A Complete Guide to Using Historical Inquiry in the Classroom

History is one of those subjects that can seem overwhelming when you think about teaching it. It’s hard to know where to start, what the most important parts are, and how your students will respond. Using a historical inquiry is a fun, hands-on approach to learning that can make history a lot more interesting and memorable for students. But what exactly is historical inquiry?

A historical inquiry is a process where students ask questions, analyze past events, and think about the bigger picture. The goal is to help students establish significance by using evidence, finding patterns, and analyzing perspectives. Using an inquiry approach helps students identify key ideas and make connections between the past and present. By doing this, students can better make sense of the past in a comprehensive way.

Now that the definition of historical inquiry is clear, how does it actually work in the classroom? The information below will give you an excellent starting point and some good ideas as you plan your inquiry.

What are the benefits of using historical inquiry in the classroom?

A misunderstanding with historical inquiry is that students will always arrive at one “right answer”. However, it is the process through which students work, and the development of inquiry skills should be the focus. Using historical inquiry in the classroom allows students to:

  • understand that history is not simply a collection of facts
  • establish historical significance (why we care about events from the past)
  • read and use primary source documents and evidence
  • analyze the causes and consequences of historical events
  • understand the moral and ethical dimensions of history
  • steer their learning in a direction that interests them and encourages questioning
  • see history as an interconnected set of people, events, discoveries, and ideas

As per the Ontario curriculum, the concepts of historical thinking underpin “all thinking and learning in history”. Students need to be taught historical significance, cause and consequence, continuity and change, and historical perspective. Moreover, the inquiry process is not designed to be linear, but rather in a way that makes sense for each student and their particular line of inquiry.

Within the inquiry process, students work in a circular manner to formulate questions, gather and organize information, and pursue sources. They need to be taught the skills of interpreting and analyzing, as well as evaluating their information critically and drawing sensible conclusions. Finally, they present their findings by communicating the results of their inquiry.

What are the different ways a historical inquiry can be taught?

First, there’s a difference between inquiry-based, project-based, and problem-based learning. We’ve written an article on the difference between these three methods, so if you’re unfamiliar with the key differences, I’d recommend browsing through that article first! Some of the different paths outlined below are purely inquiry-based, while some veer into the project-based or problem-based category; it’s definitely helpful to know the difference first because implementing one or the other will likely affect the way learning is communicated at the end. 

Regardless of the path students choose, building blocks like spatial skills, question formation, and analyzing data in a variety of contexts should be taught explicitly during any historical inquiry. We’ve written about explicit skills teaching in-depth in our article about Integrating Curriculum Expectations into Inquiry Learning.

1) Storytelling from a different point of view

Some students think of history as an intricate story that includes lots of different people, places, and events. While this is true, we need to remember that history is often told from a limited perspective. Sometimes it is told through the eyes of people who didn’t fully grasp what they witnessed, which can lead to errors, inconsistencies, and a lack of context. Most times, history is told by the oppressor, colonizer, or the person with the most power. Naturally, when this happens, we lose out on the perspectives of everyone else.

Choosing to conduct a historical inquiry with an end goal of telling an untold story is a big challenge for students. Tackling an inquiry in this way helps students better understand things like social organization, diverse beliefs, human behaviour, and historical empathy. Furthermore, acknowledging the different ways that history is told helps students learn about achieving a just and equitable society. We’ve written more about this in our article about Teaching Social Justice in the Classroom.

Steps to get students started

To support students who want to venture in this direction, prompt them with the following questions to reflect on in a journal or with a partner:

  • What would it have been like to live during _______ as a ________?
  • Who was not involved in ______ that should have been?
  • What factors allowed ______ to proceed?
  • Who was affected by ______? Were they in favour of or opposed to ______?

Encourage students to keep these questions in mind as they investigate their chosen topic. For example, if a student is looking at the exploration of Canada by Europeans, help guide their research to focus on the plight of Indigenous groups and how colonization affected them at that time as opposed to focusing solely on what Europeans did. Using the head, heart, conscience strategy is a great way to start students off.

Once students have located information to help them address their inquiry questions, they need to sort and organize the information in order to make sense of it. Exploring the concepts of identity and legacy can help with this. For example, what tangible objects connected people to an event or time period? Remind students that stories are defined by who tells them, when they’re told, and how they’re told. Stories hold inherent power and it is our responsibility to tell them truthfully, accurately, and respectfully.

Related Resources:

How to Respectfully Teach Indigenous History in Canada

Countering the Single Story Handout (FacingHistory)

2) Teaching history as a mystery or puzzle

Teaching students history as a mystery or unsolved puzzle can be a great strategy to motivate the most reluctant students. Lessons like “The Mystery of Sam Smiley” are a bit outdated, but show how teachers can turn history into an unsolved mystery. Furthermore, treating history as a “mystery” helps students think about history as something more active – something they “do” or “investigate”.

History, like detective work, is a process. It is one that is investigative that goes beyond the usual fact-finding, memorization, and the regurgitation of dates and people. As with detective work, historians need to sort through differing accounts of events, make educated guesses, and investigate leads in order to deduce information. For detectives, eyewitnesses and testimony equate to primary source documents for historians. Guiding students through the process of finding sources, evaluating them, and working to “solve” the mystery is all part of an active, problem-solving approach to historical inquiry. Furthermore, it reaffirms the idea that students should become active problem solvers as opposed to passive receivers of history.

Video: The Mystery of the Headless Romans (49 min.)

Treating history like a mystery also involves lots of questions. Instead of simply reading a historical account and considering their work done, students should practise the skill of asking questions, evaluating evidence, and, critiquing what they’ve read. During this process, students should begin to understand that their questions, hypotheses, and understanding can change often. In fact, they should prepare to revise their questions, question their evidence, and work to construct the best interpretation they can.

Students who choose this historical inquiry path have lots of options for how to present their final product. For example, they may choose to create a jigsaw representation of their findings, whereby they cut a poster board into interlocking pieces and share their discoveries. Other students might like to perform a skit that resembles a detective’s thought process while working through their case. Regardless of how students demonstrate their learning, the most important part is that they are considering the most effective way of doing so. They should consider the following:

  • What is the best way to “tell” the audience about the inquiry?
  • How can I ensure I am using the right terminology and making my conclusions “make sense” to the audience?
  • Would a variety of forms be more effective in communicating my findings?

Related Resources:

Ways to Teach Events that Occurred at the Same Time in History

Bank of Mysteries for Grades K-5

3) Answering a cluster of questions

When students have lots of questions, or choose to tackle a broad, complex topic, cluster inquiries work well. Taking this route usually resembles a thematic approach with lots of interconnected parts. For example, an inquiry into the Transatlantic Slave Trade would include links to economics, American law, trade, and geography. It would encompass key themes like white supremacy, the value of human life, and inequality.

Starting out is usually the hardest part with an inquiry like this. Students need to rely on visualization in order to map out their line of inquiry and how to demonstrate connections. Oftentimes, students have trouble understanding cause and effect. It can also be difficult to understand that events occurred in different places at the same time, and that many times, those events were connected. Other issues include:

  • Having trouble connecting small fragments of history together to understand larger movements and historic themes
  • Difficulty in developing a sense of historic era, therefore they are unable to piece together events from the same time period
  • Inability to grasp the depth, consequences, or links between historical events
  • Trouble seeing the interconnectedness of world events (for example, teaching the Vietnam War without providing context of Cold War politics or colonialism)

Students who choose cluster inquiries are usually very interested in history. This makes engagement and visualization a bit easier because they’re already interested in their inquiry. For students who want more of a challenge, they can pick a year and explore several different things that occurred in that year. Then, they can use some detective skills to uncover possible links between those events.

Related Resources:

Cluster Questions to Teach Black History

Free PDF: Historical Connections Questions

Teaching Hard History: A PDF Guide

4) Comparing and highlighting societal changes

When studying history, it is almost guaranteed that you’ll come across rules, actions, or behaviours that are shocking. In some cases, these circumstances challenge us to consider context as well as challenge our ability to judge right from wrong. For example, if you were studying the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, how would you use and discuss the dehumanizing language and use of the word “negro”, considering its past acceptability in society? Another example might involve students analyzing old movies for their content, colloquialisms, and the way society is portrayed and comparing them to the language and content used today.

Despite being a difficult consideration, some students might find this juxtaposition a challenging way to present the findings of their historical inquiry. Some questions to consider include:

  • What responsibility do we have to repair historical crimes and injustices?
  • To what extent should we impose our standards on the past?
  • What lessons might we learn from the past to help guide us in the right direction moving forward?
  • How can we use the ideas of progress and decline to make comparisons between two points in the past?
  • What aspects of the past can we see today?

It is true that studying the past is important to better understand the present. For many students, it can be fun to highlight features of one period and compare it to selected features of another. When doing this, it’s important for students to do two things: first, explore parallels between the times or events being compared. Second, look for similarities in the sequencing of the events being examined. For example, how would the creation of a timeline showing the French-Indian War be similar to a timeline showing the Trojan War?

Related: From Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter

When students compare events (even if they’re hundreds of years apart), they’re likely to notice many similarities. For example, the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr has many parallels and connections with the Black Lives Matter movement, despite being nearly 60 years apart. Furthermore, comparing events like this has the advantage of teaching students how to identify common causal relationships. From there, students can explore these abstract commonalities and apply them in a more general way. A good example of this application would be examining the causes of the peasant revolution and subsequent collapse of Russia and comparing them to other similar class or societal revolutions worldwide.

Considerations for planning

Any historical inquiry should be planned using backwards design; in other words, planning with the end in mind. While every inquiry will likely be different, teachers need to ensure that specific curriculum objectives are being met. Conferencing with students and getting an idea of the topic they’d like to explore provides a good starting point. From there, teachers can pinpoint specific strands that students will be touching on. In general, all students will be achieving the same inquiry objectives, regardless of the specificity of their topic.

Inquiry planning should also include ways to provide students with a deeper context of a person, place, or event, regardless of the topic or specific path chosen. Exploring topics at greater depth often involves asking questions such as:

  • What was happening during this period – laws, developments, societal changes, etc.?
  • Who was responsible for these changes, and what caused them to occur?
  • How did these changes impact people’s lives, decision-making, actions, etc.?
  • In what ways did people’s views (stemming from religion, tradition, work) influence the way they reacted to these developments?

Using primary sources

Photo by Kevin Drown on KNILT

Using primary sources is a fundamental way to diving deeper into a historical inquiry. They are fantastic resources for students to consult at any grade level, in part because they help provide necessary and helpful context for students. In a historical inquiry, students should be given the autonomy (guided when necessary) to collect information and evidence that is relevant to their inquiry question. As they progress, one of the goals is for students to determine whether their sources are credible, accurate, and reliable. Scaffolding the process of determining these criteria is important because students need to be able to identify the purpose and intent of each source.

It is important to remember that sometimes the evidence we come across was not meant to be a piece of evidence. However, it can still be useful in our attempts to make inferences about the past and helpful in answering our historical inquiry questions. Any kind of historical evidence can be used to help students build assessment and analytic skills, help them to hypothesize, and teach them how to detect bias. This often involves looking beyond what is literal and considering what isn’t being shown or what can’t be seen. These skills are transferable and can easily be assessed, regardless of inquiry topics.

Boosting engagement

Historical inquiries should be designed so that students are engaged. A great way to do this is to build in time for students to consider what they already know about a topic before diving deeper. Using KWL charts (free PDF template) or iceberg diagrams are a great way to help students ease into a new topic of inquiry. Teachers can further boost engagement by:

  • using a historical provocation to ignite student curiosity
  • clarifying the purpose for learning and explaining the importance of the topic
  • making connections to help students see the relevance and usefulness of their learning
  • scaffolding instructions in ways that encourage and challenge student learning
  • providing opportunities for students to consolidate and reflect on their learning

Related: Simple Strategies to Activate Students’ Prior Knowledge

Final Thoughts:

The following is a short list of some sample historical inquiry questions you might find useful in your classroom:

  • How does the study of a modern society contribute to our understanding of the past?
  • What can we learn from the study of this book about continuity, change, and causation in history?
  • What does learning about the choices people made during ______ teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?
  • How were people in the past influenced by different values, attitudes, and motives?
  • What structures were in place that allowed ______ to occur?
  • Examine the most significant lessons we can learn from studying ______

If you need some more guidance, we’ve created a downloadable PDF of 50 History Inquiry Questions for you to peruse. For students who need help tweaking their questions to make them more inquiry-based, check out our article on creating effective questions (scroll down to the section “Example 1 – History Inquiry Questions”).

Cover Photo by Laura Fuhrman on Unsplash

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