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Inquiry-Based Learning in Social Science Classrooms Essay

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Updated: Nov 13th, 2020


Until the middle of the 20th century, the value of teaching and learning methods was habitually measured by numerical evidence that was reflective of what a student has been able to synthesize, analyse, evaluate and remember. Conversely, over the last few decades, pedagogies based on constructivist frameworks and modelled on inquiry-based learning are being hailed within educational consortiums and within state-wide and national programmes of study for their ability to create long-lasting impacts on learners.

In addition to learners being able to acquire traditional skills as identified by Bloom’s Taxonomy (Bloom, 1956), inquiry-based learning also promotes other indispensable proficiencies. In the context of the primary humanities and social sciences classroom, inquiry-based learning provides relevance to student’s lives through fostering active citizens, developing critical skills for learners to discern accurate information for use in a range of contexts, cultivating adeptness in historical enquiry and engaging learners.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is among the most recognisable elements of inquiry-based learning. There are two ways in which it can ensure the relevance of historical studies to students’ lives. First, it equips the students with means for interpreting the received information and arriving at meaningful conclusions (Marsh & Hart, 2011). History is a subject that consists primarily of the accounts of past events, most of which can deliver important information if appropriately analysed.

According to Hoepper (2017), the study of history provides students with the opportunity to become critically aware citizens of the contemporary world by gaining insights into the mechanisms of development of their nation. Such understanding is only possible through an exploration of the presented facts, reasoning, and evaluating their relevance for possible real-life situations. By extension, it enables the students to make decisions based on the received information, apply it in unfamiliar situations through adjustment, and encourage reconsideration which is a crucial component of self-development process (Reynolds, 2014).

Second, critical thinking provides the possibility to detect possibly inaccurate information and evaluate its reliability based on its components. A good example of such a critical approach would be stage 3 of the K-10 history curriculum, where students are encouraged to explore the impact of a specific event on the colony. After getting familiarised with the event, they determine the significance of the selected event and conduct an investigation to confirm their initial suggestion using a range of relevant sources (Board of Studies [BOS], 2012). In this way, students are prepared to deal with the presented information in a critical way by supplying the rationale for their conclusions and comprehending the basics of scientific inquiry.

Prior Knowledge and Experience

An important element of the inquiry is the stage of obtaining information. Therefore, inquiry-based learning is virtually impossible without the integration of previous experience of students. According to Marsh and Hart (2011), past learning experience serves as the basis for the facilitation of reflective thinking since it provides the data for analysis and offers additional insights into possible outcomes of an event based on the known events from the past.

By encouraging students to reflect on the knowledge and experience received earlier in the course of studying or outside the classroom, the educators prepare them for the diversified and multifaceted environment of the modern world and connect the available information to the possible situations encountered by them in the real-world setting. Aside from the analytical capabilities, prior knowledge is useful for making judgments and respective decisions in unfamiliar situations.

Taylor and Boon (2012) suggest that combining the real-life experience of students with the imaginative reconstruction of a situation brought up in class provides them with a better understanding of the material by establishing an emotional connection and thus gaining a necessary sense of perspective. Hoepper (2011) points out that a link to lived experience is capitalised in the national curriculum and promotes its use among the youngest learners through inquiry into their family history, which would lead them to the understanding that other people also have histories.

NSW history syllabus makes strong use of the prior knowledge principle by incorporating materials from past stages into subsequent ones. For instance, stage 2 presents the information on the contacts between the Europeans as well as Macassans and the Aboriginal peoples, whereas stage 3 utilises this knowledge to analyse the factors that influenced the nature of convict or colonial presence (BOS, 2012). Such organisation ensures the actualization of previous knowledge and streamlines the inquiry process.

Authentic Learning

Finally, in order to ensure the relevance of the received knowledge for the real world and make sure that it can be appropriated to facilitate active citizenship among students, the authenticity of the process must be maintained. Tudball and Gordon (2011) state that the authentic element ensures active student participation in school-related decision-making which eventually contributes to the respective process outside the school and, by extension, active citizen involvement.

Taylor and Boon (2012) further expand the role of an authentic element by suggesting deep inquiry as a viable component of the history curriculum. It should also be noted that the importance of authenticity of the process for inquiry-based learning has been experimentally confirmed. Studies on the matter suggest that a certain minimum amount of authentic exposures is necessary for them to achieve the desired level of automation of skill in question (Marsh & Hart, 2011).

Once the received knowledge is aligned with the old information in a meaningful way, the authenticity of learning can be considered successful. NSW History Syllabus contains several components that incorporate the authentic learning principle. For instance, stage 3 of the syllabus outlines the British and American influences on the formation of Australian law and government and defines key events and figures leading to Australia’s Federation (BOS, 2012). This is done by exploring the local, state, and federal structures and responsibilities of respective governing bodies. As s can be seen from the example, the citizenship component is explicitly emphasised in the segment, which is expected to foster active citizenship position of students in the authentic environment.


Bloom, B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.

Board of Studies NSW. (2012). History K-10 syllabus vol 1 history K – 6. Sydney, Australia: Board of Studies New South Wales.

Hoepper, B. (2011). ‘Teaching history: Inquiry principles’, In R. Gilbert & B. Hoepper (Eds,), Teaching society and environment (4th Ed). South Melbourne, Australia: Cengage learning.

Hoepper, B. (2017). ‘Planning for critical inquiry’. In R. Gilbert & B. Hoepper (Eds,), Teaching humanities and social sciences. History, geography, economics and citizenship in the Australian Curriculum (6th Ed). South Melbourne, Australia: Cengage learning.

Marsh, C. J., & Hart, C. (2011). ‘Learning, skills and inquiry in social education’. In C. J. Marsh & C. Hart (Eds,), Teaching the social sciences and humanities in an Australian curriculum (6th ed.). French Forest, Australia: Pearson.

Reynolds, R. (2014). ‘Inquiry pedagogy’. In R. Reynolds (Ed,), Teaching humanities and social sciences in the primary school (3rd ed.). South Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, T., & Boon, D. (2012). ‘Historical Inquiry’. In T. Taylor, C. Fahney, J. Kriewaldt, & D. Boon (Eds,), Place and time : Explorations in teaching geography and history. French Forest, Australia: Pearson.

Tudball, L., & Gordon, K. (2011). ‘Teaching for active and informed citizenship’, In R. Gilbert & B. Hoepper (Eds,), Teaching society and environment (4th Ed). South Melbourne, Australia: Cengage learning.

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