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Empowering Our Educators

The Need for Civic Action and Lifelong Inquiry

Lawrence M. Paska, Ph.D.

Executive Director, National Council for the Social Studies

Social studies classes help students learn to ask and answer questions about their world.

Your child or you may have taken common social studies courses in school, such as civics, economics, geography, and history. These and many other disciplines (including anthropology, archaeology, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology) help us understand our human-made world – from the values, traditions, and histories of societies and cultures, to choices about where and how to live and satisfy basic needs and wants, to ways of participating in civic life. 

The social studies show how major civic issues (e.g., healthcare, crime, foreign policy) are multidisciplinary in nature. 

Focus on curiosity

Preparing for civic action requires this multidisciplinary approach, with a focus on inquiry or asking questions. Our understanding of the world is shaped by the questions we ask and seek to answer. 

Our natural ability to ask questions sparks the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) to envision a world in which all students are educated and inspired for lifelong inquiry and informed civic action. We achieve this vision through four dimensions of social studies learning:

  1. Developing questions and planning inquiries – constructing questions based on the goals of a course of study and curiosity about the world.
  2. Applying disciplinary tools and concepts – drawing on methods and practices (e.g., historical thinking, geographic reasoning, economic decision-making, civic engagement) of one or more social studies disciplines to answer these questions.
  3. Evaluating sources and using evidence – finding, accessing, and using information from multiple sources to determine the quality and quantity of evidence, and the appropriateness of the sources, to answer these questions.
  4. Communicating conclusions and taking informed action – answering questions in multiple formats (think beyond the traditional five-paragraph essay). From there, share understanding and analysis with the wider world – decide what kind of actions to take based on the conclusions drawn. “Informed action” can be local (e.g., suggesting change in the classroom or community) or far-reaching (dedicating a career to advocacy, public life, or civil service).

Questions are at the heart of inquiry, and inquiry is at the heart of social studies. This must be our focus every day for every learner, from early childhood through graduation. The more we inquire about the world, the more likely we are to be active citizens.

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