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Selecting and designing visual curriculum materials for inquiry-based instruction

Cory Callahan (University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA)
James B. Howell (University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, USA)
Lamont E. Maddox (University of North Alabama, Florence, Alabama, USA)

Social Studies Research and Practice

ISSN: 1933-5415

Article publication date: 30 October 2019

Issue publication date: 28 November 2019




Visual documents (e.g. maps, editorial cartoons, historical photographs, portraits, documentary films, historically-based movies, etc.) are common curriculum resources within social studies classrooms; however, only recently scholars have begun to systematically research ways to more authentically and powerfully center instruction around visual documents. Here, the purpose of this paper is to synthesize relevant lines of inquiry into research-based, wise-practices for selecting and designing visual curriculum materials to help social studies students and teachers think about social phenomenon deeply and in more disciplinary-specific ways.


The authors share recent scholarship that has posited explanations for why visual data tend to afford learners especially powerful opportunities to think critically about the world around them. Throughout the discussion, the authors integrate applicable research-based principles that can guide the selection and design of visual curriculum materials.


Scholars have suggested that visual documents are rarely introduced in educational settings as a means to develop the thinking skills of decoding, interpreting and evaluating pictorial information. The authors argue that these skills are vital civic competencies because the creation and critique of non-written information often mediates modern public issues and social identities.

Research limitations/implications

Informed by strong, consistent research into multimodal learning, visual literacy and the cognitive sciences, the wise-practice scaffolding suggestions the authors provide may help professionals with an interest in social studies education to synthesize theory-based suggestions with practice-based implementations as it concerns visual documents. The authors hope the guidance shared here helps teachers, teacher educators and curriculum designers produce high-quality resources that will engage contemporary students and help them develop civic competence.


First, the authors posit a research-based template, or planning checklist, of wise-practice suggestions to help social studies teachers, teacher educators and curriculum designers select visual documents. The authors then share several digital collection archives that teachers can visit to locate powerful visuals and describe research-based suggestions for designing them for dynamic implementation. Finally, the authors argue for more deliberative space in the social studies curriculum and classroom time for teachers to explore the educative power of centering inquiry-based instruction around visual information.



Callahan, C., Howell, J.B. and Maddox, L.E. (2019), "Selecting and designing visual curriculum materials for inquiry-based instruction", Social Studies Research and Practice, Vol. 14 No. 3, pp. 321-334.



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