Does China Make the World Flat? Using Compelling Questions and Creating C3 Inquiries for the Social Studies Classroom
Tension engulfs the room and faces begin to crinkle into frowns as a collective look of confusion crosses thirty seventh grader’s faces as they read the slide “Does China make the world flat?” Students look at each other and then back at the slide. Several verbal exclamations of “what?’ and “the world is round!” bellows across the room. Smiling sweetly, the teacher only states, “write it in your journal” before the bell rings and the bewildered seventh graders are dismissed from world history class. This exchange is the end of dimension one from the C3 unit titled Ancient China.
National Council for the Social Studies: C3 Inquiry Framework
In How We Think (1910), Dewey discusses how important inquiry is to children. He stressed that children need to learn by doing and trying different things not just memorizing and repeating the information to the teacher.
Inquiry is simply, investigating. In social studies, teachers should set up lessons of inquiry to include diverse historical content and let students ask questions, then investigate to find the answers. Once a student has a firm foundation of the content, they can then begin to start connecting the past to the present. They may start to ask questions about their own community after learning about civil rights concerning injustice, voting rights in the community, or lack of representation on city council. Once that connection is made, students need guidance to develop skills to research, answer questions, and learn how, for example, to start a grassroots campaign for change.
An inquiry framework to teach these skill sets is called the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) from the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). The framework (2017) uses concepts, facts, tools, disciplinary and content literacies to successfully complete an inquiry in a social studies classroom (p. 17). It consists of four dimensions that build an inquiry arc and move the students through questioning, content, evaluation of sources, and eventual action to make change. Studying social studies, especially the four content areas highlighted in dimension two (history, civics, economics, geography), show students that the precepts of democracy have not applied to all people in their history book. This connection is key to inquiry. For students to learn to speak out against bullying, discrimination, systemic racism and other abuses against themselves or democracy, teachers need to use inquiry so students can learn skills to “take action”.
That’s All Well and Good, But HOW Do I Create One?
This article will feature a thorough explanation of creating C3’s in the social studies classroom. Most teachers fit the C3 around a premade unit, such as the Ancient China unit in the introduction or create a C3 that is a stand-alone multiple day lesson plan like “Why Vote?” (This C3 can be found in Teaching the College, Career, and Civic Life Framework: Exploring Inquiry-based Instruction in Social Studies published by NCSS.) The “Why Vote” C3 has been taught in a social studies methods course, tenth grade civics, ninth and tenth grade government, eighth grade United States history and other courses by teachers in the past several years in a midwestern state following their graduation from the social studies program.
The C3 contains an inquiry arc and consists of four dimensions and subsections of those dimensions. The first dimension develops two types of questions, compelling and supporting. Questioning is a main component of inquiry and allows students to develop both styles of questions to increase critical thinking and knowledge of content. Dimension two is the mainstay of the framework and encourages multidisciplinary (history, civics, geography, and economics) content literacy to emerge. Students use relevant sources, in dimension three, to develop claims and counterclaims while dimension four supports inquiry and disciplinary literacy by retrieving and analyzing data, answering student developed questions, communicating conclusions, and taking informed action. Moving the students through these four dimensions can teach democratic skills and hopefully develop a more skilled, active, and responsible citizen.
This dimension is instructing students to answer and develop questions that are compelling and supporting. A compelling question consists of a long-lasting issue, such as war, civil rights, or privacy while supporting questions include extracting answers from a source, finding definitions, or establishing a series of steps. An example of a compelling question would be “is the Revolutionary War really revolutionary?” Supporting questions deal with the content directly and help students analyze documents or any other sources. Supporting questions could be “is there bias in the document?”, “who wrote the document?”, or “how long did it take the Native Americans to move from X to Y in the removal process?” Supporting questions from all documents or sources help answer the compelling question by extracting evidence from all sources retrieved.
Step 1: Selection of content. As the title suggests, content is the first step to beginning dimension one. Gather the curriculum map, state standards, objectives, and premade unit or specific stand-alone topic to begin the C3 and develop dimension one. Using the objectives, begin to create a compelling question and supporting questions for the unit. Both are used throughout the C3 to develop students thinking and give substance to the essay written after dimension four.
Step 2: The compelling question and supporting questions. From experience, creating a compelling question that has an element of good confusion gets the students to think. As suggested by the C3 text, “is the Revolutionary War really revolutionary?” is a question that needs research to answer. Just from presenting the compelling question, supporting questions begin to emerge from the students, like, “what is a revolution?” “have there been any other revolutions in history?” “when was the revolution?”, etc. Students will use their textbooks, appropriate internet sources, etc. to find the answers to their questions. The teachers will facilitate this activity and fill in gaps of content when necessary.
Concerning compelling questions, the goal is not to have a textbook cookie cutter answer that all the students cut and paste from their notes or from an internet section of content. The goal is for students to be able to answer yes or no and then develop their argument using sources that are given or gathered throughout the C3. There is no correct answer, only evidenced based answers. Compelling questions are asked after every dimension as a formative assessment to gather information about the students learning of the content and sources. At the end of dimension four, the compelling question essay is the summative or the authentic assessment.
Step 3: The hook. After the compelling question is designed, the teacher needs a hook to get the students interested in the unit topic. Hooks can look different depending on the topic or content objectives pulled from the curriculum map. Hooks can be a song, a poem, a picture, a painting, an excerpt of a primary source, a game, a simulation, or part of a movie/documentary. Usually, the hook relates to the compelling question in some aspect. The goal is to spark interest in a topic and connect it to the compelling question. For example, to start a Cold War C3, one teacher used gamification to begin the unit where students became CIA agents trying to catch a Soviet sleeper agent in the United States. The goal was to get the students to feel stress and tension while going through the gamification CIA missions. The teacher asked the students about their feelings and one student exclaimed, “I was stressed!” This led to a whole class grand discussion about tension between the two nations and eventually at the end of the class, the teacher displayed the compelling question, “How hot was the Cold War?”
Dimension Two is applying disciplinary concepts and tools using the four disciplines of history, geography, civics, and economics. In the framework (2017), teachers work with conceptual concepts, such as “explain the powers and limits of the three branches of government, public officials and bureaucracies at different levels in the US and other countries” rather than curricular content that would state, “identify every form of government” (p. 29). The curricular content will be found in the state standards and/or local curriculum maps.
Step 1: Gather curricular and conceptual content. Since each state and district is different, gather what you need for your unit. This could include, pre-made units, state standards, district curriculum maps, lesson objectives and/or unit goals. If you need to take the state standards and develop goals, objectives, etc. please do that during this step.
Step 2: Disciplines. Once you have what you need, make sure that the unit covers the four main disciplines of history, geography, civics, and economics inside the unit. The C3 text has standards to help focus your unit and is found at https://www.socialstudies.org/standards/c3.
Step 3: Create dimension two unit and lessons. Dimension Two is designed for the teacher to use content literacy to teach the facts, generalizations, concepts, etc. of the content required by the district and/or the state. Teachers can use pre-made units containing different instructional strategies and activities for students to accomplish the objectives. Display the compelling question before starting dimension two, so the students have a lens to “look” through as they learn about content and accomplish the objectives. Remember to include all disciplines in the content.
Step 4 Assessment. At this time in the C3, give the students a content assessment. This could be your own test from the pre-made unit or the common assessment used by your data team.
This dimension is skill based by evaluating sources and using evidence. Students use the questions from dimension one to gather and evaluate sources that help answer those questions. After this is complete, students will develop claims (arguments) and counterclaims (arguments) using the evidence to support those claims. Students develop their own supporting questions and begin to gather evidence asking those questions along the way. This allows them to progress through the inquiry and begin to develop solutions to a problem they see in the community. Dimension three and four are student centered where the teacher becomes a facilitator.
Step 1: The primary sources and skill sets. Prior to evaluating the primary sources, teachers need to start with historical thinking skills of sourcing, close read, annotation, contextualization, and corroboration. (Teacher tip: teach these skills at the beginning of the school year for students to use in every C3. More skills for historical thinking skills can be found at https://www.historians.org/teaching-and-learning/teaching-resources-for-historians/teaching-and-learning-in-the-digital-age/the-history-of-the-americas/the-conquest-of-mexico/for-teachers/setting-up-the-project/historical-thinking-skills)
Step 2: Evidence. After students have mastered the historical thinking skills, the teacher will transition to dimension three by gathering resources for a balanced set of evidence or have a list of appropriate texts and websites for research. This dimension is for students to take control over their learning to develop claims/arguments for compelling questions students create in addition to the compelling question from the beginning of the unit. Focusing on the content from dimension two and the new sources presented or collected, the teacher will take a facilitator role asking students questions when students get in a bind, rather than giving any answers.
Step 3: Writing an essay or other type of authentic assessment. After completion of dimensions one through three, students are ready to write an essay (authentic assessment) about what their claim is to the compelling question and use evidence found and connect content from dimension two. Many different methods can be found to help the students complete the essay but one, has been efficient in working with the C3 framework and is called the P.E.E.L. One example from online can be found at, https://www.virtuallibrary.info/peel-paragraph-writing.html.
Civic engagement is a very important part for students to encounter as a developing citizen. Dimension four is the authentic assessment for students to communicate conclusions and take informed action. In dimension four, the students usually show the connections from dimension two, curricular and conceptual concepts, to today and their own lives. Then they develop a plan and act on that plan to solve a problem they found with the school or local community. The teacher continues to facilitate during this dimension as the students gain agency and sophistication to solve problems in a democracy.
Step 1: The essay and then the issue. Using the essay as a jumping off point, ask the students to connect claims made in the essay to today’s current events. Have the students discuss this in small groups, like Think, Pair, Share, four-to-five-member small groups, or as a whole class discussion. The teacher, only a facilitator, lists the issues on the board, and all are considered equal. Students discuss and narrow down the list of issues to one that works within school policy, time frames, COVID-policies, etc. The students narrow the issue and then create a plan to implement to solve the issue/problem that has arisen from understanding the content in dimensions two and three. For example, the seventh-grade class studying Ancient China decided that the world was flat because of globalization and trade as far back as the Silk Roads. Students began to learn about economics and sweat shops in China. After doing research, they wanted to bring the issues of unfair wages, bad working conditions, and child labor of sweatshops in China to their community.
Step 2 Research, creating a plan, communicating conclusions, and implementing action. After the students have decided on an issue, they need to research the issue. Using dimensions two and three as a format, the students need to create a compelling and supporting questions concerning their issue. Student research, answering their questions, and then create a plan to combat the problem/issue they chose. This needs to be written in another P.E.E.L because it will be shared to groups or individuals that are stakeholders. Then the students need to implement the action.
For example, the seventh graders found what fair trade meant, how to find fair trade businesses and then began to list clothing they wore, stores they shopped at, and business in the town. They then researched to see if these were fair trade or not. After finding the answers, the class wrote a P.E.E.L and presented it to the teacher and principal. The P.E.E.L described their compelling question and gave evidence of why they needed to create a public service announcement (PSA) for the community concerning fair trade. Due to restrictions, the students decided to communicate through social media and tagged all the fair-trade companies for consumers to consider.
Why Vote?: A C3 Example Lesson Plan for Teachers
NCSS has published two bulletins titled Teaching: The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework: Exploring Inquiry-Based Instruction in Social Studies I and II. In the first bulletin, number 114, it states, “teachers will need to be intentional about making space in the curriculum, selecting sources, building in scaffolding, and incorporating related assessments in order to support students in this process…teachers will need to provide experiences that allow students to practice gathering information from sources and making claims supported with evidence” (p. 5). This bulletin is the perfect guide to assist teachers in making the space to practice inquiry and for students to develop an action plan and follow through to make change. These C3 topics can be implemented in pre-made units or as stand-alone C3s to enhance a topic taught in the social studies classroom.
A course taught at a midwestern university incorporates a chapter from this text to teach future social studies teachers how to implement the C3 Framework into units and practice the inquiry during a mid-level teaching observation and student teaching requirement. Student and first year teachers (from the program) have adapted this framework and taught it from middle school through high school. The chapter is titled Why Vote? Understanding Elections, The Candidates, and Why Any of This Matters and was created by the Mikva Challenge. The chapter moves the students through the four dimensions of the C3 Framework to answer the compelling question: Why Vote? The next few paragraphs will take the reader through the C3 as it was taught in the methods course and then in seventh through twelfth grade classrooms by graduates of the program.
Dimension One begins with a bell ringer on the first day of the unit titled Civil Rights. On the screen, a picture of two young men is shown to the students. The picture is black and white and shows one with his face painted white with VOTE on his forehead with the other standing behind him, holding an American flag. The students are asked to fill in a graphic organizer about the photograph. Then the students are asked to source the photograph. After finding the answer using a search engine, a grand conversation begins to discuss key questions about the photograph and the compelling question is displayed at the end of the class. The teacher facilitates another grand conversation, instructing the students to develop another graphic organizer to help map out the compelling question: Why Vote?
Dimension Two consists of learning stations and curricular content. Teachers teach the local and state standards regarding the Civil Rights unit. This content is connected to examples from today about civil rights and voting through learning stations. The teacher uses primary sources to connect the past to the present. Different categories, such as, “I vote…because I care about issues,” are introduced in the stations. Students work in groups using the sources connecting the curricular content to the contextual content from both state/local and national standards.
Dimension Three is more student centered. Students begin to ask other questions in addition to Why Vote? One of the most popular questions is: why do people not vote? This requires students to search for the answer to this question using data from different governmental sources. Then to check this data, the students create their own data set from the community they live in. From the data set, other supporting and compelling questions arise, and the students begin to find problems about voting in their community. The students write an essay answering the compelling question.
Students develop an action plan and carry it out after completing dimension four communicating the conclusions found through their inquiry. The students then carry out their plan that answered the question: Why Vote?
Although the paragraphs seem to make the inquiry simple and quick, it is not. Inquiry is messy and sometimes very frustrating. Some questions that arise are hard to answer or cannot be answered. Students must have the space and time to follow the inquiry to the end. This does take many days but with the right amount of planning it will fit with pre-made units already in the curriculum.
As a side note, from the many classrooms I have observed, including my own, when this framework is presented, the middle or high school students love it. They get very excited to see their plan take root and feel pride in their accomplishments as developing citizens. They also learn to compromise and evaluate their own thinking and work with others. It is a truly a collaborative process. A hard process, a learning process, but a very rewarding process.
C3 is an inquiry framework from NCSS that takes the students through a hook of interest to implementation of action in four dimensions. Through the process, students learn a variety of historical thinking skills, collaboration, resilience, evaluation, writing, and how to develop questions and research answers. Having the students move through this process is what Dewey may have envisioned in How We Think. Getting the students attention, teaching content, facilitating student learning, and watching students complete a plan of action to implement it can be the spark students need to develop as a citizen and start to make change in home town communities.
Dewey, J.(1910). How We Think. Boston: D.C. Heath & Co.
Herczog, M. (2013) Social Studies for the Next Generation: Purposes, Practices, and Implications of the College, Career, and Civic Life Framework for Social Studies State Standards. Bulletin 113, National Council for the Social Studies, Washington, D.C. Retrieved from https://www.socialstudies.org/standards/c3
Historical Thinking Skills. Retrieved from https://www.historians.org/teaching-and-learning/teaching-resources-for-historians/teaching-and-learning-in-the-digital-age/the-history-of-the-americas/the-conquest-of-mexico/for-teachers/setting-up-the-project/historical-thinking-skills
P.E.E.L paragraph. Retrieved from https://www.virtuallibrary.info/peel-paragraph-writing.html
Swan, K and Lee, John (2014). Teaching the College, Career, and Civic Life Framework:
Exploring Inquiry-based Instruction in Social Studies, Bulletin 114. National Council for the Social Studies.