Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Using Inquiry to Teach About China

By Doug Young — July 26, 2018 7 min read

Editor’s Note: The politics between the United States and China have always been complicated. Doug Young, an award-winning teacher, coach, and consultant, shares how the College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework for State Social Studies Standards, can provide an inquiry framework to help students deepen their understanding of this complex and critical relationship.

Several months ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Qingdao, China, to teach English to students in grades 5-12. This city, like many Chinese port cities of the 19thand first half of the 20thcenturies, was a victim of astounding deaths, destruction, and occupation by western and Japanese imperialists. The city was also ravaged as a result of the Chinese Revolution between the Communists and the Kuomintang.

Upon my return, I presented a workshop, “Inside China Today,” to well over 100 U.S. teachers in order to help them integrate Chinese economics and history into their social studies classes.

I had previously visited China in the summer of 1977, traveling to cities such as Beijing, Harbin, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. That was also a time of political, economic, and social chaos. In 1978, when Deng Xiaoping came to power, many economic reforms and “socialism with Chinese characteristics” were instituted. His leadership, policies, and reforms put China on a new economic, political, and social path that ultimately resulted in the China I saw on my most recent visit. These policies laid the foundation for the emergence of China as one of today’s global and economic leaders.

From the moment I touched the ground for my teaching venture, I saw a totally different country with modern skyscrapers, cosmopolitan hotels, and global institutions. It still retained buildings reflecting its past, but here were also many statues commemorating victories of survival. From my perspective, it was a Chinese city of old now besieged by Audis and Mercedes, local and franchised restaurants (e.g., Starbucks, KFC), and shopping malls of unparalleled elegance with stores such as Tiffany & Co and Jimmy Choo.

I met English-speaking teachers, students in grades 3-12, and adults, including quite a few parents who had children already studying in the United States. Many were hoping to use their English to engage in conversation. Their knowledge of the global world was amazing. The questions and discussions covered our presidents, free speech, North Korea, tariffs, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the buildup of Chinese military and naval bases in the South China Sea and United States response to these actions.

This trip gave me the tools needed to develop the following exercise for educators to use with their students. With many U.S. states adopting the College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework for State Social Studies Standards, I used C3’s Inquiry Design Model (IDM).

So, let’s start the inquiry process by using the C3 Framework:

Frame the Question

Start by showing the students the French political cartoon from 1898 that originally had the caption (in French), “China: The Cake of Kings and ... of Emperors.”

Break students into groups and use a S.O.A.P. (source, analysis, audience and purpose) sheet to break down what the author of the cartoon is trying to portray. Although the United States is not involved in this cartoon, one question might be: “How does this cartoon demonstrate an attitude the Chinese might have developed towards western powers, including the U.S., in what they call the ‘Century of Humiliation?’”

Continue developing the conversation by listing some of the students’ perspectives from the cartoon and how China’s view of the world and United States today might have been affected by the 19thand 20thcenturies. Reference John Hay’s “Open Door Policy” in this discussion, as well.

Stage the Compelling Question(s)

Using the C3 Framework template, let’s start with a compelling question. In a previous blog, National Council for the Social Studies’ Dr. Lawrence Paska states the simplicity of creating a “compelling question.”

The question can be as simple as “Why are the U.S. and China feuding?,” or, “Will China be a long-term ally or adversary?”

For juniors or seniors with a background in global studies, one might use a question such as: “Can China and the United States escape the ‘Thucydides Trap’?” This is not an easy question as it immediately forces students to look back into history to research and discuss what is meant by the ‘Thucydides Trap.’ They will need to explore how the reference to the Hellenic conflict between Sparta and Athens can be used in a totally different geo-political world over two-thousand years later. Can such a concept be applied to the global world today as foreign policy experts discuss U.S.-Sino relations in the age of President Trump and Chinese “President for Life” Xi Jinping? I also like the ‘Thucydides Trap’ question as it brings into the classroom discussion and research about both expected and unexpected consequences that the tensions and conflict might have.

There is no right or wrong question to your compelling question, as long as it engages the students, meets your state’s content standards, and matches skill sets for that grade.

From classroom discussions when framing the question and staging the compelling question or questions, students and the teacher should next create the supporting questions, which will help answer the adopted “compelling question.” Below, I have listed three that I developed from my workshops, but you can create as many supporting questions as you like for your class.

Supporting Questions


  1. What happened historically that is the root of a rift between the U.S. and China?
  2. When have China and the U.S. been allies; what were the issues?
  3. Can the U.S and China find common ground when negotiating issues of globalization and regional hegemony?

Make sure students have access to the research they need to answer their supporting and compelling questions. These resources could be a primary document, a letter, notes from a journal, etc.

Formative Performance Tasks

Assessing student learning is fundamental. Throughout the IDM process, teachers do formative assessments using multiple tools for evaluating student comprehension, learning needs, and academic progress during the inquiry. A formative task might be to write two to three sentences describing why the Chinese don’t trust the United States and other European powers. Or two to three sentences on some new information they found. Use this as an exit ticket to frame the beginning of tomorrow’s class.

1. Create a poster board and do a presentation listing the numerous events in the U.S.-China relationship from 1800-1949.

2. Create an outline of key talking points of the current U.S.-China relationship for a debate on the compelling question identified previously.

3. Create a global map of current “hot spots” with a brief explanation of where the U.S. and China may have foreign policies that conflict.

Summative Performance Task

To conclude the inquiry, students should present their answers to the compelling and supporting questions in some form of summative assessment. These assessments allow for evaluating student learning at the end an inquiry using a rubric. A summative assessment could be an argumentative essay, an exhibition, dramatization, etc. Students should make sure that their argument addresses the compelling question using specific claims and relevant evidence from historical sources while acknowledging competing perspectives.

Optional Extension Activity

One idea for an extension activity on this topic is for students to hold a classroom debate by taking a position as to whether the U.S. and China are on a course to a possible “Cold War,” military conflict, or an era of peaceful co-existence and collaboration. Students should state their position on a placard and then give a two to three minute oral statement supporting their position with facts from the provided research and their knowledge of social studies.

It is my hope that this “inquiry” will help you engage your students and help them articulate their knowledge and skills as they work to understand our constantly changing global world.

Featured Sources

The following sources may be useful for you as you make plans for your class.

1. The Heritage Foundation, “The Complicated History of U.S. Relations with China

2. Wikipedia, “China-U.S. Relations

3. Council on Foreign Relations, “Managing U.S.-China Relations in an Era of Peer Competition

4. Intelligence Squared USA, Debates, “China and the U.S. Are Long-term Enemies

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