One of the most important and challenging aspects of inquiry and historical thinking is to learn to ask and pursue meaningful and effective questions. 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) 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.
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.
Take this lesson to the next level by examining one quarter of the primary source at a time. This gives students a chance to focus in on particular details of the source. This tool helps students to generate ideas and text fragments they can use in their writing. Also, it teaches students that they should take their time when interpreting sources and not jump to conclusions.
Students focus in on the belongings of the immigrating family in this quadrant.
Prior to investigating a source, students examine the variety of people and groups that would interpret the source differently. This strategy helps with developing a context around a primary source. It also helps for students to appreciate different viewpoints and the purposes of creating a particular document.
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.
Example: A Circle Thinking Map on a primary source about lynching. https://blogs.loc.gov/teachers/2016/04/selecting-and-using-primary-sources-with-difficult-topics-civil-rights-and-current-events/
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.
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
Right Question Institute. http://rightquestion.org/
- Joshua Beer, Goshen-Lempster Institute, New Hampshire (9:45 mins) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfXEf0nG51I
- Dan Rothstein TED Talk (13:40 mins) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_JdczdsYBNA
- https://www.youtube.com/user/RightQInstitute site
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Dhg13QBOBM&t=1s intro
See also module on assessment strategies.
Accessing Inquiry Pages