RX for Social Studies

Ron Wheeler
When Oxford awarded Mark Twain an honorary doctor of literature degree, he said he didn't deserve it since he had never doctored any literature. Unlike Mark Twain's literature, the field of education could use some doctors, and no part of it needs more attention than social studies.
Back in the 1960s and early 1970s-during the "Golden Age" of curriculum revitalization-the "new" social studies, as it was called by enthusiasts, advocated the development of students' thinking skills. A number of data-based, inquiry-oriented social studies projects were launched with a clearly defined goal in mind: they would teach students how to use data to build and test social concepts. In this way, social studies would help students deal with the knowledge explosion and rapid change caused by the emerging super-industrial world. Yet despite the support of many influential social scientists and educators, the new social studies was stopped dead in its tracks, primarily because no one seemed to know how to measure its effectiveness in the classroom. The field slipped quietly into a coma.

A quarter of a century later, there has never been a greater need for children to be able to process facts, tackle tough questions, and find real answers to real problems. As a society, we need energetic, goal-directed, intellectually rigorous social studies more than ever. The substance of the long-awaited social studies revival still eludes us, however, and time is not on our side.

Cynically, some might ask: if we have been able to live with unsound social studies for all of these years, why change now? To answer that question, let's look briefly at conditions then and now.

Then: To develop critical thinking skills in social studies, students needed quick access to data, yet few people back then knew what data were. What social scientists called "data" was called "information" or just "stuff" by ordinary people. And just where was this stuff, excuse me, these data, anyway? They definitely were not available through personal computers, which had not yet been invented. For the most part, they were ensconced in distant libraries, archives and research centers, or encoded on keypunch cards that only giant mainframe computers could process. The school's library, of course, was just down the hall, but for a lot of teachers, getting students there often to do sustained research was about as easy as going to Mars.

In short, the new social studies required fast access to data, but no delivery system was then in place to bring them into the classroom.

Now: We have the right tools to make students'-and teachers'-data gathering job far easier. Technology has played a decisive role. Since the initial acceptance of computers by the schools in the 1980s, "student access to personal computers has improved dramatically" (Hayes and Bybee 1995, 48). The ratio of students to computers has dropped from 125 to 1 in the 1983-84 school year to 12 to 1 in 1994-95. If this trend continues, a national student-to-computer ratio of 1:1 will be a reality early in the twenty-first century.

With a modem and electronic mail software, data can flow into the classroom at the speed of light from literally anywhere on earth. User-friendly and data-rich school-based interactive software programs are also at more and more students' fingertips. Even if many of the parents are not data literate, their children are, or soon will be. Databases are becoming as familiar and useful to them as phone numbers and telephone books are to us.

Then: The new social studies also required access to multiple data sources. Over-reliance on a single authority or content source-either the teacher or the textbook, or both-inhibits critical thinking. Different forms of data are also important because of developmental concerns; young learners need concrete/ experiential data to develop concepts. Yet back then, data sources were very limited. In 1970, textbooks had an almost monopolistic grip on the social studies curriculum. Even experienced teachers were reluctant to stray too far from them, and with good reason. The alternatives were worse, or at least untested. The most frequently used new technology in the schools was the photocopier, which was beginning to replace ditto and mimeograph machines. In-school use of television was not widespread, and commercial and public television's educational function was unclear. Too often, the school's supply of instructional materials consisted of little more than a few out-of-date maps, filmstrips and films.

The new social studies projects' materials were likewise suspect: were they just another pedagogical example of "old wine in new bottles"? Why buy these pricey projects if inside their "data boxes" was just more of the same old stuff (i.e., books, maps, photographs, records, cassettes, filmstrips, films), with only the addition of a few artifact replicas, such as an Asanti stool or ancient Greek pot, to provide the "hands-on" touch.

Now: Gone are the days of frantically scrounging for data. Everywhere we look-TV, Internet, CD-ROMs, film-data options are expanding. Thanks to computers, thousands of primary sources (charts, photographs, audio clips of speeches and music, video clips of historic film footage, literature, essays, advertisements, political cartoons, constitutions, legislation, inaugurals, Supreme Court decisions, treaties, debates, party platforms, census figures, letters, etc.) are easily accessible. Not only can students read Rev. Martin Luther King Jr's "I Have a Dream" speech, they can hear and see him give it.

National polls tell us that, compared to younger Americans, older Americans are less knowledgeable of and comfortable with computers and electronic devices. But even teachers whose education did not include the new technology are teaching themselves to use it. When one considers the instructional benefits, their willingness to learn makes sense. In our growing numbers of electronic classrooms, a social studies teacher can schedule live interactive television and telephone conversations from distant sites, including Antarctica, or set up a World Wide Web page in the school so essays and research by students can be critiqued through e-mail by other students, as well as by top scholars, around the country and world. Teachers can also use interactive computer programs, like MayaQuest and the "traiquot; software simulations (Africa Trail, Oregon Trail II, Yukon Trail, Amazon Trail), to put students in the "field," where they must use data within a decision-making context. Other software resources available to teachers, like Student Writing Center, Digital Chisel, and Filemaker Pro, let students use data to create multimedia reports and presentations.

Educators today know they are making curriculum for young people who get much of their information from television and film. Indeed, film has been called "the most emotionally accessible of art forms (Wuntch, 1996, p. D1)." Because of these insights, more and more social studies teachers are using videos that depict history, fictional renditions of historical accounts, and contemporary societal issues. But instead of accepting everything they watch as truth, students are challenged to contrast the visual media's messages and other data sources to judge their factual accuracy. By no means passé, textbooks are still an important part of the current scene. But now they are truly becoming one of many data sources, rather than the only one.

Then: We made questioners out of students, but we really didn't show them how to be inquirers. Without fast access to multiple data sources to stimulate and sustain deep thinking, rigorous inquiry in social studies is problematic. Thus, when an occasional social studies inquiry lesson was attempted by well-intentioned teachers, the results were sometimes less than what was hoped for. Instead of involved and interested, students were often off task and bored. The reasons: inquiry learning is a complex skill that takes time and patience to master; inquiry cannot be truly understood and mastered unless it is practiced within a meaningful context; and an overemphasis on inadequate or insufficient data can trivialize inquiry and result in students missing the point of the whole exercise, which is to help them see the "big picture."

Now: To paraphrase Pogo, "We have met the future, and it is then." Educators who are old enough to remember when the new social studies was in vogue know firsthand of its limitations. Perhaps the rhetorical excesses of those years have made all of us more skeptical about suggestions of impending change.1 Nevertheless, the new social studies' basic goals and methodology may be just what the doctor ordered for what's ailing social studies-and society-today. Twenty-five years ago, society and the schools rejected the new social studies, which then seemed impractical and irrelevant. Today, computers, rather than duplicators, are the most influential technology in the schools. A society that is now flooded with information from many far-flung and diverse sources desperately needs clear-thinking citizens who can detect faulty data and use solid evidence to make wise decisions.

The essential assumptions about both data and society upon which the new social studies was based now accurately describe our reality. After all of these years, a meaningful context for rigorous social studies inquiry has finally arrived. No doubt, the opportunities are out there waiting, but whether they are seized or not depends on us-and on our beliefs about why and how social studies should be taught.

While Mark Twain may not have fancied himself a doctor, he was unquestionably a master of the art of literature. But Twain, who achieved tremendous critical acclaim and popular success during his lifetime, became increasingly despondent about the lack of control individuals in society seemed to have over their destiny. Like the industrial machines of Twain's time, the electronic tools of the "Information Age" can be used to enlighten people or confuse them, to expand freedom or tighten bureaucratic control, to bring the world closer together or drive it farther apart.
Today, evidence of the negative effects of massive technological change is everywhere. It is manifest in the behavior of the nostalgic and intimidated technophobes, who refuse to adapt, and who hate computers. (Of course, since they are headed for extinction, they are of no concern to us.) Much more troubling, especially for educators, are the rapidly growing numbers of aimless, point-and-click cyberkids, who treat computers like toys and use them only for their own amusement. Yet most of us remain optimistic, mainly because we believe that social studies can summon the energy and passion to play a major role in influencing the future.

1For a strong dose of healthy skepticism, see James P. Shaver's insightful article "James Michener and the Historical Future of Social Studies," Social Education 59, no. 7 (November/December 1995): 446-450. ReferencesHayes, Jeanne and Bybee, Dennis L. "Defining the Greatest Need for Educational Technology." Learning and Leading with Technology 23, no. 2 (1995): 48-50.Wuntch, Philip. "After a Century of Cinema, Films Have Lost Passion." Daily Press, Hampton, VA., January 6, 1996. D1-D2.

Ron Wheeler is Associate Professor of Education at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia.