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Faculty Viewpoint: Leading Inclusive, Inquiry-Based Teaching and Learning

by Communications Office / May 24, 2022

Asif Wilson and I3: Inclusive, Inquiry-Based Social Studies for Illinois

Asif Wilson, assistant professor in Curriculum and Instruction, is leading the development, implementation, and evaluation of training in inclusive, inquiry-based instruction for K-12 social studies teachers throughout the state of Illinois. We spoke with Wilson to learn more about the work going into this massive effort, his team of expert colleagues, and what successful outcomes will look like.

Remind us, when did the State of Illinois make these American History and social studies curriculum updates a requirement for K-12 classrooms?

AW: When Illinois Governor JB Pritzker signed House Bill 2170 a little over a year ago, the creation of an Inclusive American History Commission (IAHC) was part of the omnibus legislation. This Commission, convened by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) was tasked with three specific goals:

  1. Providing direction for social science learning standards for K-12 public school students with “content and instruction that are not biased to value specific cultures, time periods, and experiences over others.”
  2. Identifying resources for school districts that “reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of Illinois and the nation.”
  3. Developing guidance, tools, and support for professional learning for in-service educators on “how to locate and utilize resources for non-dominant cultural narratives and sources of historical information.”

The Governor’s Office charged the IAHC to produce a report with strategic recommendations to accomplish these goals. This report is the springboard for the work that I am leading—specific to the third goal of providing professional development and learning in Inclusive American History to all Illinois K-12 social studies teachers.

Thankfully, the policymakers behind HB2170 and ISBE administrators were already on similar pathways over the last few years in a couple big ways:

  • ISBE has been revising student learning standards to move towards more inquiry-based learning contexts in K-12 classrooms. In other words, rather than lots of memorization—facts, names, and dates—students are urged to ask questions, collect information on these questions, seek solutions, and take action.
  • HB2170 dovetails with revised state standards then adds more inclusivity. It ensures certain cultural and other previously-excluded groups are included in the curriculum. Right now, ISBE lists about a dozen mandatory standard inclusions in social studies curriculum and many have been replicated by HB2170, like mandatory inclusion of Black History.

Talk about your role and the College of Education team’s part in leading this statewide Inclusive American History training.

AW: I served as an educational expert for one of the Illinois American History Commission subcommittees, and that’s how I was introduced to this work. Staff at ISBE were familiar with my areas of scholarship in justice-centered, inclusive, inquiry-based pedagogy and knew that I had been a middle school social studies and science teacher in Chicago Public Schools before going to higher education. They approached me about being the principal investigator for a team from the College of Education at Illinois to develop the professional learning that would turn this legislation into action in the classroom.

Honestly, we are one of the few universities in the nation with a social studies-interested faculty team. Usually there’s one faculty member in a college or school of education that is concerned with K-12 social studies research and policy. My colleagues Drs. Jon Hale and Rachel McMillian have been instrumental in supporting this training.

Without Jon’s work in history and legislative language, where would we be? Without Rachel’s influence to think about various conditions—challenges that Black and minority teachers and students face, education within incarceration scenarios, where would we be? They bring so much expertise to the table.

To be in a space where we have not only three social studies experts, but three people who come from different geographies, positionalities, social studies experiences—and bring this to the work we’re doing? It’s one reason why I’m so excited about the potential of this work and why I appreciate working at the University of Illinois, with colleagues who are like minded, justice-centered, who want to roll up our sleeves to do the sort of community-engaged scholarship that the university is calling us to do. This is community-engaged work. Our role is documenting the story and whatever else this leads us to—ultimately I couldn’t do this alone and I can’t stress enough how appreciative I am of the collaborative leadership I have with my team and the College and university to do this work.

I should also mention there’s a nine-member steering committee driving this professional learning series, on which Jon, Rachel, and I all serve along with additional teachers and educational experts from around the state.

What is the timeline for the I3 social studies teacher professional development rollout?

AW: We already have 118 teachers from across the state registered for our June 1, 2022, professional learning launch—we're calling the series I3: Inclusive, Inquiry-Based Social Studies for Illinois. This first cohort in our “pilot year" will have until the deadline of June 30 to participate in and complete the five-part series on self-interrogating their own dispositions, inquiry-based learning, and inclusive American history. All sessions are online via Zoom, in both synchronous and asynchronous formats.

Continuation of the professional learning with ISBE will include spots for 250 teachers this coming academic year (2022-23). Then, a scaled-up version will be available to every social studies teacher in the state, in a variety of K-12 educational settings, for the 2023-24 school year.

How do you plan on evaluating the professional learning’s effectiveness? What needs to happen for you to say that social studies education is moving in the right direction?

AW: In terms of evaluation, right now we’re exploring a few things:

  1. What does it mean to have an inclusive and inquiry-based classroom in Illinois, particularly for K-12 social studies teachers? What are our dreams, and what are teachers’ starting points?
  2. How does professional learning, rooted in self and in understanding and capacity building curricularization (building these tools), both prepare and influence educators in inclusive and inquiry-based pedagogy and curriculum?
  3. What happens as a result of this? We want to interview teachers and hopefully a second round of students to find out what they’re experiencing in this space, what teachers are actually doing that’s working, and how this creates models for more teachers to become more inclusive and inquiry-based.

One comment we have heard from teachers is, ‘Why do I need to teach inclusive history, like Black history? I only have white students in my rural class.’

How you situate this is: no matter who your students are now, or who your students might be in the future, what does it mean for every single student who moves through your classroom door to move into a space where they belong? Where the curriculum and pedagogy reflects who they are and the questions they have and who they are becoming? It’s that simple for us, actually.

Students need to see themselves, and the people around them, and the larger society reflected in their classroom learning experiences. They should have the opportunity to teach and share their learning experiences with their classmates and teachers.

Regardless of who students are, the positionalities they inherit, hold onto, or believe in are not always reflected in classroom experiences. Often, non-white, non-cis gendered, non-male identities are not reflected holistically. We may have a week, or a month focus, or a few days celebration, but I don’t think that’s what an inquiry-based and inclusive Illinois looks like or feels like.

You mentioned Illinois being among the first states in the nation to have passed and now be implementing progressive social studies and history curriculum. How does this affect your work?

AW: It’s interesting, so in the context of social studies teaching and learning in the U.S. we’re hearing a lot right now about growing state legislation that is inclosing, creating restrictions on what people can and cannot teach. Illinois is one of the few states right now that has legislation saying ‘we want you to include all people’s histories and perspectives in what you teach.’ So it’s a unique opportunity to see if there really is a difference between legislation that opens up opportunities or encloses them. And what are teachers doing, as a result?

It’s a great case study on whether legislation directly influences more equitable and justice-centered outcomes for students in K-12 settings or not. Something to be determined, and something our scholarship will hopefully lead to learning more about.

That said, we are hopeful about the potential this will bring, and the way that it exemplifies the University of Illinois’ capacity and expertise to transform social studies teaching and learning in every classroom in the state of Illinois. We’re excited to create a model as some states do adopt more inclusive standards—like New Jersey and about five other states that are enacting legislation for teaching Asian American history. It’s rewarding to have the opportunity to potentially impact hundreds of thousands of students who make up the wide range of identities and positionalities throughout the state of Illinois and this nation.