Author Q&A: Jana Kirchner and Andrew McMichael Talk Inquiry-Based Learning in the History Classroom
Author Q&A: Jana Kirchner and Andrew McMichael Talk Inquiry-Based Learning in the History Classroom
PUBLISHED: Thursday, July 25, 2019 by Andilynn Feddeler

The Inquiry-Based Lessons in World History (grades 7–10) series focuses on creating global connections between people and places using primary sources in standards-based lessons. Volume 1 includes sections on early humans, the ancient world, classical antiquity, and the world in transition, while Volume 2 examines the world in transition, the era of revolutions, imperialism and global war, and the modern world. These books provide teachers with inquiry-based, ready-to-use lessons that can be adapted to any classroom and that encourage students to take part in the learning process by reading and thinking like historians. Learn more about the series in this interview with the authors, Jana Kirchner, Ph.D., and Andrew McMichael, Ph.D. 

Q: Why is inquiry-based learning so important in the history classroom?

A: Inquiry-based learning allows students to be active participants in the learning process and gets them engaged in learning rather than just being passive listeners. So often history classes have a bad reputation for being all about memorizing dates and facts, but learning history is about so much more. Teaching through inquiry lets students think like historians or detectives trying to solve a problem or examine clues to figure out perspectives on an event. Examining maps, artifacts, letters, and diaries, for instance, makes a time period much more interesting for students. 


Q: What is the #1 piece of advice you would give teachers as they implement primary source lessons with students?

A: Choose a primary source and just get started. Don’t worry about making mistakes. Let the students’ ideas and questions guide the lesson. Show students that it’s okay not to know all of the answers and brainstorm with them ways to find answers to their own questions. Also, start small and use one organizing question that guides students’ exploration of one source. As you get more confident and the students develop skills for analyzing sources, add different types of primary and secondary sources that show multiple perspectives. 


Q: How can teachers use essential questions to drive learning?

A: Even though curriculum for schools and teachers is usually tied to specific state standards, find the “big idea” questions and let them guide unit development. Next, break those broader questions down into smaller questions to guide specific lessons. Better yet, provide students with some type of lesson hook—something fun, interesting, or quirky—to help draw students in. Let their questions guide the sources you include in your units. For instance, find out what they wonder about after seeing that fun, quirky source and then help them figure out ways to find answers using multiple sources. 


Q: How can teachers help students create links between different topics and time periods?

A: Often from a student’s point of view, studying history can seem like a collection of chapters or events that may not relate. For instance, in traditional high school world history textbooks, first there is the Renaissance chapter, then the Reformation chapter, and then the Age of Exploration. Getting students to understand that these events often occur at the same time in different countries and continents can sometimes be challenging. For teachers under testing pressure this might mean taking some pedagogical chances by giving students primary sources from different periods and encouraging them to look for creative links. From there let students explore.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from your work?

A: Inquiry-based learning is good for teachers as well as students. It provides a way for lessons to remain interesting for teachers because it allows students’ thinking and analysis of sources to guide the learning process. Inquiry does not mean that you don’t teach the standards or that there is not a plan for the content and curriculum that you will teach. It simply means letting students read, analyze, ask questions, discuss, debate, etc. as they grapple with guiding questions and themes in history. Through this process students will become better readers and thinkers. 

Jana Kirchner, Ph.D., is a social studies consultant with experience as a high school social studies teacher, university professor, and school district instructional supervisor. Andrew McMichael, Ph.D., is the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences and a professor of history at Auburn University at Montgomery.