Connecting past and present through inquiry

students discussing a project

From our Educator Guest Blogger Series

As the 2020-2021 school year begins, teaching and learning across the United States is occurring in a context that includes a presidential election coinciding with a Supreme Court vacancy, a global pandemic, public demonstrations supporting racial justice, and concerns over the distortion, manipulation, and falsification of facts in both traditional and social media.

Students are not isolated from current events. The election, pandemic, and demonstrations are defining our students’ childhoods. I have found that integrating current events into social studies instruction is important because students need to understand the connections between past and present. Doing so develops students as both learners and participants in our democratic republic.

An inquiry-focused, standards-based curriculum is effective for engaging students in relevant, academic social studies work that bridges past and present. However, I have often heard statements such as “I cannot be creative because of the test” or “Current events are not in the standards.” Curricular decision making is not a fork-in-the-road decision of either teaching standards or engaging in inquiry. Both can be done. To this end, the new South Carolina Social Studies College- and Career-Ready Standards (“2019 Standards”) are grounded in inquiry and inquiry is the critical connection to current events.

Inquiry in Social Studies

Inquiry in the social studies classroom means students use disciplinary skills to investigate concepts, content, and themes with the goal of producing authentic work. There are two main characteristics of inquiry: strong questions and relevance.

1. Inquiry designs are based on quality questions for courses, units, and lessons.

Questions engage students and motivate them to sustain focus as they delve into the content, gaining an understanding of significant themes and developments. This means teachers must develop “questions that are important to students’ lives” (Crowley & King, 2018, p. 17). In other words, teachers need to know their students, know their communities, and know how to create questions that both inspire and challenge.

Inquiry questions allow teachers to frame content and develop both formative and summative tasks (Journell, Friedman, Thacker, & Fitchett, 2018). Therefore, the questions we ask our students drive how content is delivered, the disciplinary skills students will exercise, the themes on which we base inquiry, the curricular materials we use, and the means by which we assess student learning.

2. Inquiry practices demonstrate to students how the content is relevant to their lives.

Relevance should be incorporated in all aspects of the curriculum. The foundation of inquiry and relevance in social studies is helping students understand their role in our democracy. As Swan, Lee, and Grant (2018) describe “inquiry crescendos into an evidence-based argument, which can be broadened through an expressive extension and/or a civic experience” (p. 134).

In addition, inquiry should “encourage action that can make a tangible contribution toward justice” (Crowley & King, 2018, p. 17). These two ideas go hand-in-hand with my understanding of relevant social studies teaching in a democracy: To develop within our students the ability to think critically, understand a range of perspectives, harness evidence, and demonstrate the capacity to informed civic action as a participant in our democracy. This is important as teachers utilize principles of democracy-focused, patriotic education.[i] Relevance connects current events with the past to develop agency within students.

Inquiry & South Carolina’s Social Studies Standards

The structure of the 2019 Standards at each grade level integrates discipline-specific skills, articulated content, and significant themes to serve as a foundation for inquiry-focused curriculum development at the local level. As such, South Carolina is preparing kids for civic life in meaningful ways.

Per the 2019 Standards, “discipline-specific skills are necessary across the social studies for the student’s understanding of the content to be taught at each grade level. The study of history, economics, geography, and civics and government each require unique, discipline-specific practices” (pp. 1-2). These skills, when combined with content and themes, support an instructional shift away from “rote memorization” toward “new learning, problem solving, and genuine inquiry” (p 3). The skills supporting inquiry include, but are not limited to, creating authentic maps in geography courses, understanding patters of continuity and change in history courses, and understanding relationships in economics courses.

In the 2019 Standards, students must utilize a range of evidence and perspectives in geography, government, economic, and history courses to make claims and construct interpretations. The inclusion in the standards of diverse evidence supports student growth in three ways.

  1. The inclusion of a variety of primary and secondary sources allows students to develop the skill of academically judging the validity and reliability of sources.
  2. The use of evidence allows students to understand how historians, political scientists, economists, and geographers create arguments and interpretations within their respective fields.
  3. By knowing how to assess the reliability of sources and how interpretations are crafted, students become confident consumers of information and gain an awareness of historical negationism.[ii]

These three characteristics of using evidence are aspects of both patriotic education and inquiry-focused learning.

Aligning Resources, Standards, and Inquiry

Diversity of resources is important to inquiry. SCETV’s and South Carolina PBS LearningMedia offer valuable secondary sources to enrich an inquiry-focused, standards-aligned curriculum that incorporates current events in academically appropriate ways. Below are a few resource examples and my thoughts on the value of the resource to inquiry-focused learning. 

Reconstruction: America After the Civil War

Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, a four-part series from Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., offers viewers a history of the Reconstruction era with the most current interpretations and understandings by historians.

Using the series to support instruction and inquiry, students can trace the African American experience from Emancipation into the Jim Crow era and grapple with the federal government’s inconstant role in protecting rights. In addition, the series highlights several events specific to South Carolina to help make these points. Finally, the series draws direct lines to current events to assist the viewer in understanding the role of history in the present.

Example aligned standard indicator:
8.4.CC – Analyze continuities and change in the African American experience in the period of Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras within South Carolina.

We the Voters: “So You Think You Can Vote?”

The We the Voters series was designed to encourage civic participation by providing “a fresh, engaging perspective on democracy, elections, governance, and debating.” Each video offers a transcript and lesson materials to support an analysis of it. Given current voting process discussions, I selected the episode “So You Think You Can Vote?” for demonstration.

The five-minutes video outlines the history of voting rights in the United States, to include methods of voter suppression over time. In it, Alexander Keyssar states, “Voting matters. Elections matter. That's why there has been so much conflict over it.” This observation prompts us to consider power, institutions, action, and legislation in both the past and present. As such, the We the Voters series can be used to initiate the inquiry process.

Example aligned standard indicator:
USG.4.CC – Analyze contemporary issues and governmental responses at various levels in terms of how they have provided equal protection under the law and equal access to society’s opportunities and public facilities.

Digital Oral Histories

  1. The Holocaust Forum on contains a written history of the Holocaust and the SCETV documentary Seared Souls. It also includes South Carolina Voices: Lessons from the Holocaust which features interviews with Holocaust survivors and liberators.

    Example aligned standard indicator:
    MWH.4.CX – Contextualize World War II and the Holocaust within local and global economic, political, and social developments from 1919-1950.
  2. The South Carolina Department of Education website houses a collection of Civil Rights Digital Oral Histories featuring interviews with several prominent South Carolinians about their experiences in the Civil Rights Movement. In addition to each one-hour interview, a five-minute vignette summarizing the interview and a transcript are offered.

    Example aligned standard indicator:
    8.5.CX – Analyze the correlation between the Modern Civil Rights Movement in South Carolina and the U.S.

The 2019 Standards regularly references the importance of human rights. To be clear, the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement should not be conflated. Instead, it is important that students recognize how both are distinct historical events important to understanding the larger arc of human rights. These two resources are valuable for offering firsthand accounts of these two events from the perspective of South Carolinians. These resources are important to combatting historical negationism and for framing discussions of and inquiry into current events regarding antisemitism, racism, and injustice.


Dr. Jeff Eargle is a Clinical Assistant Professor for Secondary Humanities Education in the College of Education at the University of South Carolina. His work at UofSC focuses on the development of preservice teachers. Dr. Eargle's work has been published in journals such as Journal of Social Studies Research and The Rural Educator. Prior to joining the UofSC faculty, he was a Peace Corps Volunteer, a high school social studies teacher in South Carolina public schools, and an Education Associate for K12 Social Studies at the South Carolina Department of Education. An award-winning educator, Dr. Eargle facilities professional development for K12 teachers around the county and has presented at state, regional, national, and international conferences. He can be found on Twitter at @DrJeffEargle and reached at


  • Crowley, R.M. & King, L.J. (2018). Making inquiry critical: Examining power and inequity in the classroom. Social Education, 82(1), 14-17.
  • Journell, W., Friedman, A.M., Thacker, E.S. & Fitchett, P.G. (2018). Getting inquiry design just right. Social Education, 82(4), 202-205.
  • South Carolina Department of Education. (2019). South Carolina Social Studies College- and Career-Ready Standards. Columbia, SC: South Carolina Department of Education.
  • Swan, K., Lee, J. & Grant, S.G. (2018). Questions, tasks, sources: Focusing on the essence of inquiry. Social Education, 82(3), 133-137.
  • Westheimer, J. (2008). Should social studies be patriotic? Social Education, 73(7), 316-320.


[i] In our current events, the phrase patriotic education has been used. For social studies educators, patriotic education focuses on the “principles and values that underlie democracy – such as political participation, free speech, civil liberties, and political equality.” (Westheimer, 2009, p. 317). Westheimer identified three tenets for encouraging democratic patriotism. First, curriculum should encourage students to ask questions. Second, curriculum should include readings which include, “competing narratives” so students can “think about patriotism in substantive ways.” Third, curriculum should include national and local contexts because “we cannot teach democratic patriotism without paying attention to the environment in which we are teaching it” (p. 320). Westheimer’s criteria of questions, multiple perspectives, and relevant instruction align with inquiry-based social studies curricular design.

[ii] Historical negationism is a phenomenon that sees the historical record strategically distorted or misrepresented, often for political means. This is different from historical revisionism, which is a regular, legitimate, and academic process of uncovering new insight into the past. Examples of historical negationism include Holocaust denial and the Lost Cause myth. The Alignment Guides for the 2019 Standards directly address these two distortions of history. Teachers are not to teach Holocaust denial as a legitimate historical argument. Likewise, teachers are not to teach the Lost Cause as a legitimate interpretation but are to assist students in understanding how and why the myth was formed and perpetuated. Both requirements are morally, pedagogically, and academically sound practices.

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