Our Curriculum

Our curriculum design model, problem-based geographic inquiry (PBGI), is grounded in an extended line of research and advocacy involving the use of problem- or issues-based curriculums to engage students in disciplined civic inquiry (Saye, 2017) across social studies disciplines (Dewey, 1938; Oliver and Shaver, 1966; Evans, Newmann, and Saxe, 1996; Saye and Brush, 2004). A great deal of research has been conducted to evaluate curriculums designed to support students in engaging in civic reasoning about complex, open-ended social problems. Two recent and sustained lines of inquiry from this research base, particularly those associated with Saye and Brush and the PIH Network, inform our work (see Saye and Brush, 1999, 2007; Parker, Mueller, and Wendling, 1989; Parker et al., 2013; Parker, Valencia, and Lo, 2018). The findings from these studies suggest that students can do the reasoning required by proponents of disciplined civic inquiry.

Problem-based inquiry is reflected in a variety of geography curriculums and projects. Perhaps the best examples that most tightly fit our own PBGI curriculum design efforts are the Geographic Inquiry into Global Issues (GIGI) project and the Choices Curriculum (Hill, 1993; Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, 2018). The GIGI project specifically sought to develop materials that would help secondary students “learn responsible citizenship and civic action through the information, concepts, fundamental themes, skills, and values of geography” (Hill, 1993, p. 73). Project designers used geographic issues at various geographic scales to guide students’ use of geographic concepts, tools, and resources. The larger goal of the GIGI Project, however, was to develop students’ ability to think critically and reflectively, as citizens, about “long-term, perennial issues” such as “diversity and unity, spatial justice, quality of life, territorial conflict, interdependency, and environmental stability and change” (p. 74).

Distinctions between PBGI and other well-known inquiry models like the C3 Framework are subtle but worth exploring as context for understanding the rationale behind our project. First, in PBGI, emphasis is placed on engaging students in the investigation of national and international public issues debated by citizens and policy leaders. Compelling questions (NCSS, 2013) and geo-inquiry questions (National Geographic, 2018) can have a similar focus, but this is not a requirement. Additionally, we seek to align topics selected for in-depth inquiries with broader persistent issues that consistently impact democratic societies (Saye & Brush, 2004). Linking instruction to persistent issues creates cohesion across units within a course, allowing students to better envision how topics have contemporary relevance for democratic citizenship. Using persistent issues also supports connections across the broader social studies curriculum since teachers can work together to ensure the same persistent issues are explored across grade levels. In this way, the model helps teachers to make informed decisions regarding which topics to explore in-depth in an often-crowded list of standards. The most used version of the inquiry design model (IDM), based on the C3 Framework, organizes instruction around compelling and supporting questions (Grant et al., 2017). However, these IDMs do not necessarily emphasize connections to broader overarching questions that cut across social studies subjects and grade levels.

Several other important aspects of PBGI are noteworthy. PBGI units emphasize disciplinary thinking in geography and jurisprudential reasoning grounded in the work of Oliver and Shaver (1966). The jurisprudential approach to inquiry guides learners to deeply analyze questions citizens confront and consider how values shape public policy (see example provided in Kohlmeier, 2021). Since our focus is on both geography and citizenship, PBGI units tend to feature a broader range of instructional strategies and learning experiences than might be found in geo-inquiries or C3-based inquiries. The teacher typically provides the ill-structured question or problem for the unit and promotes guided, collaborative deliberation about persistent social issues (Saye & Brush, 2004). The integrative and value-based aspects of the jurisprudential model make it attractive for use in social studies classrooms today given the polarized nature of democratic discussions in the United States. While problem-based curriculums grounded in a jurisprudential model have been studied and refined over the course of many years (see, for instance: Kohlmeier et al., 2020; Kohlmeier & Saye, 2014; Newmann & Oliver, 1970; Parker, 1989; Saye et al., 2009), this research has mainly occurred in history and civics/government settings. Our PBGI model builds off this research base and seeks to equip learners with the ability to think like geographers and weigh the ethical dilemmas embedded in persistent social issues.


Evans, R. W., F. Newmann, and D. W. Saxe. (1996). Defining issues-centered education. In R.Evans and D. W. Saxe(Eds.), Handbook on teaching social issues (pp. 2–5). Washington, DC.

Grant, S. G., Swan, K., & Lee, J. (2017). Inquiry-based practice in social studies education: Understanding the inquiry design model (1st ed.). Routledge.

Hill, A. D. (1993). Geographic inquiry into global issues. OAH Magazine of History, 7(3), 73–76. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25162897?seq=1.

Kohlmeier, J. (2021). Ethical reasoning and risk-taking when teaching patriotism and war. Democracy and Education, 29(1). https://democracyeducationjournal.org/home/vol29/iss1/5.

Kohlmeier, J., Howell, J., Saye, J., McCormick, T., Shannon, D., Jones, C., & Brush, T. (2020). Investigating teacher adoption of authentic pedagogy through lesson study. Theory & Research in Social Education, 48(4), 492–528. https://doi.org/10.1080/00933104.2020.1751761

Kohlmeier, J., & Saye, J. W. (2014). Ethical reasoning of U.S. high school seniors exploring just versus unjust laws. Theory & Research in Social Education, 42(4), 548–578. https://doi.org/10.1080/00933104.2014.966218

National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). (2013). The college, career, and civic life (C3) framework for social studies state standards: Guidance for enhancing the rigor of k-12 civics, economics, geography, and history. NCSS. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/262960341_The_College_Career_and_Civic_Life_C3_Framework_for_Social_Studies_State_Standards_Guidance_for_Enhancing_the_Rigor_of_K-12_Civics_Economics_Geography_and_History.

National Geographic. (2018). In The geo-inquiry process. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/education/programs/geo-inquiry.

Newmann, F. M., & Oliver, D. W. (1970). Clarifying public controversy: An approach to teaching social studies. Little, Brown, and Company.

Oliver, D. W., & Shaver, J. P. (1966). Teaching public issues in the high school. Houghton Mifflin.

Parker, W. C., Mueller, M., & Wendling, L. (1989). Critical reasoning on civic issues. Theory & Research in Social Education, 17(1), 7–32. https://doi.org/10.1080/00933104.1989.10505577.

Parker, W. C., J. Lo, A. J. Yeo, S. W. Valencia, D.Nguyen, R. D. Abbott, S. B. Nolen, J. D. Bransford, and N. J. Vye. (2013). Beyond breadth-speed-test: Toward deeper knowing and engagement in an advanced placement course. American Educational Research Journal, 50(6):1424–59.

Parker, W. C., S. W. Valencia, and J. C. Lo. 2018.Teaching for deeper political learning: A design experiment. Journal of Curriculum Studies 50(2):252–77.

Saye, J. (2017). Disciplined inquiry in social studies classrooms. In The Wiley handbook of social studies research (pp. 336–359). Wiley-Blackwell.

Saye, J. W., & Brush, T. (1999). Student engagement with social issues in a multimedia- supported learning environment. Theory & Research in Social Education, 27(4),472–504. https://doi.org/10.1080/00933104.1999.10505891

Saye, J., & Brush, T. (2004). Promoting civic competence through problem-based history learning environments. In Civic learning in teacher education: International perspectives on education for democracy in the preparation of teachers (pp. 123–145). ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education.

Saye, J. W., & Brush, T. (2007). Using technology-enhanced learning environments to support problem-based historical inquiry in secondary school classrooms. Theory & Research in Social Education, 35(2), 196–230. https://doi.org/10.1080/00933104.2007.10473333.

Saye, J. W., Kohlmeier, J., Brush, T., Mitchell, L., & Farmer, C. (2009). Using mentoring to develop professional teaching knowledge for problem-based historical inquiry. Theory & Research in Social Education, 37(1), 6–41. https://doi.org/10.1080/00933104.2009.10473386.

Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. (2018). In The Choices Program: Geography series. Choices Program. https://www.choices.edu/curriculum-series/geography/.

Portions of this Framework appeared previously in the following publications

Howell, J. & Maddox, L. (2022). Geographic inquiry for citizenship: Identifying barriers to improving teachers’ practice. The Journal of Social Studies Research. doi.org/10.1016/j.jssr.2022.04.001

Maddox, L. and Howell, J. (2018) Designing geographic inquiry: Preparing secondary students for citizenship. Journal of Geography. doi.org/10.1080/00221341.2018.1495249.