“Us” and “Them:” Using the Inquiry Design Model to Explore the Nanking Massacre

Timothy Lintner

Social studies has an image problem particularly among students. For decades, students have decried the subject’s lack of relevance to their daily lives and the formulaic, predictable, and often uninspiring ways in which it is presented (Beck,
Buehl, & Taboada Barber, 2015; Chiodo & Byford, 2004; Schug, Todd, & Beery, 1984; Zhao & Hoge, 2005). To change this paradigm of disconnection and boredom, social studies teaching and learning needs to be innovative, challenging, inspiring, and
ambitious (Grant & Gradwell, 2010; Ucus, 2018) and grapple with topics and concepts that are challenging, compelling, and appropriately controversial (Hess, 2009; Linowes, Ho, & Misco, 2019). In order to create such powerful opportunities, inquiry needs to be at the center of social studies instructional design and delivery.

This article explores how to teach the Nanking Massacre using the Inquiry Design Model in middle school social studies classrooms. Students first explore the topic through diverse perspectives and then demonstrate their understanding(s) through
multiple means. Lastly, students are asked to situate the Nanking Massacre by looking at contemporary examples of wartime atrocities and resultant injustices and advocate their position on both accounts.

The Inquiry Design Model (IDM)

The College, Career and Civic Life (C3) for Social Studies State Standards (National Council for the Social Studies, 2013), provides a blueprint for designing and teaching engaging, transformative, and ambitious social studies. At its theoretical and practical core, the C3 Framework moves instruction away from textbook/note-taking
to a pedagogy rooted in the ubiquity of inquiry. “[I]nquiry lies at the heart of social studies and that the crafting of questions and the deliberate and thoughtful construction of responses to those questions can inspire deeper and richer teaching and learning” (Grant, Lee, & Swan, 2015, p. 7). The key to doing so lies in the Inquiry Arc. The Inquiry Arc is a series of four dependent, interlocking elements or dimensions: 1) developing questions and planning inquiries; 2) applying discipline concepts and tools; 3) evaluating sources and using evidence; and 4) communicating conclusions and taking informed action. Foundationally, the Inquiry Arc spurs, supports, and sustains teacher-generated and, ultimately, student generated questions and conclusions (Grant, 2013; Swan, Lee, & Grant, 2015).

To this end, Grant, Lee, and Swan (2015) have developed a structured model of inquiry design premised on the Inquiry Arc. The Inquiry Design Model (IDM) is a conceptual template that allows social studies teachers to plan instruction that links together the Inquiry Arc’s four dimensions. By doing so, social studies teaching and learning become processional, relational, and relevant. In the following sections of this article, the C3 Frameworks Inquiry Arc and the accompanying Inquiry Design Model (IDM) are used to explore an unspeakable outcome of Japanese imperialism in
the mid-20th century, the Nanking Massacre.

An Overview of the Rise of Japanese Imperialism (1850-1945)

In 1850, Japan was a feudal society with little nationalist fervor. While other Western
countries, most notably the United States and Great Britain, were exerting their influence throughout Asia proper, Japan was viewed by such powers as inert and backward, ripe for exploitation. By 1868, the Meiji Restoration, which ended the preceding Tokugawa shogunate, sought to both militarily and economically strengthen Japan, thus affording a measure of security and self-determination.
Believing that their security was directly tied to the security of the Asian mainland, by 1881, Japan had both a political and military presence in Korea and would soon turn her sights to China. In 1885, Japan declared war on China for control of the Korean peninsula. Easily pushing the Chinese out of Korea, Japan was flush with imperialistic visions of military and cultural superiority (Hilldrup, 2009; Mann, 2012).

By the early twentieth-century, Japan’s economic base was growing; so, too, was her
population. This rapid population growth stretched thin Japan’s natural resources and food supplies, spurring the country’s leaders to look beyond its borders to meet such industrial and domestic demands. Ultranationalist groups now advocated for
territorial acquisition, not only to supplement and suffice Japan’s resource needs, but to fulfill her imperial and ideological ambitions of placing Japan squarely at the center of Asian economic and cultural dominance. Imperialism was framed, not
only as an economic necessity, but as a cultural obligation to both enrich and enlighten her (inferior) Asian brethren. In an effort to cull essential resources while concomitantly exerting her nationalistic hegemony, Japan would again turn her
attention westward towards China, her perceived economic storehouse and perennial cultural subordinate (Beasley, 1987; Facing History and Ourselves, 2019).

The Nanking Massacre

With the exception of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the pillage of Nanking may very well be the most egregious human atrocity in the Asian theatre of the Second World War. Though the city of Nanking did not hold the military importance of Shanghai, with its bustling port and economic vitality it did, by the 1920’s, serve as the seat of China’s newly formed republic.

After their victory in the Battle for Shanghai, the Japanese advanced to Nanking. When Nanking ultimately fell in December, 1937, the Japanese unleashed a torrent of relentless destruction. Buildings, businesses, and homes were robbed then subsequently burned. Spanning a seven-week period, an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 Chinese – mostly innocent civilians – were brutally and mercilessly raped and/or murdered (Heaver, 2017). Though never fully articulated, it was felt that the atrocities committed by the Japanese sprung from a volatile mix of revenge for the heavy losses suffered during the Battle for Shanghai and an imperialist “us” and “them” dehumanization of a Chinese people and culture perceived to be less refined and, hence, less worthy (Chang, 2011; Li, Sabella, & Liu, 2015).

During this seven-week period – and certainly thereafter – members of the Japanese
government and select media were well aware of the events transpiring in Nanking. Yet both the government and media remained silent. For Westerners living in Nanking, the prevailing choices were clear: resist, remain silent, or leave. A
small contingent of Western business and religious leaders stayed to help. They ultimately created what became known as the Nanking Safety Zone, a demilitarized area located in the city center. Here, some 250,000 Chinese sought shelter and received medical and provisionary assistance. It was in the letters sent abroad and the personal diary entries made by these individuals that gradually illuminated
the range and magnitude of atrocities committed during the Massacre of Nanking (Chang, 2011; Facing History and Ourselves, 2019; Li, Sabella, & Liu, 2015).

With the Japanese surrender in 1945, General Douglas McArthur was charged with
establishing what would be known as the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, a military court designed to seek accountability for Japanese atrocities. Ultimately, 28 Japanese military and civilian leaders were charged with war crimes
and crimes against humanity, including General Iwane Matsui who orchestrated the capture of Nanking. Yet questions remain of who, besides Matsui, should have been tried. Questions of culpability, denial, and wholesale concealment of the truth confounded efforts to provide restitution for and reverence of the thousands of Chinese who lost their lives during the Massacre of Nanking.

The Inquiry Design Model

The Inquiry Design Model (IDM) provides teachers with a template for structuring student learning premised on inquiry, evidence, application, and action. Specifically, the IDM Blueprint includes the following components: the Compelling
Question, Supporting Questions, Formative Performance Tasks, Featured Sources, Summative Performance Tasks, including Argument and Extension, and Taking Informed Action. Below is an overview of how middle school teachers can
design a unit on the Nanking Massacre using the IDM model of instruction.

Compelling Question: The Compelling Question frames the entire inquiry process. It is broad, accessible, provocative, engaging, and has multiple plausible answers (Grant, 2013; Jourell, Friedman, Thacker, & Fitchett, 2018). As Grant (2013) posits, “there is a big difference between using questions to check for student understanding and using questions that frame a teaching and learning inquiry” (p. 325). “Can Actions be ‘justified’ in a time of war?” demands more than a patent “yes or no” response; it roots resulting answers both in historical context and personal (student) conviction.

Supporting Questions: Such questions emanate from and extend the Compelling Question. They structure learning by providing a scaffold of inquiry whereby questions build in complexity and relevance. Simply, Supporting Questions “tease out” the content-based inquiry strands embedded in and derived from the Compelling Question.

 Supporting Question 1: In Japan, how did a “us” and “them” attitude towards the
Chinese lead to the Nanking Massacre? To understand the road to the Nanking Massacre is to understand the power of perception: How did the Japanese perceive
the Chinese? This question provides the perceptual premise of Japanese attitudes
towards the Chinese that “justified,” if you will, the atrocities committed during the
Nanking Massacre. Additional questions may ask, “How do we view ‘difference?’”
“What makes countries feel “exceptional?”

 Supporting Question 2: What were the individual, group, and national responses to the Nanking Massacre? Here, students explore and, ultimately, rationalize or rebuke the actions people, groups, and nations took (or failed to take) during the
Nanking Massacre. Sub questions generated may be, “Was silence a means of survival?” “What, really, can be done during wartime?” “What would other nations have gained by rebuking the Nanking Massacre?”

Supporting Question 3: How can justice be achieved for those wronged during
wartime? This question asks students to wrestle with the often blurry concept of
justice during (and after) wartime, particularly holding individuals accountable
for crimes committed in the name of military action. It may also spur feelings of
frustration, where justice is seen as elusive and ultimately futile. Additional questions may range from “Do conventional rules apply during war?” to “Should someone be held accountable for simply ‘following orders?”

Formative Performance Tasks

The IDM Blueprint includes multiple opportunities for teachers to evaluate and students to demonstrate their understanding of social studies content. Formative Performance Tasks allow students to “answer” Supporting Questions, based on the Featured Sources provided, in a variety of engaging, creative ways. Ultimately, Formative Performance Tasks are designed to guide students towards designing a coherent, evidence-based argument and delivering a focused, deliberate action
point. The IDM includes both Formative and Summative Performance Tasks, with additional opportunities for Extension activities and Taking Informed Action (Swan et al., 2015).

Formative Performance Task One: Create a political cartoon that depicts Japanese self-proclaimed military and/or cultural superiority over China. Here, students demonstrate their understanding of Japanese perception(s) of “superiority” (either militarily or culturally) over the Chinese by creating their own political cartoon. Teachers need to be explicit in defining, both in content and presentation, what is an “appropriate” cartoon for middle school students.

Formative Performance Task Two: As a
Western missionary in Nanking, write a persuasive letter to the American Red Cross
depicting what you have witnessed and what their response should be. Referencing
material regarding the individual, group, and/or national responses to the Nanking
Massacre, students will write a letter to the Red Cross. The letter should include what
has been witnessed as well as a detailed and descriptive call to action.

Formative Performance Task Three: Roleplaying as a family member, record a two-minute video in which you argue for the rights of your deceased relatives lost during the Nanking Massacre. Using technology as their medium, students have a degree of creative latitude in designing and delivering their two-minute taped role-play. Students can display an array of emotional responses; create and use backdrops; dress accordingly; and incorporate video and/or music within their recording. Students can use the recording features found on most smartphones as well as simple, accessible video capturing tools such as Screencast,-omatic, Yuja, or Snagit.

(Please reference Appendix A for titles and links to the list of Featured Sources attached to each Formative Performance Task).

Formative Performance Tasks

The IDM Blueprint includes two Summative Performance Tasks: Argument and Extension. The Argument is the culmination of students researching the featured sources and then demonstrating resultant understanding(s) through their Formative
Performance Tasks. The Argument is tied directly to the Compelling Question and has students address and answer it. In this example, middle school students are asked to construct an argument – in the form of a petition or a protest poster – that
both states their answer to or perspective on the Compelling Question while acknowledging counterarguments to their claim. Correlated to the Argument, the Extension allows students to continue the inquiry process through conducting additional research or by supplementing and/or complimenting the information presented in the Argument. In this case, not only were students asked to create a petition or protest poster regarding their thoughts relevant to the Compelling Question (Argument), they are additionally asked to create a PowerPoint or Prezi
that summarizes their conclusions by using a different visual medium (Extension).

Taking Informed Action

A cornerstone to powerful social studies is the ability of students to take informed action premised on research-based inquiry. The key here is that student action is informed. To this end, the IDM model asks students to build knowledge and
understanding before engaging in social action (Swan et al., 2015). Taking Informed Action is divided into three segments:

Comprehension: Students are asked to “transfer,” if you will, their new-found
understandings into contemporary contexts. Are there contemporary examples where justice during wartime remained (or remains) elusive?

Assess: Here, students search for patterns, look at alternate arguments, and research relevant scenarios that offer additional insight into their chosen topic. In the example provided, students create a list of contemporary injustices and indicate if/how they were or were not resolved.

Action: A seminal strand woven throughout the C3 Framework is the imperative for students to be participatory, to take action. Taking action can be simple or complex. It can be locally or internationally contextualized. It can come in many forms but essentially serves one essential function – allowing students the opportunity to be actively engaged in their own learning by “taking a stand.” For this project, middle schoolers will make a simple presentation to their classmates.


There are events in history that beg not to be forgotten. The atrocities committed by the Japanese army in Nanking allows historians, teachers, and students alike rich and varied opportunities to explore issues of motive, justification, response, and
the elusiveness of restitution. The Nanking Massacre also allows students to examine how an “us” and “them” mindset impacted and shaped Japan’s imperialistic actions that led to one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century. We wrestle with the past to better understand our present.

The Inquiry Design Model structures learning by which events in history – celebrated or scorned – can be explored, understood, and contemporarily contextualized. Questions are asked. Research is conducted. Knowledge and
understanding are demonstrated. Though the example of the Nanking Massacre is geared for middle school students, the concepts and structures of the Inquiry Arc and the IDM Blueprint can be used within any social studies classroom. Good social studies – inquiry driven and action-based – allows students to scratch their heads in thought, raise their hands in action, and take a stand.


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Hilldrup, P. (2009). The reasons for Japanese imperialism (1895-1910). Retrieved from: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2352281

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Li, F. F., Sabella, R., & Liu, D. (Eds.). (2015). Nanking 1937: Memory and healing. New York, NY: Routledge.

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