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Social studies education encompasses a diverse formal curriculum in addition to a powerful set of school-based learning experiences. The formal curriculum is composed of content taken predominately from the social sciences and certain humanities. But content from many other subjects can be a legitimate part of social studies as it might either serve as a tool supporting social thinking and learning (e.g., using mathematical concepts to illuminate housing prices) or become a target of social studies instruction (e.g., examining issues related to stem cells to better understand the nature of public policy debates).
The subjects that most educators group under the label of social sciences are geography, political science, economics, sociology, anthropology, and psychology. The humanities featured in social studies are history, philosophy, religion, and aspects of art history and literature. History, geography, economics, and political science, typically called the core four, usually get the lion’s share of time and attention in the social studies curriculum at all levels of education. Research and writing by scholars in these disciplines provides the content that is taught to students at all grade levels.
The formal curriculum is the purposefully taught social studies lessons that students encounter in schools. National, state, and local curriculum guides often specify the learning goals students are expected to achieve from this officially endorsed, prescribed social studies instruction. Textbooks and other instructional resources are used to help students learn the formal curriculum. This curriculum is open to public review and it is often tested to provide evidence of students’ learning. The intellectual foundation of the formal curriculum comes almost exclusively from the social sciences and the humanities.
Beyond the formal social studies curriculum is an informal, hidden, or natural curriculum. For example, elementary schools typically recognize popular holidays with a variety of decorations, events, and programs that help to set a seasonal tone and rhythm to the school year. In addition to this typical set of seasonal events, all schools also foster a civic culture through such things as their code of conduct, their various administrative interactions with students and their parents, and the provision of extracurricular activities and clubs. These phenomena arguably join with the formal social studies curriculum as agents of intentional sociocultural learning that are designed to prepare young people for their future roles as engaged, active citizens within our representative democracy.
General Historical Overview of Development in the United States
In the early colonial days of our nation, social studies as a distinct school subject did not exist. Before the establishment of public education, only the wealthy would have their children tutored or attend private schools to learn reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion. Because instruction about world religions is now considered part of social studies, it could be argued that this was the first appearance of social studies.
With the overthrow of British rule in 1776, opinion in our nation began to shift toward the provision of universal education for all children as a necessity for a self-governing nation. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Noah Webster, among others, argued for adding civic education—composed primarily of lessons on our history and government—to the common school curriculum. Of particular importance was Jefferson’s belief that citizenship education was a necessity in a democracy.
Further public sentiment in favor of tax-supported common schools gained momentum in the early decades of the 1800s. Horace Mann, a Massachusetts legislator, did much to sway opinion in favor of this new and uniquely American approach to education. Concerning the common school, Ornstein and Levine (1989) state:
Through a common or a shared program of civic education, it was to cultivate a sense of American identity and loyalty. Its major social purpose was to integrate children of various social, economic, and ethnic backgrounds into the broad American community. . . . It was to educate the future citizens of a country with self-governing political institutions. (p. 170)
The common school curriculum grew and changed throughout the 1800s. By the last quarter of that century, history and government were taught in many urban elementary schools to prepare students for the demands of citizenship in a diverse immigrant-based and rapidly industrializing society. At the turn of the 20th century, only a little over 6% of teenage Americans graduated from high school (Bohan, 2005). This fact helps us understand the crucial importance of elementary social studies as most Americans’ only significant opportunity to learn the history, geography, economics, and government content needed for democratic citizenship. The growth of sociology, anthropology, and psychology as legitimate academic disciplines in their own right during the late 1800s and early 1900s laid the foundation for a diversification of social studies education in American high schools.
Bohan (2005) traced the roots of social studies in the United States to the Committee of Eight, a group formed in 1905 that recommended a highly nationalistic approach to American history at every grade level, with an oral approach in the early grades where reading skills were still being formed and reliance on textbook-based instruction in the later elementary grades. The focus for Grades 1 and 2 was Native Americans and public holidays; for Grade 3, biographical study of heroes and American independence; for Grades 4 and 5, historical scenes and persons of American history and the growth and development of the American nation; for Grade 6, a study of the European origins of American citizens (Bohan, 2005, p. 288). Much of this same content can be found in contemporary elementary schools.
In the early 1900s, communities began to extend education beyond elementary school, forming junior and senior high schools that sought to expand and strengthen the history and government lessons students had learned in elementary education. Lybarger (1991) notes that the 1916 Committee on Social Studies of the National Education Association’s Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education popularized the term social studies.
The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) in 1921 vowed to bring together teachers and others interested in citizenship education through social studies. In response to the turmoil in high school social studies, the American Historical Association published a 16-volume commission report that secured a role for history as a unifying subject at the core of the social studies curriculum.
In the late 1950s, a social studies curriculum revision movement that came to be known as the new social studies (NSS) attempted to move instruction away from traditional methods that focused on the mastery of content and skills deemed important to citizenship transmission and acculturation, to emerging concepts and theories of the social sciences and teaching practices that engaged students in issues-oriented inquiries. The NSS curriculum revision era spanned more than two decades but was only minimally successful in altering the predominate patterns of social studies teaching (Rice, 1992). Of course, this period of great turmoil and discord in America was associated with the rise of the baby boom generation, the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, the stresses of the Cold War, and the disastrous Vietnam War. Toward the end of the 1960s, educators began reexamining the role of junior high schools, arguing, among other things, that the developmental needs of adolescents needed more attention and that instruction needed to be more child-centered and provided through closely knit instructional teams. The middle school movement was born, and the National Middle School Association was formed in 1973 to encourage a continuing focus on the unique needs of youth.
With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, a turn toward conservatism took place in America that had many consequences for public education, such as changes in the role of the U.S. Department of Education and the way federal funds were distributed to states. Subsequent developments such as the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, the development of voluntary national standards in virtually all subject areas, and a number of other school reforms driven by America 2000, the first of President Bush’s signature school improvement plans, had a substantial effect on education in general and social studies in particular. Within social studies this meant a return to a dominant focus on history, geography, economics, and government/civics/political science; a retreat from issues-oriented inquiry instruction; and attempts to bolster the presence of Western cultures’ humanities content in the curriculum.
Relationship to Other Subjects and School Culture
Social studies has many interconnections with other school subjects. The English, language arts, and literature curriculums, for example, typically include cultural literacy and communication goals that match similar aims within social studies instruction. For example, various forms of literature such as biography are often read in social studies classes to provide a more engaging or more detailed account of real life events. Science properly includes a historical perspective on its content and similarly often includes a much needed focus on public policy debates that surround leading-edge developments in scientific research and technology such as cloning, AIDS, and stem cell use. Foreign language instruction routinely engages students in the study of other nations’ cultures, since this focus is the driving force behind the proper meaning and use of any language. Sex and drug education, to be effective, must reasonably go beyond diagrams and charts to consider elements of peer pressure and popular culture that influence young people’s behavior. Career education, another and more obvious form of social studies, is often tied to the economic education strand of the curriculum.
It is crucial to reemphasize the importance of the total school environment as a complex and multifaceted setting for the learning of important lessons about what it means to be an American. School sports were not mentioned in the previous section, but they, too, are a powerful component of school culture and hold incredibly strong potential for good and harm within the lives of students and their families. Perhaps this realization partially explains why social studies teachers are often sports coaches or otherwise actively involved in the extracurricular life of their schools.
The preeminent professional organization for the social studies, the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), was formed in 1921 and currently has 26,000 members. The NCSS produced the voluntary national standards for social studies instruction, Expectations of Excellence (1994), and voluntary national standards for the preparation of social studies teachers. It publishes three journals: Social Education, Middle Level Learning, and Social Studies and the Young Learner. The NCSS is the parent organization for many affiliated regional and state social studies councils in addition to professional groups such as the College and University Faculty Assembly (CUFA), which publishes the leading academic journal Theory and Research in Social Education; the Council of State Social Studies Specialists (CS4); and the National Social Studies Supervisors Association (NSSSA), whose members are school district level social studies curriculum supervisors.
Although the NCSS is the leading organization that promotes social studies, it is important to note that each of the core four discipline areas also has a professional organization that promotes instruction within that particular subject. For example, history has the National Council for History Education (NCHE), geography has the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE), and economics has the National Council for Economic Education (NCEE). Political science, whose professional organization is the American Political Science Association (APSA), has a subgroup that is concerned with precollegiate education, but much of the effort to improve government and civics classes has come from organizations such as the Center for Civic Education (CCE), the Constitutional Rights Foundation (CRF), the Close Up Foundation, and a variety of others.
National and State Standards
Expectations of Excellence (National Council for the Social Studies [NCSS], 1994), the voluntary national standards for K-12 social studies instruction, specified 10 themes, representing the social science and humanities disciplines but also incorporating some additional content themes such as global connections, science, technology, and society. Content learning outcomes for each theme were specified for upper elementary, middle, and high school social studies learning. A comprehensive skills matrix was provided in addition to a vision statement on “powerful social studies learning” (NCSS, 1994). Although the NCSS standards served as a comprehensive guide to social studies instruction, they lacked the subject matter specificity needed to direct discipline-centered instruction, drive curriculum development, or guide test development. The core four disciplines all produced their own comprehensive voluntary national standards during the mid-1990s. These curriculum guides were much more detailed than the NCSS’s 10 themes for excellence in social studies. The voluntary national history standards ran into a hailstorm of conservative criticism, and the geography standards received a mixed review from geography teachers. Education is, of course, a state function, so states vary a great deal in their standards for the different content areas of social studies such as history (Brown, 2003).
Testing, Accountability, and No Child Left Behind
Testing and accountability take on several forms in social studies. Many high school social studies courses, for example, culminate with a required district or state level end-of-course test that determines whether students pass or must retake required courses. In addition, students at many grade levels often have to take standardized, commercial achievement tests such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, the California Achievement Test, the Metropolitan Achievement Test, or the Stanford Achievement Test, all of which include assessments of social studies content learning. Teacher accountability may extend beyond scrutiny of test scores, to include ways of checking adherence to pacing guides that specify what must be taught at a particular time of the school year.
Social studies educators have understandably tended to be strong advocates of academic freedom and local control of the curriculum; however, the exclusion of social studies from testing under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has left many believing that the social studies are being seriously neglected in favor of subjects that will be tested. Many believe that students are graduating without the understanding they need to function as effective citizens. Consequently, the NCSS has passed an official resolution urging that social studies be included in states’ NCLB testing programs.
Staffing And Instructional Leadership
Staffing and instructional leadership varies widely in elementary, middle, and high schools. High schools, of course, must staff the required history, economics, geography, government, or civics classes. Highly qualified teachers are hired to meet these instructional needs. Other things being equal, high school social studies departments tend to prefer teachers who can also coach a sport or be otherwise involved in the extended extracurricular life of the school. High school teachers often work at several grade levels and are assigned up to four daily classes. Middle school social studies teachers are typically assigned to multisubject instructional teams, and they may or may not teach more than one grade level during the day. Middle school administrators also look for highly qualified teachers to cover the number of required classes that they must offer. Like their high school counterparts, middle school social studies teachers’ job prospects are strengthened if they are able to coach a sport or sponsor a club, have earned a graduate degree, or hold special education or English as a second language certification. Elementary schools typically have no formal leadership in social studies. Teachers may collaborate on grade-level specific planning for social studies instruction for a grading period or the entire school year. At all school levels teachers may also have some input into the social studies textbook adoption for their school.
Instructional leadership within school systems for social studies varies considerably. In many cases, school and even district-level instructional support personnel may be overworked and forced to cover more than one content or subject area (e.g., English and social studies). Ideally, teachers should have some well-qualified person whom they can call upon for advice and resources. But this is rarely the case and, as a result, teachers turn most often to colleagues, professional associations’ conferences, and the Internet for help and ideas to improve their social studies teaching.
Elementary Social Studies
The widening horizons scope and sequence became the dominant approach to the elementary social studies curriculum during the 1950s, and remnants of this scope and sequence remain today in most school systems. Topics or themes are typically used to structure the elementary social studies curriculum. For example, a fifth-grade unit on a specific Native American culture in the early 1800s might integrate content from history, anthropology, and geography. Alternatively, a first-grade unit on contemporary families would integrate content of sociology, economics, psychology, and perhaps religion.
Occasionally, teachers in elementary schools will devote some specific instructional time to a single discipline, but such discipline-focused studies are the exception rather than the rule in most elementary classrooms. The predominant approach to teaching elementary social studies is an integrated disciplines approach, and this approach is likely to remain popular in the future (Haas & Laughlin, 2001).
Controversies, Difficulties, and Issues
Several clear results of efforts to change elementary social studies are apparent, particularly in altering the outdated expanding environments scope and sequence, and improving textbooks and other curriculum materials. Half a dozen alternative scope and sequence arrangements have been promoted, but no one proposal has assumed a dominant position and vestiges remain of the early curriculums. Improved textbooks now include significant content on women and minorities, and they assiduously resist stereotypes in these depictions. Material on other nations is routinely included in elementary social studies, and it is not unusual to find some content that focuses on issues such as poverty and pollution as these phenomena exist both abroad and in the United States. Newer textbooks also typically address some of the most troubling and dubious actions of our government such as the removal of the Cherokees from the lower Appalachians, the internment of Japanese Americans, and the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.
In addition to the controversies over what should be taught, elementary social studies has suffered from widespread general neglect in the curriculum, largely as a result of increasing attention being given to reading and math (VanFossen, 2005). This attention to reading and math is, of course, driven largely by high-stakes testing that is now associated with NCLB. Efforts to achieve high test scores are most apparent in schools that service low socioeconomic status (SES) families. Since these financially challenged families typically cannot afford summer camps or vacation trips, and the home environment itself may lack good books, computers, and newspapers, low SES schools that neglect social studies are eliminating the only chance these children may have for gaining early and potentially significant insights into history, geography, economics, or government, politics, and citizenship. The research of Brophy and Alleman (2006; 2007) demonstrated young students’ severely limited knowledge about cultural universals (e.g., food, clothing, shelter, transportation) that has resulted from this lack of social studies education and the consequent need to refocus the elementary social studies curriculum.
The professional preparation of most elementary teachers is also implicated in the weakness of social studies as a school subject. College students who prepare to become elementary teachers often have very limited exposure to the social sciences and humanities with the noted exception of history. It would be a rare exception to encounter a preservice teacher with significant coursework in political science, economics, or geography. Further, most elementary teacher preparation programs have two or three times the curriculum and methods coursework in reading, math, and language arts as they do in social studies, where the norm is one course, the maximum is two, and the minimum is often no significant coursework at all—the teaching of social studies being addressed only in a combined methods course that encompasses a host of topics such as lesson planning and classroom management. Thus many elementary teachers enter their classrooms without a clue as to what to do and certainly no love of the subjects that comprise elementary social studies.
First, we must do a better job of preparing elementary teachers to teach this subject, and we must persuade administrators that they are making a grave error if they omit this subject from a young person’s formal education. Second, we must adopt an intellectually defensible and politically palatable scope and sequence for elementary social studies that can inspire creative, child-centered teaching while addressing the real-world learning needs of the students we serve in our classrooms (Katz, 1999). Brophy and Alleman’s (2006) proposal for an elementary social studies curriculum centered on cultural universals meets these goals and it could also provide a basis for improved testing practices. Third, once social studies is fully reestablished in the curriculum with meaningful daily instruction, we need to have an ongoing program of curriculum development assistance that is driven by a strong sense of professionalism and pride-of-purpose, recalling that each child we reach may play a crucial role in creating peace, spreading liberty, and promoting human dignity.
Middle School Social Studies
Social studies in the middle grades builds on the integrated, thematic approach most often used in the elementary grades and prepares students for the discipline-focused courses of high school. Middle grade teachers combine national and state social studies standards into a curriculum that addresses a variety of age-specific needs and local school district requirements. Middle grade teachers routinely use a variety of instructional strategies to actively engage their students, often drawing from information on wise social studies practice that was developed largely for elementary and high school students. Requirements for high-stakes exams also influence social studies instruction in the middle grades, tying teachers more closely to local curriculum guides and state standards.
The middle grade social studies curriculum includes history, geography, government and civics, and economics. States determine the order in which social studies topics will be taught and how they will be combined into a cohesive curriculum. Thus, curriculums vary significantly among the states. For example, Georgia’s middle grade social studies students take 2 years of world history and 1 year of Georgia history. By contrast, California’s middle grade social studies students study United States history, followed by world history, and then a return to United States history. Social studies units are usually based on the standards for history but integrate other social science disciplines into the history instruction. National and state standards also include requirements for instruction in a variety of skills such as spatial thinking and map use, historical thinking and reasoning, analysis of historical artifacts, and other critical thinking skills.
Preparing students for high-stakes testing is an important consideration for middle grade teachers. Fear that their students will fail to perform adequately on these tests causes some teachers to plan instruction that covers a wide range of materials. When this approach to instruction is combined with practice in test-taking skills, some teachers have found that test scores do improve in the short term. But many educators doubt whether students receiving this type of instruction are gaining the in-depth knowledge and understanding that will enable them to succeed in more advanced courses in high school and college or be effective citizens.
Middle grade social studies teachers often find that the most effective instructional strategies are those that require students’ active participation, especially if students complete tasks that are similar to the tasks adults would undertake with the same types of information. Middle grade students are engaged when activities require them to gather and synthesize information, work with others to use this information to solve or analyze a problem, and then present their work to others. This is especially true when students are working on a complicated problem for which there is no right or wrong answer and when their conclusions must be defended publicly. For example, groups might research a list of early North American explorers, determine which four they believe are the most important and therefore worthy of full coverage in a social studies textbook, and make a group presentation arguing for the four they chose.
Use of technology in social studies classes has become an important issue in education. The most common use of technology in the middle grades is for guided research and creative projects. Some teachers have organized effective collaborations between students in different cities, states, or nations using e-mail, discussion boards, and chat technologies. Technology also provides social studies teachers access to a wealth of digital resources for enriching their lessons and allows students to use resources they would have been unable to access in the past. Assignments that require students to state and defend opinions, write from specific historical perspectives, or other nontraditional assignments help prevent plagiarism and other problems teachers sometimes fear when using technology.
Controversies, Difficulties, and Issues
Although middle grade teachers typically rely on national, state, and local standards to determine what they will teach, controversial content often intrudes into what would otherwise seem to be safe topics. For example, when learning about the civil rights movement, middle grade students may fixate on the most violent and atrocious acts and use their expanding skills and awareness of contemporary acts of racism to raise questions that demand the teacher’s attention. Many educators suggest that teachers should make dealing with such controversial topics a regular part of their instruction. They contend that consideration of controversy, when coupled with effective tools and strategies, can help create a classroom environment where students are able to understand the importance of social studies skills and knowledge. Some teachers, however, are not comfortable including controversial topics in the classroom. They may fear that middle grade students would be unable to adequately comprehend and consider complex topics. These fears, as well as concerns that parents, administration, or community members may disapprove, can result in teachers giving inadequate attention to complex topics, attempting to provide fact-based instruction for issues on which the facts are not agreed, or simply skipping topics that might be controversial.
Other social studies educators suggest that fact-based, direct instruction should be the primary instructional strategy in the middle grades (Rochester, 2003; Schug, 2003). Inadequate knowledge about the subject that they are teaching, lack of familiarity with effective strategies for teaching more complex lessons, and a belief that middle grade students should focus on facts and deal with concepts and other complex subjects only after they have a firm foundation in the basics are reasons some teachers adopt this strategy. Use of problem-based instruction and controversial issues involves passionate beliefs on both sides, and although the NCSS and many other organizations have taken a stand supporting active, student-centered instruction, the controversy remains strongest at the middle grade levels.
Middle grade social studies faces several challenges. The focus on high-stakes testing means that teachers will continue to struggle with how best to prepare their students. Teachers are challenged to routinely use instructional strategies that actively engage students while ensuring that their students gain the knowledge needed to perform well on these tests. The ability to do this is vital if high-stakes exams are going to be a positive influence on social studies instruction instead of influencing teachers to limit their instructional strategies as well as the topics they teach.
The majority of research on social studies instruction is at either the elementary or high school level, leaving middle grade teachers to adapt strategies that were designed for younger or older students. More research needs to be done to produce a body of wise practice to guide middle grade social studies instruction.
High School Social Studies
High school social studies is typically an amalgam of distinct history, government, geography, and economics courses with history receiving the lion’s share of course-work. Larger and wealthier high schools are often able to provide electives in the other social sciences and humanities and might also offer one or two issues-focused courses that cut across several disciplines. Classes are often tracked, with college-bound students often receiving Advanced Placement (AP) coursework while other stu-dents are taught either a general course or one covering much of the same AP course content but paced more slowly and demanding less homework.
Over the past two decades there has been considerable effort to reinvigorate high school history, geography, economics, and government and civics courses. Each core discipline has developed finely articulated voluntary national standards, and each has also engaged in a variety of teacher training and public outreach efforts to help achieve instructional excellence and increased public awareness of the disciplines’ importance. Social studies teachers have been greatly aided by advances in computer technology and the immense growth of the Internet, where it is estimated that almost 80% of all Web sites contain information that fits within the social sciences and humanities disciplines (Braun & Risinger, 1999). Dramatically improved access to local, state, national, and international news, news archives, and other research tools has greatly simplified the acquisition of information needed for the study of historical or contemporary events.
Technology has also dramatically improved access to digital facsimiles of primary source documents. Additionally, television programming (e.g., The History Channel) has no doubt greatly enhanced the aura of history as a school subject. Geography teaching has benefited similarly from advances in computer technologies, especially the proliferation of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and GIS-like electronic atlases based on the pinpoint accuracy of Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) data and often enhanced with satellite imagery that can be overlaid on map-like images. These modern mapping systems allow for a wide array of geographic inquiry and research, ranging from mapping social data such as income, education, health, and religion to physical data such as rainfall, soil characteristics, vegetation, crops, and minerals. An obvious consequence of this is that high school geography teachers are now much more able to blend together a study of a geographic theme, such as the connections among places, with the simultaneous exploration of a specific place. Such technology use allows students to function at a much higher and more engaging level of geographic learning. Technology has also enhanced the teaching of economics, with a variety of powerful simulations and greatly improved, often instantaneous, access to economic data. Popular government and civics materials now make frequent use of hands-on simulations such as mock trials, simulated congressional hearings, and close-up encounters with government officials and agencies. Service learning has also been a prominent addition to economics and civics instruction (Wade, 2000).
Controversies, Difficulties, and Issues
A prominent and continuing problem of high school social studies is related to the original creation of social studies as an area of learning that ideally sought to provide students with issues-focused, interdisciplinary instruction that addressed real-world problems. Most of the discipline-specific promotion and development of the past 20 years has discouraged and displaced this type of learning for students. Note, too, that the social studies philosophy favored empowering teachers and students to determine some of the issues or problems that they were going to examine, whereas detailed curriculum standards and related high-stakes testing discourages such classroom decision making.
Related to what some call an ideologically conservative retrenchment to single-discipline social studies instruction, are the continuing reports of student boredom and disaffection engendered by overreliance on lectures, notetaking, textbook reading, and multiple-choice testing. Students seldom see connections among their largely separate courses, and they may be discouraged from asking questions that depart from some predetermined instructional sequence tied to high-stakes testing. Teachers may discourage small-group work because they fear having to reign in excessive amounts of socialization and the potential threat of conflicts and eventual loss of class control. These fears may be exacerbated in classrooms that have clashing subcultures whether these are based on ethnic heritage, socioeconomic status, religious differences, cliques, or gangs.
Another difficulty is that teachers must be certified in one of the core disciplines to be considered highly qualified. This has defeated the concept of a broad-field certified teacher who is best capable of creating issues-oriented cross-curricular understanding of content that arguably might help create a new generation of citizens better prepared to deal with the cultural complexities we now face.
Our increasingly diverse society creates the inescapable relevance of multicultural education to citizenship preparation as an issue of paramount importance. If social studies teachers are to be successful in any setting, their preparation must include multicultural education, both in theory and practice.
Pragmatically, the biggest challenge facing high school social studies teachers may be how to get their students to pass mandatory tests that serve as gateways to graduation. Methods of instruction are doubtlessly tied to students’ motivation to learn (VanSickle, 1990) and to their successful mastery of course content, so teachers are well advised to use different strategies to increase learning within their classrooms.
A second challenge is for teachers to effectively use technology as a part of their instruction. Staying up-to-date takes time, but effective use of a wide variety of software, Web sites, and related digital technologies is essential to success in today’s classrooms. Putting students into creative leadership roles in the use of technology is one way to help ensure higher levels of learning and greater task engagement.
A third challenge is the increasing diversity in our society and the very real social need we have to help every individual achieve a life of personal satisfaction while respecting and contributing to their community and our wider society. End-of-course test scores may open doors, but they say little about this broader and more significant realm to which we must devote substantial effort. Attention to this challenge demands that high school social studies teachers view their work as extending beyond delivering high-value instruction in their individual classes to also include contributions to the extracurricular life of the school.
Perhaps most troubling is, however, the millions of high school graduates who are never reached by the instruction they are offered and, as a consequence, end their formal education experience lacking a fundamental grounding in our culture and may therefore be destined to fail as responsible citizens. Approximately 50% of all Americans will never extend their formal education beyond high school, except perhaps to job-specific or career-oriented training. This being the case, high school social studies is effectively our last chance to reach millions of future citizens, to attune their minds conscientiously to the good that can come from becoming economically independent and financially literate, to inspire them with the many incredible people and events that have formed our history, to give them a grasp of the great geographic wealth of our nation, or to inure them to the sometimes unpleasant roles they must play as citizens fit to govern our nation. If history is any guide to the future, we can expect that these vitally important Americans—and their college-educated counterparts—will encounter economic turmoil, environmental challenges, healthcare problems, difficult wars, political corruption, and corporate misconduct. These and many other personal and public problems will predictably challenge their lives, and they strongly call for significantly improved high school social studies.
Social studies has been an integral part of the school curriculum in America since colonial times. The curriculum first existed at the elementary level and later became an important component of high school learning as communities extended access to tax-supported public education and as the social sciences and humanities grew to maturity. Recent research has documented a decrease in time devoted to elementary social studies instruction, a result often attributed to the advent of high-stakes testing connected to NCLB (VanFossen, 2005; Leming, Ellington, & Schug, 2006). Middle and high school social studies instruction does not appear to have suffered a reduction of instructional time, but often has been forced to narrow the instructional focus so that it aligns more precisely with end-of-course achievement testing. These trends, the diminution of elementary social studies often sending students into middle schools with poor preparation in the subject, and the narrowing of middle and high school social studies to content that can easily be assessed with multiple-choice tests doubtlessly have potentially negative consequences for our society’s future.
Social studies is a complex and important school subject that focuses the powerful insights of the social sciences and certain humanities on our individual and collective lives. The cultures we navigate and negotiate become more complex, not less. Trends toward open cultural conflict as well as other forms of social discord and disaffection may overrun our schools’ meager capacities to provide meaningful social education that can build well-reasoned allegiance to our society that logically derives from empowering future citizens with important social studies knowledge and skills. The social studies education we offer must at all times eschew any form of indoctrination. Social studies must continue to teach the important content and skills that provide an essential cohesiveness for our society, but this content must not be offered without a serious examination of alternative viewpoints. Gaining multiple perspectives on history, having one’s eyes opened to powerful forms of geography that allow us to critically examine our cultural landscape, gaining key economic insights into the operation of our economy and attaining personal financial literacy, and becoming aware of how our local, state, and national governments respond to special interest group pressures are all examples of how social studies can be meaningfully related to our lives. It is doubtful that powerful social studies learning can ever be achieved in classrooms that fail to engage students’ thinking or provide opportunities for students to apply what they have learned and take responsible actions based on their learning. After all, these are the qualities that a self-governing representative democracy needs most from its citizens.
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