis stations. Discuss the pros and cons of using analysis sheets.
What do you like and dislike about these sheets? How could they be adapted for your situation?

Discuss how and why historians create acronyms to help remember approaches to analysis.
Adapt one of the analysis sheets, re-purpose an acronyms or invent your own approach.

Historical Thinking Skills Interactives

The America's History in the Making project contains great interactive that model use of primary sources.

Students often forget that inquiry is recursive rather than linear. How will you help students remember to address these questions?

How did Theodore Roosevelt go from game hunter to the protector of the environment? What does the image tell us? What role did his 1903 meeting and tour with John Muir play? Ask:

Help students learn to locate and analyze primary sources.

Try It!
How will you guide students through the process of locating and analyzing?


The process of assimilation involves reinforcing and confirming information that is known, altering thinking based on new information, or rejecting information that doesn’t match the student‘s belief system. In an inquiry, assimilation leads to consideration of new options and points of view. (Callison, 2006, p. 7)

The photograph titled "Segreated Water Fountains (1950) would get students thinking about seeking evidence, documenting ideas, and making connections.

Organizing Ideas

Use tools like Cube Creator to organize ideas.

Concept maps are a great way to organize information. In the past, Inspiration software was the first choice. If funding is available, try Webspiration from the makers of Inspiration.

Use online concept mapping tools like:

For many students it's nice to have a starting point. Exploratree provides wonderful templates to get students started.

Although assimilation occurs deep within our brain, we can use visual activities to build these associations. Marzano, Pickering and Pollock (1997) identified six graphic organizers that correspond to six common information organization patterns:

These patterns can be applied to syrup production.

Syrup production

As you explore, look for unique aspects of at least 3 pieces of evidence and make comparisons.

Help students build arguments. 

Apply the Ds of Evidence to this problem:

VillageThe Ds of Evidence can be applied to any topic such as The Lost Colony of Roanoke.

My teacher asked me to select an image that represents the main idea of my inquiry. I'm applying the Ds of Evidence to see if this illustration by John White really encompasses my understanding of the native people at Roanoke during the 1500s.

John White (1540-1593) was an artist and become governor of Roanoke Colony. His were some of the earliest images by Europeans depicting native people. The recreations at historical sites match White's images and the materials available for construction in the 1500s. In 1590, Theodor de Bry copied White's work, but distorted the images.

Try It!
Select an image that represents the main idea of an investigation. Apply the Ds of Evidence to this image. 

Thinglink is an easy-to-use tool that allows users to create notes and hotlinks on images. It's a great way to critique paintings, reflect on history, or create a visual map. Very easy to sign up and use. You can upload 10 images for free.


Try Thinglink. For ideas, go to 15 Incredible Historical Photos13 Photos that Changed the World30 Photos that Changed the World, and World's Famous Photos.

Also, try a similar tool, Speaking Image.

Try It!
Go to the San Francisco Earthquake image. What do you see in the photo that we could highlight and describe?

Help students seek evidence, document ideas, and make connections.

San Francisco

The image above is from the National Archives.

Try It!
How will you facilitate the process of assimilation?


Help students support a claim citing evidence, develop arguments based on evidence, judge evidence and draw conclusions, and consider alternative and make a decision. These activities all involve inference.

Use tools like Docs Teach to develop engaging activities to practice making inferences.

As students explore issues related to the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918, they'll be developing arguments based on primary source materials. In the book The Power of Their Ideas, Debbie Meier (1995) describes habits of mind that cross content areas:

Spies and Espionage

Evidence is necessary to support a claim, justify change, or make an informed decision. Students must learn to identify, process, and judge evidence. This begins with looking for patterns of evidence. Ask:

Arguments provide evidence to support a claim. To develop useful arguments, inquirers must evaluate evidence, examine different points of view, and determine the most logical approach or meaningful conclusion. Ask:

When designing persuasive messages, ask:

In most academic situations, inquiry involves accumulating evidence that supports inferences that seem reasonable, logical, and persuasive. Students ask:

With each inquiry cycle, inquirers must revisit questions with an open mind.

Go to Creativity and Authentic Approaches for examples of resources for teaching about the Korean War.

Try It!
Rethink an assignment. What can you do to develop student skills in drawing inferences?


After rounds of questioning and exploring, assimilating and inferring, ask students to revisit the questions and goals of their inquiry. How did the project evolve?

Tools like Glogster won't make "copy and paste" projects deeper. An earthquake project with a bunch of primary sources pasted in is just a bunch of facts. Make it deep thinking by putting two students together to compare and contrast their findings.

Focus on comparisons. Encourage products that build in metacognitive aspects and opportunities for reflection. Examples:

I’ve created both a family timeline and a Civil Right Movement timeline so we can talk about how each member of the family might have been impacted by what was happening nationally.

Enhancing Presentation Projects

Whether learners use PowerPoint or Google Presentations, it's time to re-imagine our student assignments and assessments. Identifying a meaningful mission, infusing engaging examples, and offering opportunities to participate and extend the experience through technology-rich resources are critical to project pizazz. Eliminate the common problems that poison presentations and make your projects pop!

PowerPoint can be seductive. Young people and teachers alike are susceptible to it's charms. Small groups can be heard saying:

Rarely do we hear students or educators talking about the purpose of the presentation, the quality of the information presented, or opportunities to extend the experience beyond the presentation. These are the elements that make a presentation powerful... not clipart and annoying sounds.

In the past, presentations often displayed factual information as a series of bullet points. Increasingly, skillful presenters are shifting their attention from disseminating facts to designing experiences that address the diverse needs of their audience and the many channels of communication available for conveying ideas.

George Washington could have been King. We'll explore six events that led to his presidency and primary source examples demonstrating his thoughts on the new nation such as his Farewell Address.

Try It!
Is PowerPoint seductive? Why?
Are you happy with the quality of student presentations?
Is Prezi better or just different?

Engaging Examples

FootballEngaging examples bring life to a presentation.

We often explore history through famous people such as presidents. However it's interesting to learn about every day people too. Use family photos to bring history alive. My great grandfathers played on the same football team in high school around the turn of the last century. Lynk Thomas is in the front row on the extreme right and Paul Kinnick is sitting beside him. What would they have thought of the president of the United States at the time?

Use compelling examples including stories, experiences, anecdotes, and varied resources. How will I bring the topic alive with my ideas?

What type of examples best fit your mission? Will the project contain known, familiar, comforting, connected, modified, different, atypical, or unique examples to convey ideas and information?

How could you and your students expand your examples? For instance, think about the study of celebrations. When you plan for a happy event, how do you celebrate? If you're from India you might participate in a 5,000 year-old tradition of henna hand designs. National Geographic's People & Culture photo gallery provides images that provide interesting views on cultures that might be different from your own.

Inquiries may go in different directions depending on the questions. While some inquiries look for answers, others seek solutions. The goal may not be apparent in the first round of the cycle. By encouraging inquirers to reflect throughout the process, inquiry becomes a cycle building deep understandings. Ask:

Involve students in creating inquiry journals and timelines.

Many tools provide opportunities for Mashups. For instance Myhistro combines a timeline with a map.

Students need to share understanding and reflect on their inquiry experience.

Try It!
How will students share and reflect?

The Real World of Inquiry

In the real-world, the prospect of inquiry can be overwhelming.

Controlled to Free Inquiry

Scaffold inquiry with a balance of pre-selected questions and opportunities for free inquiry

Example of Guided Inquiry

I led my students through the process of analyzing primary sources related to Walt Whitman and the Civil War.

Example of Free Inquiry

My exploration of music from the 1850s lead me to songs about fashion. I create a song in GarageBand that’s a parody of the fashion industry.

Step Focus to Project Focus

You don't need to do an indepth inquiry for every assignment. For instance, you could focus on a particular step.

Example of Step Focus

Create a Voice Thread document. Add a primary source document. Ask students to record their voice analyzing the document. It now requires a license.

Example of Project Focus

Students create a museum-type exhibit including artifacts. Then, the record narrative in Voki.

Try It!
How will you "keep it real"?

Inquiry and the Dust Bowl

Annette Lamb (1997) developed a model called the 8Ws using everyday terms to describe the inquiry process. The Ws are explained below within the context of Callison's components of information inquiry. Daniel Callison (2002) identified five components of information inquiry: questioning and exploration, assimilation and inference, and reflection. Callison states that inquiry can address a workplace or professional problem, academic information task assigned by a teacher, or personal information need. When these three areas overlap, authentic learning can occur.

Inquiry logoQuestioning and Exploring

The inquiry process begins with an open mind that observes the world and ponders the possibilities.

Watching asks inquirers to become observers of their environment becoming in tune with the world around them from family needs to global concerns. Encourage young people to read the new at USA TodayCNNCBCBBCReuters, and other news outlets.

I've been watching video, looking at photos, and examining maps about climate change in online news such as USA Today and it made me think about our past and the future. Could the Dust Bowl of the 1930s happen again? What caused it? What environmental changes will happen with climate change?

Wondering focuses on brainstorming options, discussing ideas, identifying problems, and developing questions.

According to the Sanora Babb website, "Random House accepted 'Whose Names Are Unknown' for publication in 1939, then rescinded the contract when Steinbeck's 'Grapes of Wrath' appeared the same year to great acclaim." The books each represent the same time period in different ways. I wonder which is most accurate? Visit the Sanora Babb website to learn more and see photographs.

Exploration involves observing the world, investigating possibilities, collecting resources, interviewing experts, and experimenting with ideas.

Webbing involves students in identifying and connecting ideas and information. Data is located and relevant resources are organized into meaningful clusters. One piece of information may lead to new questions and areas of interest.

I've been thinking about the Great Depression and specifically the Dust Bowl. I starting exploring books such as "Years of Dust" and "Children or the Great Depression" and online photographs at the Library of Congress such as the Voices from the Dust Bowl collection and curriculum materials from the National Archives. Migrant Mother is a powerful photograph. I've been collecting information about Dorothea Lange's photographs during the 1930s. Are her famous images intended to document the Great Depression or provide propaganda for the government? I hoped that reading the book "Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits" would provide some answers about the photographer and her intentions. It makes sense to tell her story through photos. Here's a photo of Dorothea Lange taken in 1936 around the time she took the famous photograph of the migrant mother. I explored many photographs at Wikimedia Commons which took me back to the original sources.

Exploring leads back to questioning. Questions may be refined, restated, or new queries may emerge.

dustbowl photos

Assimilating and Inferring

Assimilation involves processing, associating, and integrating new ideas with already available knowledge in the human mind. This can be the toughest phase for young people because they may be uncertain about what they've found and where they're going.

Wiggling involves evaluating content, along with twisting and turning information looking for clues, ideas, and perspectives.

Inspiration templates are useful in organizing information. Inspiration provides two templates that focus on causality and cause/effect that would be useful for this type of thinking.

What caused the Dust Bowl? What was the relationship between the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression? What was the impact of each event? How did they impact each other? Could these two events happen again either together or separately?


Next, young people apply evidence to solve problems and make decisions.

Weaving consists of organizing ideas, creating models, and formulating plans. It focuses on the application, analysis, and synthesis of information.

The National Archives provides new online tools called Docs TEACH. This tools provides a framework for exciting activities.

I created a map activity at the National Archives that show how and why people moved West during the Great Depression.

I created a scrapbook diary for different elements of the Great Depression such as the economic and social aspects. This scrapbook helps me organize my thoughts and also put myself in the shoes of a person living at that time.

videoAs students weigh evidence, they may go back and collect additional information to support their inferences. This process of assimilation and inference reoccurs as young people accumulate information.


As students make decisions and solve problems, they think about the process and consider how to share their conclusions and plan for future inquiries.

Wrapping involves creating and packaging ideas and solutions. Why is this important? Who needs to know about it? How can I effectively convey my ideas?

I'm interested in the impact of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl on children. I created a story by remixing historical video and images. After reading the book "This Land Was Made for You and Me", I decide to incorporate music by Woody Guthrie. If I share it on YouTube, lots of people will see it.

comicWaving consists of communicating ideas to others through presenting, publishing, and sharing. How will I market my ideas and who will I ask for feedback?

As read nonfiction books and looked at the many photos, I wondered about the lives of the people represented in the images. I decided to Integrate historical photos into a fictional graphic story that infuses factual information. I'm using Comic Life. I'm going to talk my friends into adding their short stories to mine. If we get enough, we could publish then using CreateSpace.

Wishing involves assessing, evaluating, and reflecting on the process and product of inquiry. Was the project a success? What will I do next?

After learning about the Dust Bowl, I thought it would be fun to learn more about the tall tales of the time period. I began another round of inquiry. I read the graphic novel The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan. Then I read a Jack Tale (Source 1Source 2). I compared photos of the time period with historical drawings/ Then, I wrote a tale tale using Scratch software and images from Open Clipart Library.

Print Resources

Video Resources

Images Resources



Try It!
Discuss a project idea that combines information inquiry and social studies.

| eduscapes | IUPUI Online Courses | Activate | 42explore | About Us | Contact Us | © 2013 Annette Lamb