Re-inventing Social Studies

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

I’ve always loved social studies, so much that I even taught it for eight years. Social studies should have two goals:
1) to produce a patriotic population with a basic understanding of the values of our country and how the government functions, and
2) to produce a voting population willing to invest time and effort into investigating current events, to consider them critically, and to call for action when appropriate.
The curriculum here in Virginia does a good job of the first goal, and in large part ignores the second.  Many teachers choose to sprinkle in the second goal when they can, but because the means of assessment is centered on the first goal, the second goal gets pushed to the side particularly with lower performing students.  Unfortunately, it is those same lower performing students who are easily misguided by self-serving politicians and lobbyist into supporting programs and leadership that is not in their best interests. 
I propose that the re-invention of the social studies curriculum begin by changing the assessment methods.  Multiple-choice tests encourage social studies to be taught as a series of facts to be memorized rather encouraging students to see connections between their lives and history.  It encourages students to think of social studies as a subject with answers, rather than questions.  High school students should take year-end assessments that require answering essay questions, incorporating primary documents.   Students with documented language problems could submit a portfolio (student, not teacher, created) rather than participate in the essay test.    Middle school students should create student portfolios with work samples of their learning.  And in elementary school, teachers should be required to submit a portfolio which might include a log of time spent on each objective with an indication of how the time was spent, sample lesson plans, student samples with teacher feedback, and visual representations of the lessons.   I can already hear elementary teachers groaning—I would be if I still was one—great, one more darned (such restraint) thing to do.  Only really, I’ve had to submit something similar at the university where I work, and it takes three hours tops to put together this stuff.  Imagine trading three hours of your life for an elementary school experience free of social studies SOL tests.  Imagine being able to teach social studies through historical fiction, projects, re-enactments—rather than drill and practice.  Imagine kids who love social studies because it’s fascinating and relevant.  Imagine kids who grow up to become adults who love social studies and become engaged citizens as a result.  Imagine….
            But I digress. Okay, so once the assessments are straightened out, we need to re-examine the order in which information is provided to students, such that topics and methodology line up with developmental readiness.  Young children live in small worlds that expand over time and the social studies curriculum should do that as well—broaden its scope as children do the same.  Additionally, as children age their minds become more capable of complex thought and topics that lend themselves to such should be postponed until learners’ minds are ready to dig deep, rather than teaching a whitewashed version of the topic before children are able to truly understand it.   Elementary schools should focus on character and citizenship, American history, map skills, and group dynamics.  Economics could be introduced in fourth grade and government in fifth.    Then in sixth grade we should introduce world cultures and more complex geographical concepts.  Seventh grade could examine leadership and include service projects.  Finally eighth graders would examine current events from a historical perspective. These middle grade topics lend themselves to collaborative project oriented, student-centered, active classrooms, which are ideal for the middle school learners.  By high school, students are ready to study world history with an eye toward its relevance on current international relations and to revisit the complexities of both economics and civics.
            Finally, social studies should not be taught in a bubble.  Rather, the emphasis should be placed on application.  For years we have hoped by teaching students history, they’ll be savvy enough not to repeat its mistakes, but we rarely teach them how to make those connections.  What if instead of the traditional, linear way of considering social studies, we taught it “backwards”?  What if in teaching economics to high school juniors we started with the Occupy Wall Street Movement and worked backward to understand how our society came to that point, then examined cultures with different economic structures and their results, and finally looked toward the future to consider what our economic policy should be going forward?  And what if the teacher told them none of this, but rather provided resources, clarified confusing concepts, and guided their work through thoughtful questions and evaluations?   Now that would be some real learning.
            The current social studies curriculum successfully churns out students who know who FDR is, admire him, but generally lack any real sense of his impact on their lives.  It is time to take this to the next step.  It is time to produce a citizenry that can not only identify FDR, but can look to his actions, decisions, and policies during the Great Depression, evaluate them, consider the differences between the economic situation today and that of the 1930’s, and then develop ideas on how to get us out of our current economic mess.  That’s how we move forward. 


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