The NCSS Curriculum Standards:A Model for University Methods Courses and Conceptual Teaching

Gregory Wegner

For many university students who are future social studies teachers, the social studies methods course is one of the first experiences in learning about the teaching methodology or "how" of social studies teaching. Much of this formalized learning comes relatively late in the time frame of university studies, usually while fulfilling courses in majors and minors from history and/or the social sciences. After being steeped in the content of a variety of social studies disciplines, methods students often move abruptly from the "what" to the "how" of teaching.
One of the greatest challenges facing the new social studies teacher is the integration of content-oriented university course work with the application and practice of teaching methods to support active learning in citizenship education. The challenge becomes even more daunting for professors and students when the social studies methods courses remain at the university and are not field based.

The NCSS Curriculum Standards (Expectations of Excellence, 1994) are an invaluable resource in teaching and learning in university methods courses because they provide an essential framework for uniting theory and practice. John Dewey emphasized the importance of this unity throughout much of his professional life, observing that education was first and foremost a process and not merely a preparation for living in a future time frame (1916, 63; 1929, 292). The emphasis on learning as a process and not as some static, finished product without any relationship to the social and dynamic nature of knowledge is one of several features that mark the NCSS Curriculum Standards. In the rationale for teaching and learning developed for the program, the authors integrated the thinking of John Dewey and Thomas Jefferson on the nature of education and schooling in the body politic:

Powerful social studies teaching helps students develop social understanding and civic efficacy. Social understanding is integrated knowledge of social aspects of the human condition: how they evolved over time, the variations that occur in various physical environments and cultural settings, and the emerging trends that appear likely to shape the future. Civic efficacy-the readiness and willingness to assume citizenship responsibilities-is rooted in social studies knowledge and skills, along with related values (such as concern for the common good) and attitudes (such as orientation toward participation in civic affairs). The nation depends on a well-informed and civic-minded citizenry to sustain its democratic traditions, especially now as it adjusts to its own heterogeneous society and its shifting roles in an increasingly interdependent and changing world. (NCSS 1994, 157)
The NCSS Standards also symbolize the central importance of conceptual learning in the social studies. This is a meaningful position in the light of the problems of time scarcity and the tension felt by many educators over the issue of content coverage versus depth. Unlike instructors of many other methods programs, secondary social studies methods instructors often work with students from a variety of disciplines including history, geography, political science, economics, sociology, anthropology, and psychology. The basic concepts of these disciplines provide the essential "glue" for interdisciplinary curriculum planning and a stronger process orientation for inquiry-based citizenship education.

Methods Made Easier
The implications of the NCSS Curriculum Standards for secondary social studies methods courses are considerable. One such methods program at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse initiated the use of the NCSS Curriculum Standards as an organizing principle for conceptual teaching during the fall semester of 1994. A majority of the twelve pre-service teachers enrolled for the La Crosse program in secondary social studies methods completed the class one semester before student teaching and the eventual fulfillment of a 6-12 teaching certification. Four participants expressed definite plans for teaching middle school social studies. All participants arrived in the class with a general methods course and at least two or three clinical experiences behind them along with a host of classes including, among others, reading, foundations of education, human relations, middle level education, exceptional needs, educational media, and educational psychology.
Any real success in pre-service programs invariably depends on the close cooperation between universities and school districts, which are the bedrock of the entire enterprise and the site of pre-service clinical experiences as well as student teaching. The social studies methods program can enhance this relationship by preparing students for their professional work with cooperating teachers in the field through student teaching.

When viewed from a larger didactical perspective, the secondary social studies methods course at La Crosse affirmed the interdisciplinary nature of teaching and learning. An assumption of the program was that the social studies concepts articulated in the NCSS Curriculum Standards provided the basis for greater effectiveness in interdisciplinary classroom instruction and curriculum planning. The assumption grew out of recent experiences with past graduates of social studies methods courses, who expressed frustration and dismay over the real lack of interdisciplinary learning experiences in their university undergraduate program, and the realization of how important these kinds of experiences were to their own personal growth as prospective teachers. Just how important interdisciplinary connections were to social studies teaching became evident to many pre-service teachers through their clinical experiences in the middle schools, institutions that still remain far ahead of high schools in this regard.

The ten broad classifications of social studies concepts served as foundations for the course. Like the standards, the course had interdisciplinary aims, and used conceptual learning and teaching strategies to achieve these. The course made use of a series of two peer teaching experiences (described below as Peer Teaching I and Peer Teaching II) and the demonstration of three interdisciplinary teaching models in the fields of law-related education, living history and science, and technology and society (STS).

Print sources other than the NCSS Standards were used during the course of study as well. Titles included Teaching with Documents from the National Archives (a regular section of Social Education), Curriculum Planning in Global Studies by Mike Hartoonian and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, With Liberty and Justice for All from the Center for Civic Education, and two resources from the Social Science Education Consortium, including editor Robert LaRue's Model STS Lessons (1989) and editor James Schott's Teaching the Social Studies and History in Secondary Schools: A Methods Book (1991).

Early in the semester, in order to reinforce the NCSS concepts as tools for planning, the university instructor demonstrated several conceptual lessons from a variety of interdisciplinary connections. For example, using a collection of old, undated family photographs from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the class developed several teaching ideas on how the historic images might be tapped to teach creative writing and Socratic Dialogue based on the concepts of time, generations, and technological change.

On another occasion, to reinforce the geographic concepts of people, places, and environment, the teachers entered the classroom in the year 2194 A.D. to find the floor strewn with piles of garbage and found themselves charged with the archeological task of establishing an inventory, categorizing artifacts, and drawing conclusions about the society that produced the garbage. The garbology activity preceded the reading of David Macaulay's Motel of the Mysteries (1979) and the subsequent simulated town meeting at Gladville concerning the location of a landfill site and conflicts with vested interest groups created by Richard Brouillard.

Later, as part of the preparation for their own mock trial in law-related education, the pre-service teachers witnessed a civil suit at the county courthouse. Part of the assessment practice for the courtroom experience required the pre-service teachers to write a critical essay examining the effectiveness of each attorney in presenting arguments during the closing statements. In an unexpected turn, another opportunity for citizenship education presented itself when the defense attorney approached the class after the trial requesting that their critiques also be shared with him for future examination in order to improve his presentation of argument.

One of the most direct methods of assessing whether the pre-service teachers grasped the application of the NCSS concepts to the social studies classroom came in the form of creating an original teaching scenario of their own under what was known as Peer Teaching I. Particularly important was the opportunity for the pre-service teachers to develop their initial knowledge and understanding of the NCSS concepts by creating a teaching scenario centered on one of the concepts. The novice curriculum writers did not simply parrot the teaching scenarios published in the NCSS Curriculum Standards, but used them as a point-of-departure to develop their own original conception of active learning and teaching based on a selected concept.1 Subsequent student evaluations of the course placed heavy emphasis on the usefulness of the teacher examples under each family of concepts in the NCSS Curriculum Standards as a spark for curriculum planning. Seeing how other experienced social studies teachers taught higher order thinking with the concepts under what one might call the "how" of classroom instruction proved to be of great worth in providing new directions in assessment as well.

Peer Teaching I, initiated early in the semester, required each student to teach a focused twenty-minute lesson based on one NCSS concept for either middle school or high school classes. The pre-service teachers formed groups of three for the mini-lessons. The major purpose of the exercise was to provide pre-service teachers with experience in curriculum planning along conceptual lines and to gain additional teaching practice supported by peer assessment. The conceptual base provided by the NCSS Curriculum Standards became even more useful as students integrated model objectives from the resource into their lessons and revised them as necessary. Peer evaluation extended to both the quality of the teaching presentation and the written lesson plan, which included a title for the lesson, anticipatory set, the NCSS concept(s), learning objectives and skills, teaching strategies, closure, and at least two different assessment approaches.

In articulating ideas on the lessons, both the teachers and their peers found that a reflective approach to peer assessment offered a constructive way to articulate ideas on the lessons. The approach employed was based in part on the Binko method of teaching evaluation used in teaching geography. At the center of the Binko method is the inductive approach that emphasizes not only the knowledge base, or what is taught in the classroom, but the methods of instruction, the how of teaching. Assessing the integration of thinking skills as well as the teaching methods employed by the pre-service teacher represents the heart of what James Binko called the "inductive approach to constructing content knowledge" (Nuebert and Binko 1991).

In this activity, the university instructor modeled the Binko method by presenting original teaching scenarios rooted in the concepts of historical change, on one hand, and science, technology, and society, on the other. These scenarios had been developed with social studies students in area middle schools and high schools. The pre-service teachers then approached these lessons as peer evaluators of the university instructor.

The Binko method integrates a self-evaluation, shared verbally with peers, along with a constructive written and oral evaluation from the peers. After the teaching presentation, the pre-service teachers shared their reflections with peers concerning the major goal they tried to accomplish with the lesson, indicating what they would change or improve in the lesson during student teaching the following semester. These reflections covered thinking skills, as well as the lesson's perceived strengths. Part of the peer critique included a consideration of what the peers thought was the major goal of the lesson along with suggestions for improvement and strengths. Only after the teaching presentation did the peers receive the written lesson plan.

Although pre-service teachers discovered that they were their own harshest critics, their reactions were somewhat tempered by the subsequent oral and written critique from the two peers. It is understandable, however, that the pre-service teachers reacted this way, because the initial integration of the Binko method into the social studies methods class did not provide sufficient examples or modeling opportunities for constructive feedback. Even more problematic for most participants was the residual frustration and skepticism they felt, which had arisen from earlier experiences in social studies courses that lacked an emphasis on and interaction with critical thinking. For example, some pre-service teachers were still worried that constructive feedback they offered their peers would be considered "negative," and something that risked offending others. However, if peer assessment centered exclusively on the "positive" aspects of the lesson in question, this would minimize the benefits of critical thought. Just how social studies methods classes can address this issue remains an especially important and demanding challenge, one that extends beyond the more immediate time frame of students in the university classroom (McNeil 1988).

In addition to the Binko method, as mentioned earlier, this social studies methods class made use of mini-lessons. The twelve students in the La Crosse group built these mini-lessons around the concepts of individual development and identity (2); space and place (1); power, authority, and governance (2); culture (2); individuals, groups, and institutions (1); production, distribution, and consumption (2); time, continuity, and change (1); and global connections (1). The choice of topics and the formation of the lessons reflected a great deal of creative planning. The tight time frame of twenty minutes for the teaching presentation, although somewhat unrealistic, usually required the teachers and peers to focus on one particular concept from the larger NCSS cluster. The topics, presented in the order of the concepts written above, included parenting styles and youth identity; the Vietnam experience and the personal nature of war; North American landforms; legal and moral questions surrounding the interning of Japanese Americans; British mercantilism and the American Revolution; cultural perspectives on sexual harassment; African music, evolution of the plantation, and slavery; goods, services, and teenage spending habits; resources of production in the community; talking back to Columbus; and drawing global connections through maps.

At the first stage of the activity (Peer Teaching I), this rich variety of teaching was not witnessed by the entire class. Peer Teaching II came later in the semester. Each student presented a thirty-minute lesson before the entire class centered on NCSS concepts from an interdisciplinary unit plan under development. The class used the same model for peer assessment. The unit plan drew from at least four related themes articulated in the NCSS Curriculum Standards. Mark Hayford, for example, taught a lesson on the history of civil rights focusing on the case of Emmett Till, while drawing associations between the NCSS concepts of civic ideals and practice; power, authority, and governance; culture; and historical change. Kevin Hardie formed an interdisciplinary STS lesson in the laboratory involving his peers in studying the chemical composition of plastics and the role of plastics in American culture. The students also created plastics used in the insulation of homes and the manufacture of a substance like Play Dohª for children. In this instance, the peers learned a direct and valuable lesson, displacing the old stereotype that the laboratory is only for science education.

The pre-service teachers unanimously agreed that peer teaching models like this one should be used in future social studies methods classes. The feedback from peers and the opportunity to gain more experience in teaching lessons were the two most frequently mentioned benefits articulated by the peer teachers. Rachel Breitsprecher, a future middle school teacher, noted that the timing of Peer Teaching I early in the semester was most beneficial because it opened new ideas for planning subsequent lessons in the unit plan. According to Colleen Hansen, who was preparing for dual certification in English and Social Studies, peer teaching, "though intimidating, was a great way to get your feet wet and teach." She also observed that the NCSS Curriculum Standards made planning the lesson easier. Mike Elwell, a pre-service teacher with a strong interest in environmental education, added that "teaching is definitely a skill which requires practice and time. The peer teaching exercise serves as a platform on which teachers can focus their skills in a meaningful way." A majority of the pre-service teachers insisted that building the methods course around the NCSS concepts as a planning framework and as the source of an interdisciplinary perspective should remain at the core of such endeavors.

The reflective critiques made by students were even more direct in offering a number of suggestions for the improvement of the model. Many insisted that there was not enough time in Peer Teaching I to adequately teach and also to conduct peer evaluations in any kind of depth. Others were somewhat critical of their peers for not offering substantive ideas for the improvement of the lessons. About half of the participants suggested enlarging the group and extending Peer Teaching I to at least two full sessions in order to provide more time for instruction, evaluation, and meaningful discussions. However, there was a general consensus that Peer Teaching I should remain within a small-group format, which provided a non-threatening environment in which students could teach the first lesson of the semester and prepare themselves to teach later before the large group in Peer Teaching II.

The initial experience gained in the program at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse suggests that the NCSS Curriculum Standards can serve as a central supportive resource for all social studies methods courses. Providing pre-service teachers with the conceptual framework to plan curriculum for engaged student learning is at the heart of the contribution of the standards to social studies methods programs. The teaching scenarios and related themes associated among and between the major concepts are essential to interdisciplinary curriculum formation not only for experienced teachers in the field, but also in the preparation of pre-service teachers in university colleges or schools of education. The peer teaching program in secondary social studies methods classes is one important activity into which the NCSS Curriculum Standards can be integrated. As the pre-service teachers readily pointed out in their reflective evaluations, however, the approach described in this article needs further development. Not the least of the needed changes would be making the course more field based so that pre-service teachers can experiment with curriculum ideas not only among their peers, but also among middle and high school students. The situation is a reminder that social studies methods courses must remain in a constant state of formation and change if they are to be effective in preparing future teachers. At the same time, the noteworthy improvement in instructional quality and curriculum planning among the pre-service teachers at La Crosse points to the important role played by conceptual frameworks in social studies education.
This initial foray into the reform of social studies on the localized level of one university has already led to the development of another perspective on interdisciplinary teaching sparked, in part, by the NCSS Curriculum Standards. With support provided by the Undergraduate Teaching Improvement Program from the University of Wisconsin System, the secondary methods courses in English and Social Studies will bring together students for a five-week interdisciplinary seminar in the spring semester of 1996. The experimental project integrates interdisciplinary teaching and curriculum planning based on Holocaust literature and history, in line with the tradition of conceptual learning already affirmed in the NCSS Curriculum Standards.

1These same pre-service teachers had already completed a general methods course during a previous semester as part of their preparation in teaching methods involving unit and lesson planning. Peer teaching was not introduced until the specialized social studies methods course.

Binko, James, and Gloria Neubert. "Using the Inductive Approach to Construct Content Knowledge." Teacher Educator 27 (Summer 1991): 31-37.
Brouillard, Richard. "Where Does All the Garbage Go?" Columbus High School, Columbus, Wis. Simulation.
Center for Civic Education. With Liberty and Justice for All: The Story of the Bill of Rights. Calabasas, Calif.: Center for Civic Education, 1993.
Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan, 1916.
---. "My Pedagogic Creed." Journal of the National Education Association 18 (December 1929): 292.
LaRue, Robert, ed. Science, Technology, Society: Model Lessons for Secondary Social Studies Classes. Boulder, Colo.: Social Science Education Consortium, 1988.
Macaulay, David. Motel of the Mysteries. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.
McNeil, Linda. Contradictions of Control: School Structure and School Knowledge. New York: Routledge, 1988.
National Archives. Teaching with Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives. Washington, D.C.: National Archives, 1989.
Parker, Walter. Renewing the Social Studies Curriculum. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD, 1991.
Schott, James, ed. Teaching the Social Studies and History in Secondary Schools: A Methods Book. Boulder: Social Science Education Consortium, 1991.
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, and Mike Hartoonian. Curriculum Planning in Global Studies. Madison, Wis: DPI, 1993.

Gregory Wegner is Associate Professor of Education at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. The author wishes to thank the pre-service teachers whose participation made this project possible, including John Amann, Joel Benson, Rachel Breitsprecher, Michael Elwell, Michael Gillespie, Nanci Granquist, Colleen Hansen, Kevin Hardie, Mark Hayford, William Lawhorn, Tim Miller, and Darin Truttmann, and all members of the Wisconsin Council for the Social Studies.