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Inquiry Strategies

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U.S. Inspector and Immigrants
(ca. 1913) U.S. inspectors examining eyes of immigrants, Ellis Island, New York Harbor. Ellis Island New Jersey New York, ca. 1913. New York: Underwood & Underwood. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,



One of the most important and challenging aspects of inquiry and historical thinking is to learn to ask and pursue meaningful and effective questions, and to teach in a way that encourages students to ask and pursue their own questions.  (A thought-provoking article on supporting students’ questions is Alfie Kohn’s Who’s Asking.)

Teaching inquiry strategies is an important part of being a skilled history and social sciences educator. Primary sources play a central role in this process, a point emphasized in both state and national academic standards.  See National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) C3 Framework and Massachusetts 2018 FRAMEWORK.

This page offers a variety of strategies and tools to help teachers and students develop the skills necessary to deepen analysis and investigation, with a focus on primary sources.  Find the strategies that work best for your classroom and students.


Library of Congress Observe, Reflect, Question Method

Use Library of Congress teacher resources such as the Primary Source Analysis Tool to help students learn through inquiry.

Observe:  Students should make no inferences about the primary source.  Rather, they should question only what they see. Teach the difference between questioning what you see and making assumptions about what is happening.  

What do you notice first?

What kind of structures do you see?

What do you notice about the people?  

Is there anything you notice because it is NOT there?  

Reflect: Students should now speculate about the structures and people in the primary source.  Speculate on the purpose of the structure and the role of the people.

Can you tell anything about the details of the source?

Why was the source created? Photograph taken?

What type of building is this?  

Question: Build on the questions that students have presented.  Encourage students to go deeper into the source. Brainstorm how students can find the answers to their questions.  

What would you ask the person who took the photo?

Where is the building?

When was this happening?  

Who owned the buildings?

Where did the people come from?

Wrap up the Observe-Reflect-Question sequence by having students consider whether and how the event represented by the primary source has impacted history. The teacher should help students figure out how they can find the answers to their questions.  Students should be guided to appropriate and reliable sources. 


Quadrant Analysis

A way to spur inquiry and close observation is by examining one quarter of the primary source at a time. This 6 minute exercise gives students a chance to focus in on particular details of the source.  Having students write notes about each quadrant helps students to generate ideas and text fragments they can use in their writing; the partial view makes it easier for students to make notes without self-criticism. The process is a way to introduce students to the benefits of taking their time when interpreting sources, and to finding tools to delay drawing conclusions before looking closely and noticing as much as possible.

Introduce this exercise by showing an image for the first time without a caption or identifying information, for only 60 seconds, asking students to write nothing, just look at the image. After the 60 seconds in which students are shown the whole image, show just one quarter of the image for 60 seconds, and encourage students to write what they see. 

The top left quarter of the photo is shown with the instruction "Use all the time you have to note details. Keep writing down everything you see."

Every 60 seconds, show a different quarter of the image asking the students to repeat the process


Finish the observation by again showing students the entire image

Entire photo with directions on the left side "Take one minute to add to your notes while you view the entire image."

Once this 6 minute exercise is complete, students can be directed share their observations with a partner, and to complete a variety of tasks, depending on the teaching goals. For example:

  1. What are the three most important details you and your partner noticed?
  2. What was unique in each quarter? How did the divided image differ from the whole?
  3. If you were to give this image a title, what would it be?
  4. Write a thought bubble for a person in this image? What are they thinking?

The whole class discussion following sharing with partners can provide opportunities for groups to share their observations, and to post titles and/or thought bubbles on the board for all to see. The teacher will decide the right point to share the full citation information for the image.

Discussion can turn to the historical particulars of the image, including

  1. Who is the audience for this image? Who made it, and why?
  2. What other questions do you have about this image? What would you need to know to understand more about it?

The exercise can serve as an introduction to new content or new methods, among many possible purposes.


Circle of Viewpoints Thinking Map

Prior to investigating a source, students examine the variety of people and groups that would interpret the source differently.  Members of the class brainstorm to arrive at a list of all the different viewpoints, then one by one speak from the perspective of the varying stakeholders. This thinking routine, published by the Visual Thinking project at Project Zero, helps students consider the social and historical context for a primary source. It provides a perspective-taking activity that guides students to draw on what they know to imagine different viewpoints, including the author(s), the intended audience, and others who were or were not directly affected.  

Social Studies educators can use this activity to develop a safe environment for discussing difficult topics in history.  Educators develop discussion guidelines based on the varying perspectives from the Circle Activity. Teachers can then create a system of hand signals indicating comfort level with discussing a topic and incorporate time for discussion and reflection.  Students will benefit from a discussion that is student-driven and not fully directed by the teacher.

diagram: a circle surrounded by names of groups of people
Circle of Perspectives sample diagram

Example:  A Circle Thinking Map on a primary source about lynching.


Stripling Inquiry Model

The Stripling Inquiry Model provides an image to help students make sense of the inquiry process.  The Stripling model is a six step inquiry model.

Connect:  Provide detailed context to the sources and connect to the major themes of historical study.  

Wonder:  Develop focus questions at different levels of thought and connect to larger themes for the unit of study.  

Investigate: Determine the main ideas and details.  Investigate the purpose of the source and the author’s point of view.  

Construct:  Draw conclusions about the evidence that has been compiled.

Express:  Apply new ideas to share with others.  

Reflect:  After every investigation, short or long, pause to ask what we learned about the inquiry process. What new skills? What approaches? What pitfalls? Also take a moment to identify new or still unanswered questions to take learning to a higher level.


Model Lessons

Injuries and Disability in 19th Century Industry – Stripling model and Read and Analyze Non-fiction (RAN) chart

Immigration:  The Making of America –  Quadrant Analysis

Propaganda Posters in the Spanish Civil War – Observe-Reflect-Question (ORQ) tool



Facing History has a page that links to dozens of teaching strategies to use in lessons, including many inquiry-based activities. They have videos on specific lessons and lesson types in their on-demand professional development section. Examples include two-column note taking for inquiry, the think-pair-share process, gallery walk, and more.

Right Question Institute.

See also assessment strategies.


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