Published Online: November 1, 2011

Teaching History Through Inquiry

One of the great challenges of teaching high school history is negotiating two competing charges.

We must equip students with a degree of cultural literacy by exposing them to America's past and humanity's shared heritage. In states like New York and Virginia (where I have spent my teaching career), students must be able to demonstrate this content knowledge when they take high-stakes history exams.

But we must also ensure that our high school students gain the skills and knowledge necessary to be critical thinkers and citizens in our democracy. Our world is saturated with media, and students need to learn how to evaluate the information they encounter, based on where it comes from, who is producing it and when, its use of evidence, and its intended audience.

I have found that teaching history through inquiry provides a model to serve both these masters, simultaneously. Here are some tips on how to do that:

1) Carefully craft your questions.
To teach a history lesson using the inquiry approach requires you to come up with a question that students can answer validly only by pointing to factual evidence. Crafting the right question is the key step that ensures students learn to critically evaluate information. Of course, "Should the U.S. have dropped the atomic bomb?" will certainly engage your students in a good debate, but this question can be easily and validly approached without historical evidence. You'll get more leverage from it if you set it aside for the time being.

Instead, start with this kind of question: "Why did the U.S. drop the atomic bomb?"

2) Engage students in examining evidence.
Do not answer the question for the students: Ask them instead for their initial takes on why they think the U.S. did it. Then, give them primary or secondary documents that confirm their viewpoint and ask them to develop a new point of view based on the evidence.

The inquiry process should not stop there, though. Next, present students with evidence that forces them to question their viewpoints, and ask them to reevaluate their original claims. Lather, rinse, repeat, as often as you can. In the end, force students to answer the question using all the evidence, not only the pieces that confirm their view. Students should not only make their arguments, but address all reasonable counter-arguments, as well as addressing the evidence that may challenge their conclusions.

3) Move on to more nuanced questions.
Once students are better informed, then it is time to discuss the moral question: "Should the U.S. have dropped the atomic bomb?" By now, armed with a deeper understanding of the historical context, students should be able to provide more nuanced responses than they would have at the start of the unit.

By forcing students to engage with all evidence, you can help them gain greater insight into history. You can also give them practice in participating in elevated political discourse—a mode that is very different from what they see on television news (with talking heads screaming at each other, but not listening).

4) Navigate myths with the inquiry approach.
The inquiry approach can be particularly useful in guiding students in navigating the myths of history.

For example, in the Western Civilization curriculum I grew up with, the story went that the Scientific Revolution marked the birth of the Age of Reason, bringing the world out of the religious superstition of the Dark Ages. This version of history ignores the scientific knowledge of the world beyond Europe, and even much of the scholarly learning that was occurring in European universities starting in the 12th century.

In my global history course, I give students documents from before and during the "Revolution" that show both reason and superstition, and let students write their own essays about how revolutionary the change actually was. I require students to engage with all the evidence, not just that which most obviously supports their viewpoint. Students become expert myth-busters, and also learn to see the complexities involved in making broad, general statements about a time period.

Some might protest that this takes too long, but it can be done in limited time spans, as well. Last year, I could only devote one class period to the Crusades. I opened the class with a brief lecture setting the scene for the Crusades. Then, instead of walking through the full inquiry process, I gave half the class excerpts from two documents offering the reasons for the Crusades from the Christian perspective. The other half received two eye-witness accounts from the Muslim point of view. I then led a class discussion based on the readings. It took students about three minutes to figure out that they had different readings. We then switched documents so students could encounter other perspectives, before holding a whole-class discussion to draw some conclusions. The whole process took 30 minutes. For those who would claim this is moral relativism, please note, I never asked my students who was "right" in this case—only to identify what happened and why.

5) Identify helpful resources.
The greatest challenge in teaching with the inquiry approach is taking the time to find the right documents. Thankfully, there are two very strong, free online curricula that have done much of this hard work for teachers: The Stanford History Education Group's Reading Like a Historian U.S. history curriculum and San Diego State’s World History for Us All. To see more examples of how this can work in action, I strongly recommend the Historical Thinking Matters site, which has four U.S. history examples.

6) Prepare critical thinkers.
We live in an age of information overload. Students need to form the habit of taking a stance of healthy skepticism toward the information they receive. And they need the tools to work themselves out of that cave of skepticism towards the light of humble knowledge. Teaching history through inquiry helps students move toward knowledge by engaging with the primary documents of the past.

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