Thoughts on Wise Practice in the Teaching of Social Studies


Elizabeth Anne Yeager

Researchers have sometimes noted the lack of a rich “history of practice” in teaching—including the teaching of social studies. Lee Shulman, for one, has pointed to the rarity of well-developed portrayals of how teachers manage ideas, and not simply student behavior, within the classroom.1 William Stanley has likewise commented on the lack of research on wise teaching practice. Although social studies researchers have gradually shifted their focus to expert teachers in order to describe what makes them effective, he sees the teaching profession as having a unique problem in that most examples of excellent practice remain unknown to anyone outside the classroom.2

Experienced teachers simply possess a great deal of knowledge and understandings that they have not formally articulated. Shulman argues that this “wisdom of practice” can and must be codified through an extensive case literature. He presents his own portrait of an effective teacher as one representation from which principles of good practice may be inferred. However, rather than over-generalizing from his own case studies, he argues for keeping such accounts highly contextualized, especially with respect to the teaching methods used.3

Teachers are not trying to teach generically; rather, they teach toward some specific outcome related to the content, observes Stanley. In his view, criteria for judging teacher effectiveness could be based upon Shulman’s categories of teacher knowledge—especially academic content knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge, knowledge of the curriculum, and knowledge of learners and educational contexts. Teacher effectiveness, argues Stanley, is ultimately a blend of technical, practical, and critical expertise in many areas.4

One of the most important contributions of the research on effective social studies teaching is that knowledge of the subject is a major factor in—even the foundation of—teachers’ effectiveness. Nonetheless, these researchers do not suggest that content knowledge alone makes better teachers. As Shulman explains, teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge is also central to good practice. In other words, teachers must possess that special blending of content and pedagogy that enables them to translate their content knowledge into forms that students can understand.5

One helpful conception of “powerful teaching” in the social studies was articulated by NCSS in 1993. Informed by the goals of social studies education as well as the research literature, an NCSS task force identified five key characteristics of ideal social studies teaching and learning. These features are summarized in the task force’s statement that social studies teaching is powerful when it is meaningful, integrative, value-based, challenging, and active.6

Meaningful social studies teaching encourages students to use thematic networks of knowledge that will be helpful to them as lifelong learners; such teaching connects with their interests, focuses on in-depth treatment of fewer topics rather than shallow coverage of many, and incorporates authentic activities and assessments that encourage students to apply content in appropriate ways. For social studies to be integrative, teachers must address a broad range of forms of knowledge that crosses disciplinary boundaries with a variety of resources and activities. Value-based teaching means that teachers have awareness of their own values and how these influence their teaching; it also means that teachers address controversial and ethical issues appropriate to the social studies and promote critical thinking and decision making.

Teachers must also make the content challenging while assuring that it meets students’ developmental needs; teachers encourage serious and thoughtful inquiry through the instructional activities they choose. Finally, teachers must ensure that social studies is an active learning experience through their development of curricula that encourage students to discover knowledge, to use a variety of instructional materials and authentic activities, to relate the content to their own lives, to engage in reflective discussion, to assume responsibility for their own learning, and to develop new understandings through a process of active construction of meaning. Teachers themselves must model subject knowledge, intellectual curiosity, and the joy of learning.

Documentation of “unwise practice” from the world of history teaching has informed those in the social studies field about what does not work well in the social studies classroom. For example, Goodlad reported a persistent pattern in students’ activities during history lessons. This pattern usually included passively listening to lectures, copying information from textbooks onto worksheets, and taking “recal#148; quizzes.7

Fortunately, some case studies of wise practice in social studies do already exist. Wineburg and Wilson’s case study of two history teachers is particularly illuminating. The authors, asserting that a point of “diminishing returns” had been reached in studying “typica#148; or “representative” classrooms, chose instead to focus on the “extraordinary.” Their work was shaped by the belief that much knowledge about good teaching never finds its way into the professional literature, remaining instead in the minds of good teachers. Their case study constitutes a rich description of teaching approaches that engage students through research, debate, critical thinking, interpretation and analysis of sources beyond the textbook, stimulating class discussion and dialogue, personalizing the material, raising controversial issues, and conveying excitement about the content.8


Wise Practice in Challenging Classrooms

Most articles in this issue of Social Education are part of a special section on wise practice that focuses on teaching social studies in challenging school settings. “Challenging” in this context does not mean simply “stimulating” or “interesting”—although the wise practitioners featured in this special issue clearly do challenge their students on a daily basis to think, solve, deliberate, and create. “Challenging school settings,” to the authors, are those in which social studies teachers face a variety of dilemmas: teaching students with minimal English language skills; teaching social studies content, along with reading and writing skills, to students labeled as “at risk” or “low level learners” on the basis of test scores and other academic indicators; teaching culturally relevant social studies to students in economically depressed neighborhoods; teaching young adolescents to engage in rigorous classroom discourse despite the obstacles of majority-group domination and other cultural variables; teaching history through the arts in an inner-city, biracial magnet school trying to revitalize itself; and teaching students in schools with conservative values and resistance to the exploration of controversial issues.

The authors assume that: (1) societal and demographic changes are rapidly reshaping the kind of world and family structure that young people are growing up in, bringing myriad pressures to bear on the nation’s schools;
(2) social studies is a potentially powerful, engaging, and relevant curriculum area for a variety of “at risk” or `’difficult” students no less than for students who are already interested in learning more about the world around them; and
(3) more case studies need to focus specifically on wise practice in challenging settings in order to describe how teachers are bringing creativity, higher order thinking, and meaningful learning activities to students in these situations.

Although by no means a definitive statement on wise practice in challenging school settings, the NCSS vision of powerful teaching informs this special section and underlies each article in it. In addition, both research and common sense suggest a few other characteristics of wise practice that are incorporated into the articles:

The teachers featured in the articles in the special section were identified through extensive research and/or their work with interns in a variety of middle and high schools. Based on observations and in-depth interviews, the authors have attempted to describe not only what the teachers do in their classrooms, but how they understand and think about what they do, and how students respond to their various approaches to the social studies curriculum.

We hope this special section of Social Education will contribute to the identification and record of “wisdom of practice” in teaching social studies in challenging school settings. We have aimed to provide insight into the “habits of mind” that characterize teachers who are able to combine high content knowledge and good pedagogy into forms that engage challenging student populations. We hope the representations contained in these articles will help others to reflect upon what makes for effective teaching in these situations, and for teaching social studies in general.


1. Lee S. Shulman, “Knowledge and Teaching: Foundations for the New Reform,” Harvard Educational Review 57 (1987): 1-22.

2. William B. Stanley, “Teacher Competence for Social Studies,” in James P. Shaver, ed., The Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning (New York: MacMillan, 1991), 249-62.

3. Shulman.

4. Stanley.

5. Shulman.

6. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: NCSS, 1994).

7. John I. Goodlad, A Place Called School (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984).

8. Samuel S. Wineburg and Suzanne M. Wilson, “Models of Wisdom in the Teaching of History,” Phi Delta Kappan 70 (1988): 50-58.


Elizabeth Anne Yeager is Associate Professor of
Social Studies Education at The University of Florida, Gainesville.