Historical Inquiry

The Doing of History

For Harry Potter and his compatriots, history lessons at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry took the form of brain-deadening encounters with a subject that appeared devoid of inquiry, imagination, interpretation, and personal meaning. This kind of history teaching, however, is not merely the 'stuff of fiction.' Lamentably, the teaching and learning of history as an officially sanctioned, neatly packaged chronicle of facts, people, and events, too often continues to be the experience of current students.

Easily the most boring class was History of Magic... Professor Binns droned on and on while [students] scribbled down names and dates, and got Emeric the Evil and Uric the Oddball mixed up.

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sourcerer's Stone, p. 133

A Story Well Told

Traditionally, history in textbooks involves a series of names and dates integrated into a narrative designed to be easily consumed, with minimal effort, by students and adults alike.

Sources Well Scrutinized

The doing of history is where students "pose questions, collect and analyze sources, struggle with issues of significance, and ultimately build their own historical interpretations." (Levstik, 1996, p. 394)

Learning to Think Historically

Barton contends that it is important to see a student's abilities to comprehend history and think historically as "a set of skills educators can nurture, not an ability whose development they must wait for or whose absence they must lament" (1998, p. 80).

Central Questions of How

How can students be assisted in developing a deep understanding of history?

How do students develop the capacity to contextualize and corroborate historical sources such as texts, photographs, audio, video, and artifacts in the pursuit of establishing the evidence significance as part of the process of historical inquiry?

Understanding the Past

History is a way of organizing and explaining the past. One cannot come to know history by merely learning overviews of the past, nor by simply learning the skills of history in terms of analyzing historical sources. Learning history means learning how to engage in the process of historical inquiry.

Engaging in historical inquiry, in order to develop an understanding of the broad picture of the past, is a cyclical process that begins with the asking of guiding historical questions. These questions are investigated by locating and analyzing traces of the past — historical sources. It is vital to recognize that these records and relics, primary and secondary historical sources, are:

  •   leftover remains and traces from the past, and that we do not have access to every single record, relic, or artifact from the past;

  •   products of very different times and contexts from today, and we must make every effort to try to understand the people, places and times that produced these sources; and

  •   not always developed to serve as intentional evidence of the past, but they can still be analyzed in an attempt to draw credible and worthwhile inferences and claims about the past to help answer historical questions (Lee, 2005, p. 58).

The systematic and sophisticated process of analyzing these historical sources in the light of guiding questions results in historical evidence. This historical evidence, which at times can often be complex and contradictory, is then used to construct credible claims/narratives about the past, or in other word, historical interpretations, that seek to provide answers to the guiding historical questions. These interpretations often open up new avenues for the development of further historical questions and mysteries to be explored.

What is Historical Inquiry?

A central goal of historical inquiry is the understanding of the broad picture of the past. This understanding is a cyclical process that begins with the asking of historical questions. These questions are then investigated by locating and analyzing relevant historical sources. This process of analyzing historical sources results in historical evidence. This historical evidence is then used to construct an historical interprestion relevant to the guiding historical questions.

Historical Inquiry Explanation (video)

The SCIM-C Strategy

SCIM-C: A Strategy for Interpreting History

Grounded within research on teaching and learning history and building upon Riley's (1999) layers of inference model to support teaching evidential understanding, the SCIM-C strategy was developed to provide teachers with a tool to help students develop the knowledge and skills necessary to interpret historical primary sources and reconcile various historical accounts, in order to investigate meaningful historical questions. The SCIM-C strategy focuses on five broad phases: Summarizing, Contextualizing, Inferring, Monitoring, and Corroborating. Further, when students examine an individual source, they move through the first four phases (i.e., summarizing, contextualizing, inferring, and monitoring) and then, after analyzing several individual sources, they compare the sources collectively in the fifth phase (i.e., corroborating).


Summarizing is the first phase of the SCIM-C strategy and begins with having students quickly examine the documentary aspects of the text, in order to find any information or evidence that is explicitly available from the source. Within this phase students should attempt to identify the source's subject, author, purpose, and audience, as well as the type of historical source (e.g., letter, photograph, cartoon). In addition, the student should look for key facts, dates, ideas, opinions, and perspectives that appear to be immediately apparent within the source. The four analyzing questions associated with the summarizing phase include:

  •   What type of historical document is the source?

  •   What specific information, details and/or perspectives does the source provide?

  •   What is the subject and/or purpose of the source?

  •   Who was the author and/or audience of the source?

A Letter from Bobby Murray to the Children's Bureau (1939)

The first phase of the SCIM strategy is summarizing. The purpose of summarizing is to locate any information or evidence that is explicitly available within the source. The first piece of evidence available from the source is the source type, that is, a letter. At this point it is necessary to read through the letter to get a broad understanding of the letter's author, subject, audience, and purpose.

What does the letter reveal, explicitly? The author of the letter is a 15-year-old boy, Bobby Murray, who is in the 10th grade. The purpose of the letter is to seek assistance to be able to continue school; specifically, he is writing to the government, to the Children's Bureau at the Department of Labor for some help. In addition, the author has a mother and obviously an older sister, who died fairly recently, 6 months earlier, and a niece from his now deceased older sister. The mother works, though not regularly, and pays the family's living expenses.


Contextualizing begins the process of having students spend more time with the source in order to explore the authentic aspects of the source in terms of locating the source within time and space. The teacher needs to emphasize that it is important to recognize and understand that archaic words and/or images from the period may be in a source. These words and/or images may no longer be used today or they may be used differently, and these differences should be noted and defined. In addition, the meanings, values, habits, and/or customs of the period may be very different from those today. Ultimately, students and teachers must be careful to avoid treating the source as a product of today as they pursue their guiding historical question. The four analyzing questions associated with the contextualizing phase include:

  •   When and where was the source produced?

  •   Why was the source produced?

  •   What was happening within the immediate and broader context at the time the source was produced?

  •   What summarizing information can place the source in time and place?

A Letter from Bobby Murray to the Children's Bureau (1939)

The second phase of the SCIM strategy is contextualizing. The purpose of the contextualizing phase is to examine the source in more detail in terms of recognizing and locating the source in time and space. In this case, when and where the letter was written is fairly straightforward and was mentioned previously within the summarization phase. Specifically, the letter was written in 1939, in Malvern, Arkansas. Why the letter was written is also clearly stated. Bobby Murray, the author, is seeking financial assistance from the government to continue his schooling.

The question of what was happening within the immediate and broader context of when and where the letter was written is interesting. The date of 1939 is significant, in a broad context. Ten years earlier, in 1929, the Depression started in the United States. By 1939, however, the time of the writing of this letter, economic life was generally getting better. However, within the immediate context of Malvern, Arkansas, the letter indicates that life was still difficult, though not desperate. The author is not talking about starvation, about being thrown out of his home, or about his niece being taken away from them. Specifically, the letter reveals that unemployment was still a problem for boys under 18 years of age.


Inferring is designed to provide students with the opportunity to revisit initial facts gleaned from the source and to begin to read subtexts and make inferences based upon a developing understanding of the context and continued examination of the source. In answering an historical question and working with the primary source, sometimes the evidence is not explicitly stated or obvious in the source, but rather, the evidence is hinted at within the source and needs to be drawn out. The inferring stage provides room for students to explore the source and examine the source's perspective in the light of the historical questions being asked. The four analyzing questions associated with the inferring phase include:

  •   What is suggested by the source?

  •   What interpretations may be drawn from the source?

  •   What perspectives or points of view are indicated in the source?

  •   What inferences may be drawn from absences or omissions in the source?

A Letter from Bobby Murray to the Children's Bureau (1939)

At this point, the letter's author, the letter's purpose, and the letter's context have been addressed. Within the SCIM strategy the next phase is inferring, that is, what information may be implied or concluded from the evidence within the source? For example, the letter suggests that the boy is mature for 15 years of age, as he seems to understand the family's dynamics. Specifically, he is concerned with furthering his education, but not allowing his education to adversely affect the family finances.

The author also seems sensitive to his mother's workload and her need to take care of his niece. Unfortunately, the author does not reveal much about his family; specifically, who was his father, how did his sister die, or who was the father of his sister's child? In addition, since the author is writing the Children's Bureau and referencing the Superintendent, it is likely the author already asked the Superintendent for financial assistance. Extending this financial focus, since the author is seeking financial assistance from the government, it can be concluded that the family was not an upper class family, but more likely, a middle or lower class family where finances would be difficult.

Finally, this letter reflects a change in individual's perspectives, that is, the letter reflects a perspective that the government is willing and able to get directly involved in citizen's lives - a perspective not common in the 1920s. Curiously, the author does not provide much explicit information regarding life in Malvern, Arkansas. The author paints a picture of a difficult time, but the author does not reference bleak details about the number of unemployed, the number of students out of school, or the number of people starving, which would suggest that life has improved since the depths of the Depression in early 1930s.


Monitoring is the capstone stage in examining individual sources. Here students are expected to question and reflect upon their initial assumptions in terms of the overall focus on the historical questions being studied. This reflective monitoring is essential in making sure that students have asked the key questions from each of the previous phases. Such a process requires students to examine the credibility and usefulness or significance of the source in answering the historical questions at hand.

Ultimately, monitoring is about reflection, reflection upon the use of the SCIM-C strategy and reflection upon the source itself. The SCIM-C strategy is recursive in nature and thus revisiting phases and questions is essential as one begins to create an historical interpretation of a source in light of one's historical questions. The four analyzing questions associated with the monitoring phase include:

  •   What additional evidence beyond the source is necessary to answer the historical question?

  •   What ideas, images, or terms need further defining from the source?

  •   How useful or significant is the source for its intended purpose in answering the historical question?

  •   What questions from the previous stages need to be revisited in order to analyze the source satisfactorily?

A Letter from Bobby Murray to the Children's Bureau (1939)

The progression from summarizing, through contextualizing, to inferring, always leads to questions. The fourth phase of the SCIM strategy is the monitoring phase, that is, what questions exist regarding initial assumptions and interpretations or current understandings? The author also seems very mature for a 15 year old boy, which raises the question: Was there something about the experience of the depression that would have increased the sense of responsibility of a 15-year-old boy? Also, what opportunities were available to a 15-year-old boy during 1939? The author seems to value an education, why? Did the author see an education as a way to better conditions for himself and his family?

As mentioned previously, the author does not indicate much about the conditions in Malvern, Arkansas. It may help to know more about Malvern to understand the author's environment and better contextualize the contents of the letter. Was Malvern a typical southern community? Similarly, questions remain regarding his family. Who was his father and did something happened to him? What happened to his sister? What happened to his niece's father? Were the conditions of the author's family common during the late 1930s?

Finally, questions remain as to what happened to Bobby Murray and his family. Unbeknownst to Bobby, he will be of a prime draft age when World War II begins for the United States in December 1941. Ultimately, there's a lot in this letter. It is short, but it's clear and it's objective is specific.


Corroborating only starts when students have analyzed a series of sources, and are ready to extend and deepen their analysis through comparing the evidence gleaned from each source in light of the guiding historical questions. What similarities and differences in ideas, information, and perspectives exist between the analyzed sources? Students should also look for gaps in their evidence that may hinder their interpretations and the answering of their guiding historical questions. When they find contradictions between sources, they must investigate further, including the checking of the credibility of the source. Once the sources have been compared the student then begins to draw conclusions based upon the synthesis of the evidence, and can begin to develop their own conclusions and historical interpretation. The four analyzing questions associated with the corroborating phase include:

  •   What similarities and differences between the sources exist?

  •   What factors could account for these similarities and differences?

  •   What conclusions can be drawn from the accumulated interpretations?

  •   What additional information or sources are necessary to answer more fully the guiding historical question?

A Letter from Bobby Murray to the Children's Bureau (1939)

With all four phases of the SCIM strategy complete (not including the Corroborating stage, since multiple sources have not been analyized yet), we are left to create an interpretation of the source relative to the guiding historical question: What was life like for a child during the great Depression? One such interpretation might look like this:

This letter, written in 1939 by Bobby Murray to the Children's Bureau, suggests how the effects of the Depression were felt by one boy and his family. The boy's difficulties were not caused directly by the Depression, but rather by the lack of resources available to the family. The one source of support, the sister, has passed away, leaving the mother to work part-time while also raising her grand-daughter. The Depression is thus a background cause, suggested in the statement that a boy under eighteen cannot find any work. The letter does show, however, how the government is perceived as a source of assistance. Bobby Murray is writing to the Children's Bureau because he is hopeful of receiving some of the assistance being offered to children who cannot pay their school expenses. He refers to the superintendent of the local school district as a reference who will testify to his attendance. The letter thus shows how the combined difficulties of home life and the Depression caused problems for a child, and how the child's response demonstrates both a sense of responsibility and a willingness to look for assistance from as far away as Washington, D.C.. The author is clearly hopeful that a change will come as soon as possible, because any further delays will keep him from school.

As can be seen from the interpretation above, utilizing the SCIM strategy results in a deep, thorough, and careful analysis of the primary source, as well as an insightful and well-grounded interpretation.

Show Me the SCIM-C Strategy

In addition to the aforementioned five phases, within each phase there exists a series of four spiraling analyzing questions that serve to scaffold a concerted level of engagement with each source in order to allow students time to linger and learn from the source in light of the historical question being asked.

View SCIM-C Explanation (video)

Teaching History as Mystery

The whole idea of teaching history as mystery is to get students thinking... That is, we want to hear their ideas;we want to see evidence; and above all, we want to hear reasons, hypotheses, interpretations, and theories that analyze and explain events.
(Gerwin & Zevin, Teaching U.S. History as Mystery, p. 13)

View The Mystery of Sam Smiley

SCIM-C Publications

SCIM-C Publications and Chapters

Van Hover, S., Hicks, D., Doolittle, P., & vanFossen, P. (2012) Learning social studies: An evidence-based approach. In K. Harris, S. Graham, & T. Urdan (Eds.), American Psychological Association Educational Psychology Handbook (pp. 283-307). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.



Doolittle, P. E. (2010). Effects of segmentation and personalization on superficial and comprehensive strategy instruction in multimedia learning environments. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 19(2), 5-21.



Hicks, D., & Doolittle, P. E. (2009). Multimedia-based historical inquiry strategy instruction: Do size and form really matter? In J. Lee & A. Friedman (Eds.), Research on technology in social studies education (pp. 127-152). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.



Lusk, D. L., Evans, A., D. Jeffrey, T. R., Palmer, K. R., Wikstrom, C. S., & Doolittle, P. E. (2009). Multimedia learning and individual differences: Mediating the effects of working memory capacity with segmentation. British Journal of Educational Technology, 40(4), 636-651.



McNeill, A. L., Doolittle, P. E., & Hicks, D. (2009). The effects of training, modality, and redundancy on the development of a historical inquiry strategy in a multimedia learning environment. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 8(3), 255-269.



Hicks, D., & Doolittle, P. E. (2008). Fostering analysis in historical inquiry through multimedia embedded scaffolding. Theory and Research in Social Education, 36(3), 206-232.



Lee, J., Doolittle, P., & Hicks, D. (2006). History teachers' use of non-digital and digital historical resources. Research and Practice in Social Studies, 1(3), 291-311.



Doolittle, P. E., Hicks, D., Triplett, C. F., Nichols, W. D., & Young, C. A. (2006). Reciprocal teaching for reading comprehension in higher education: A strategy for fostering the deeper understanding of texts. International Journal on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 17(2), 106-118.



Hicks, D., Doolittle, P. E., & Lee, J. (2004). History and social studies teachers' use of classroom and web-based historical primary sources. Theory and Research in Social Education. 32(2), 213-247.

Currently, there is limited research that examines the extent to which history and social studies teachers are actually utilizing primary and secondary sources that are accessible in traditional classroom-based formats versus current web-based formats. This papers seeks to explore this gap in the literature by reporting on the results of a comprehensive survey that examines the extent to which history and social studies teachers are using classroom and web-based historical primary sources and the ways in which they were using them. In particular, we ask: To what extent has the availability of web-based historical primary sources impacted history and social studies teachers' use of historical primary sources in the classroom? In order to successfully answer the above question, the following supporting questions were examined. How and why are history and social studies teachers using classroom-based historical primary sources? How and why are history and social studies teachers using web-based historical primary sources? The finding suggest that teachers use classroom based and web-based resources in varying ways and to differing degrees.


Hicks, D., Doolittle, P. E., & Ewing, T. (2004). The SCIM-C strategy: Expert historians, historical inquiry, and multimedia. Social Education. 68(3), 221-225.

Understanding history is a challenge. In order to provide teachers with a tool that can help students acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to interpret primary sources and reconcile various historical accounts, this paper explains the SCIM-C strategy. Grounded in research on teaching and learning history, the SCIM-C strategy focuses on five broad phases: Summarizing, Contextualizing, Inferring, Monitoring, and Corroborating. When students examine an individual source, they move through the first four phases (i.e., summarizing, contextualizing, inferring, and monitoring) and then, after analyzing several individual sources, they compare the sources collectively in the fifth phase (i.e., corroborating). The paper introduces the online multimedia SCIM-C historical Inquiry Tutorial, and models the phases of the SCIM-C strategy, including the four spiraling analyzing questions for each phase.


Bolick, C., Hicks, D., Lee, J., Molebash, P., & Doolittle, P. E. (2004). Digital libraries: The catalyst to transform teacher education. AACE Journal, 12(2), 213-233.

Digital libraries are changing the way academic disciplines within universities are conceptualized. The nation's scholars are investing their careers and millions of dollars to use technology to rethink the nature of their disciplines. These advances are affecting academic research and instruction as academic disciplines restructure in response to technologies. This article presents a framework for how digital libraries should be used in teacher education.


Hicks, D., Carroll, J., Doolittle, P., Lee, J., & Oliver, B. (2004). Teaching the mystery of history. Social Studies and the Young Learner. 16(3), 14-16

This paper/lesson plan introduces teachers and students to the "Mystery of Sam Smiley." A simulation designed to have students play the role of detective and find out what happened to Sam Smiley. The lesson supports the development of strategies that enable students to: (a) explore historical questions; (b) comprehend and work with ideas from various sources; (c) recognize and attempt to reconcile conflicting accounts; and (d) construct explanations and narratives that reveal an understanding of historical context and chronology. A word file is also available that introduces an earlier version of this lesson.


Doolittle, P. E., & Hicks, D. (2003). Constructivism as a theoretical foundation for the use of technology in social studies. Theory and Research in Social Education, 31(1), 72-104.

The National Council for Social Studies has explicitly advocated technology integration into the social studies classroom to transform the teaching and learning of key social studies content and skills. While the call for technology integration into the social studies classroom is clear, the application of technology within the realm of social studies has traditionally been theoretically underdeveloped. One theoretical foundation that has promise for framing the discussion of technology and social studies integration is constructivism. Within this paper the current relationship between social studies education and technology is explored, the nature of constructivist philosophy, theory, and pedagogy is delineated, and principles for the integration of technology in social studies that supports an explicit constructivist foundation are posited.


Learning Social Studies

Greg Giardina, 8th grade teacher at Sacred Heart Elementary School, Pittsburgh PA teaches an inquiry lesson about the Cherokee Removal Act of 1838. He uses primary sources from the Library of Congress and the inquiry process of SCIM-C for this historical investigation lesson. His guiding historical question is: "To what extent did the United States Government have a responsibility to serve the will of the majority even if it would violate the rights of the Cherokee?" Mr. Giardina developed this lesson while taking an online professional development class, National History Day Resources At the Library of Congress offered by the Eastern Region TPS Partner at Waynesburg University October, 2013. Co-Teachers for this class were Dr. David Hicks, VA Tech, Dr. John Lee, N.C. State, and Dr. Ann Canning, Waynesburg University.

Historical Inquiry Resources

Historical Inquiry Web Sites

Digital History
Canadian History
Historical Inquiry
History Resources
Library of Congress
American South
Digital History Reader
H. S. I.
History Matters
World History Sources
National Archives

Historical Inquiry Videos

David Hicks
David Cline
Robin Houlahan
Paul Fitchett
NC State Class Project
Peter Doolittle
Greg Giardina
Doing History

Learning Social Studies: An Evidence-based Approach

The teaching and learning landscape of social studies is complex and challenging to navigate. This book chapter (Hicks, van Hover, Doolittle, & VanFossen, 2012) highlights eight priciples of learning and how they are applied within the social studies to create complete, student-centered instructional environments that foster deep and flexible learning.

View Learning Social Studies

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