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Challenges and Opportunities of Shifting to an Inquiry-Based Curriculum

CIRCLE's work examining teachers' implementation of the Investigating History Curriculum in Massachusetts highlights the support educators need to successfully make shifts in their classrooms.

Authors: Kelly Siegel-Stechler, Sarah Burnham


As part of our efforts to support effective and equitable civic learning for all students, CIRCLE has been working together with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to help understand the state of civics education and identify needs and opportunities to support teachers. As part of the implementation strategy for the 2018 History and Social Science Framework, CIRCLE led a study and published a report on The State of Civic Education in Massachusetts (2020), which highlighted the need for curricular materials and professional development to support teachers in developing confidence and efficacy teaching civics. 

Following that study, a new curriculum called Investigating History was designed to provide high-quality instructional materials to better support teachers and students through the use of inquiry-based, culturally responsive instruction. The curriculum also aims to encourage the inclusion of meaningful social studies instructional time in Grades 5, 6, and 7—for which there have been fewer strong materials. 

In the 2022-2023 academic year, CIRCLE co-led an evaluation of the newly introduced Investigating History curriculum. We conducted classroom observations, interviewed teachers, gathered feedback, and employed skills-based assessments for grades 5 and 6 to gain a deeper understanding of the curriculum's implementation, training methods, and additional support measures offered. Based on our work, we offer insights and takeaways that we believe can inform broader efforts to improve equitable civic education and to foster civic learning engagement in all students. 

Actionable Challenges

Social studies has traditionally centered around content, with courses and standards defined by finite time periods, geographic areas, or subject matter. Shifting to an inquiry-based model instead requires conceptualizing social studies more like ELA and STEM subjects: developing disciplinary skills and dispositions that build on one another. That can be a significant mindset shift for teachers, who may have learned to teach social studies in way that required students to learn and remember specific facts, timelines, or historical figures. This can contribute to conflicting priorities between the curriculum, which is focused on skills, and a teacher who may be more focused on content. 

As a result, teachers may be trying to fit in a lot of additional content which can lead to pacing challenges. In trying to address that challenge, some teachers adopt strategies that impact equity in the classroom, such as more frequently calling on students whom they’re more confident will provide the correct answer in order to save time. Despite these challenges, many teachers who have embraced new pedagogies and instructional activities have witnessed high levels of student engagement and increased interest in social studies among their students. Forty-two percent of teachers participating in the pilot rated the quality of the curriculum “high” or “very high” in terms of student engagement and enjoyment. Similarly, while 29% of teachers indicated before the pilot that motivating students to be interested in social studies was a challenge for them, only 19% of teachers said the same at the end of the year. 

Some challenges to implementing an inequity-based civics curriculum can be beyond educators’ control, but are not impossible to address. The COVID-19 related shutdowns and shifts to remote learning have led to varying levels of learning loss and skill gaps among students. In addition, the transition back to in-person learning after a prolonged period of remote learning has left some students struggling to readjust to classrooms and group work. Some teachers have remarked that they have had to do more scaffolding of basic skills, such as writing full sentences. Additionally, disruptions in planning and class schedules require more flexibility. Rigid lesson structures lead to tensions for teachers who want to faithfully adhere to the lesson as written while also making time for students to effectively engage with the content. Given these challenges, it is crucial for teachers and administrators to allocate enough time to provide that flexibility and to support re-learning basic skills and those related to social-emotional development. 

Highlighting Opportunities

Social studies curricula that provide opportunities for students to relate to the content are more effective in engaging students. Our study of the Investigating History curriculum implementation highlighted how that can play out in the classroom. For example, one teacher talked about how Haitian students were able to engage with the lesson and provide their own insights as the class learned about the importance and implications of the Haitian Revolution. Bringing in the lived experiences of students into class discussions moves the content beyond just a place on a map or an event described in a letter. Effective cultural responsiveness in social studies curricula needs to include more “mirrors” than “windows”. In other words, students and teachers also need opportunities to reflect (“mirrors”) on their own identities and positionality in relation to the content rather than just studying history and culture as external forces viewed from afar (“windows”). 

This is especially important because persistent inequities in education often mean that districts and schools which serve students from historically marginalized backgrounds are already at a disadvantage when it comes to adopting an inquiry-centered approach. A long history of research in the sociology of education has found that more affluent schools and districts are more likely to foster a culture in which students see themselves as agents in their own learning, with a valuable role to play as co-creators of knowledge in the classroom. This is important for inquiry, where there is often no “right” answer and students are asked to make up their own minds about big questions and complex ideas. Without a foundation in seeing their own ideas and background knowledge as valuable, this can be doubly challenging for students. 

Educators also need to engage in self-reflection alongside students, as some teachers may feel uncomfortable discussing certain topics due to unexplored biases. For example, some teachers were uneasy discussing the racial and economic dynamics of slavery with their students, even when the lesson content was adjusted to grade-level. Providing support for teachers to navigate these conversations and discussions about positionality can alleviate the burden of having these heavy conversations in the classroom. While the professional development opportunities offered by the pilot have been a great starting point for teachers to learn to address difficult topics, this is a skill that takes time and effort to develop and one that districts supporting in-service teachers, as well as teacher preparation programs, can and should continue to work on integrating into learning opportunities for teachers. This is another way a strong administrator can support effective implementation of an inquiry-centered curriculum. 


Administrators at the school and district level can play an enormous role in making shifts in curriculum and instruction possible, successful, and sustainable. Despite the challenges teachers often encountered, we found that districts with strong administrative support had greater success than those without, even when faced with other challenges related to resources and supporting a diverse student population. Administrators who supported success tended to engage in the following activities, which we recommend to all education leaders committed to strengthening civic learning in their school community: 

  1. Consistently being present and offering feedback, coaching, and support to teachers in a friendly, informal, and non-punitive manner. Regular interaction let teachers know that their supervisors cared about and paid attention to the implementation process, and offered real-time, specific feedback from an outside perspective about how things were going and how teachers could adjust their practice. 
  1. Creating time and space for shared planning and professional learning among pilot teachers. It’s important to give teachers concrete and protected opportunities for collaboration and peer-to-peer support, even when existing school schedules and priorities make it challenging. These opportunities let teachers learn from one another, co-plan upcoming lessons, and often divide work between themselves to reduce burdens of time and administrative work. 
  1. Advocating for social studies as a priority within the school or district. It often takes a strong administrative voice to make sure that social studies learning is not overtaken by competing priorities, and to ensure that social studies instructional time is adequately scheduled and protected. Explicitly prioritizing and allocating resources to social studies can ensure it’s not cut to make room for special events, enrichment, or special education services. 
  1. Supporting a building culture that is open to inquiry and high-quality instruction. Inquiry-based approaches are often “messier” than less-hands-on approaches to teaching. Fully engaging with lessons may mean that students are loud and require them to spread out across the room or other open spaces. When teachers trust that administrators will see this kind of activity as a positive, rather than a sign of poor classroom management, it allows them to take risks and try out new instructional strategies without fear of repercussion. 

Teachers and administrators can learn more about the Investigating History curriculum and access the materials for grades five through seven here.