Create Your Own Investigation from Scratch
Creating investigations in history/social science is one way to engage students as active learners in the process of inquiry. Through investigations, students learn to critique the texts they read and develop and communicate their ideas through writing. Inquiry gives students opportunities to develop knowledge about historical events and social studies issues as they read and analyze sources and write arguments. Investigations offer students contexts in which they write for an authentic purpose and audience, enabling them to connect the past with the present.
On this page, we share the processes we engaged in as we developed our investigations. Of course, there is no recipe for creating challenging and motivating curriculum materials, and you will bring your own interests and approaches to this task. While we lay out the process as a series of steps, you will find yourself moving back and forth between the steps as you develop a focus, identify sources, and create materials that engage students.
Table of Contents
Pick a topic.
Any of the topics you teach has the potential to be developed into an inquiry investigation. Topics for an inquiry unit can be historical topics (e.g., The American Revolution, The Trail of Tears) or social studies topics or themes (e.g., migration patterns, resource inequality).
Clarify learning goals.
Consider consulting the Common Core State Standards and C3 Framework as you plan. Specifying your goals will help you make choices about what to include and emphasize in the curriculum. For instance, in our investigations our goals were to have students reasoning and writing with sources, which necessitates they work on analytical reading, speaking, listening, and evidence-based argument writing. Our specific goals are laid out in the Scope and Sequence document.
Learn About Your Topic
News coverage (e.g., the New York Times, Google News, or NewsELA) might shed light on some present-day disagreements about how a particular historic event is remembered or controversies about how the particular topic relates to contemporary issues.
University course syllabi.
University course syllabi and the readings listed in them can help you understand key issues related to your topic and consider how experts in the field currently think about the topic. What are the debates in the field, or what questions are experts asking about the topic? Here are some tips for learning:
- Google topic key words + “syllabus” + “site:.edu” to see what comes up. (For example, for a unit on women’s roles in early America, type in: early America women syllabus site:.edu). Some syllabi may be from history departments, some from American studies, some from sociology or political science, depending on the topic. Ask: how is the course organized? What key questions/big ideas are explored? This is a good starting point for potential central questions to focus your investigation: questions about causation, about representation, or about significance, for example.
- Next, look at the course readings. Some may be primary sources that you could also use, and others may be books or articles written by experts that would help you learn more about the topic and related issues or questions. If you can locate these sources, skim an introductory chapter to see what problems or questions are being debated and how the topic has been treated or interpreted differently over time, so you can build your background knowledge and identify sources that may be useful. The Library of Congress offers many digital materials; you can explore its archive here through its catalog or digital collections at https://www.loc.gov/
Define Your Focus
Develop a central - or compelling - question.
- The CQ provides an overarching purpose for the inquiry. CQ’s are most effective when they are debatable, open to multiple interpretations, and position students to formulate arguments using the sources you provide. A central question can take different forms:
- Forced-choice (Yes/No) questions, which lead students to argue for different positions:
- Is Post-Apartheid South Africa living up to its promises?
- Open-ended questions, which allow for multiple answers and might focus on a specific disciplinary concept:
- Why did the Trail of Tears happen? (Cause)
- Which source is most reliable for studying the Silk Road? (Perspective)
- Which aspect of the women’s movement should we remember? (Significance)
- Forced-choice (Yes/No) questions, which lead students to argue for different positions:
- As you read about your topic, you will likely identify sources you might use with students. Source can take a wide range of forms, from diaries and letters to laws and policy statements, news articles, maps, paintings, statistical reports, etc. Consider exploring what sources experts consult when they write about the topic. Also explore the rich archive of sources offered by the Library of Congress (LOC). At http://www.loc.gov/teachers/usingprimarysources/finding.html you’ll find guides for educators, sets of primary sources, and sources organized by themes. We offer a list of additional places to find sources at the end of this guide.
- The sources you select should:
- Represent a range of author perspectives
- Offer ideas and information that help students answer the CQ
- Include information that helps students consider source reliability
- Accommodate your students’ range of reading levels
- Focus on finding sources that will help students debate the CQ even if the reading level seems high. You may eventually need to adapt some sources to a reading level that makes them accessible to your students.
Create a writing assignment.
- As you read about the topic, think about an authentic writing assignment for students. For example, in our investigations, students write:
- Emails arguing for an interpretation, to news organizations or museum curators (6th grade)
- Letters that make a critique, arguing against an interpretation, to newspaper editorial boards, universities, or their peers (7th grade)
- Speeches or letter that make an argument and address counterarguments or counterevidence, to news organizations, museums, politicians (8th grade)
- Feel free to use our writing assignments with your topics!
- Or, if you prefer to develop your own writing assignment, ask yourself, where are places where social studies and history issues are discussed or communicated to the public? (Ex: different forms of news and social media, public museums and archives, movies, television, textbooks, etc.) This will be your audience.
- Remember that writing can take multiple forms, such as an email, a blog post, a book review — not just a traditional essay written for the teacher.
Develop Curriculum Materials for Students
Connect to and extend students' background knowledge.
Consider the knowledge, experiences, and interests that will help your students connect to the topic/theme. For example, during one investigation about the relationship between population and water sources, where we worked with maps, students began by considering their local environment and different ways to map that space.
Create activities that make connections to the prior knowledge your students can build on as they develop new knowledge to support their work during the investigation. What will they need to know to make sense of the information in the sources you have selected, the perspectives of the authors, or the historical context? But don’t give away the whole story before students have a chance to investigate it for themselves! You can develop background knowledge with a brief lecture/presentation, video clip, or by reading the classroom textbook. This is also an important time to introduce concepts that are central to the investigation (ex: turning points, multiple causes, scarcity, etc.).
Adapt and modify sources.
Adapting sources is one way to differentiate for reading levels within a class and provide equitable access to complex texts for all students. Adaptations should be a temporary – not a permanent—crutch, such that students develop the capacity to work with complex texts over time. Leave some challenging language in the sources you adapt, so your students learn that working with primary sources gives them opportunities to see how writers in the past used language in different ways, and develop the capacity to work with complex texts over time.
Based on Sam Wineburg and Daisy Martin’s 2009 article in Social Education, “Tampering with History,” there are different ways to adapt sources:
- Excerpt parts of the source that are most relevant to the CQ
- Highlight challenging words and phrases and provide definitions.
- Simplify the syntax by substituting known words or phrases for language that is archaic or very infrequent and that is not likely to be relevant for other contexts. Put the language you introduce in brackets in place of the original language of the sources to indicate that you have made a modification.
Present the sources in ways that are student- friendly and that support historical thinking:
- Lay out the source on its own page.
- Add a title and relevant visual element to orient the reader.
- Create an attribution (source line below the source) that is a formal citation of the author, date, and where you found it.
- Create a head note that briefly explains more detail about where the source comes from, who the author or audience was, where the source was created, and/or what else was going on at the time that may be relevant.
- Format the body of the excerpted text with a larger font and with 2 inches of space around the edges of the source.
- Consider the Lexile Reading Band for your grade level. Lexile.com provides a free tool for you to determine the Lexile level of text.
Support disciplinary reading, thinking, discourse, and writing.
Provide disciplinary literacy tools to scaffold students’ work with sources and Central Questions and structure inquiry in the day-to-day. You can use the full set of tools from Read.Inquire.Write. to support reading, analysis, discussion, and argumentation, or try these resources:
- Library of Congress’ source analysis guide
- “Why Historical Thinking Matters” video about historical ways of reading such as sourcing, contextualization, and corroboration
- Library of Congress guide to support students in learning cite sources in their writing