A profile of Elementary Social Studies Teachers and Their Classrooms

 

Mary E. Haas and Margaret A. Laughlin

There have always been excellent teachers of social studies in the elementary schools, and today is no exception. Many teachers are working hard to provide elementary students with high quality, meaningful social studies instruction. At the same time, they would like to improve their teaching practices to ensure that students learn important social studies content, concepts, and skills.

Assuming that elementary teachers who join a professional organization focused on the social studies are among those who regularly include social studies in their instruction, we sent questionnaires to all NCSS members who identified themselves as elementary teachers in spring 1997. Two general questions guided our development of the survey questions:

The questionnaire used a combination of check-off responses and short, open-ended questions. In addition to asking for standard demographic characteristics and information about teacher preparation, the survey asked what methods teachers used to teach social studies in their classrooms. Three open-response items related to the topics being taught, the resources in use, and the ways teachers dealt with individual differences in student interests and abilities. A fourth open-response question asked teachers to express what concerns they had about teaching social studies now and during the next five years. Most teachers included detailed responses to these questions.

Responses from 98 teachers, or about one-third of those surveyed, are included in the analysis. Sixty-two percent of the respondents were teaching in grades four to six, while only 17 percent taught in grades one to three. A third group, identified as “others,” included supervisors, principals, and recently retired teachers whose responses, for the most part, were similar to the active teachers’ responses. These respondents provide the profession with the first set of data on characteristics, concerns, and practices of elementary teachers who belong to NCSS.

Teacher Characteristics

Seventy percent of the survey’s respondents were veteran teachers with an average of 16 years of teaching experience in one or more grades. Sixty-five percent taught in a self-contained classroom.

These teachers regularly took time for their own professional development and on-going learning. Nearly two-thirds reported attendance at the NCSS annual meeting or a state or regional social studies conferences. And, 86% reported regular reading of social studies journals, with Social Education and Social Studies and the Young Learner overwhelmingly identified as the professional journals they read regularly. Respondents also listed Educational Leadership, Journal of Geography, and Phi Delta Kappan as publications they read on a regular basis. Over one-third said they had published either an article or a teaching idea in a journal or teaching guide.

Taken altogether, these teachers reported that they enjoyed teaching social studies and thought they provided quality social studies instruction for their students. They also indicated that they strongly believe it is important for their students to study social studies. They identified their greatest satisfaction from teaching social studies as feeling that they teach important content, concepts, and skills for children to learn (61%). One 5th grade teacher noted, “Our district has an excellent social studies program. I have always been encouraged and challenged to do my best instruction. It has changed a lot in the past 20 years, but it is always exciting.” Another teacher reported that she integrates language arts into social studies, not social studies into language arts. A veteran teacher who had recently retired said she would really like to see social studies used as an “umbrella” for teaching many subject areas, because social studies is informative and can engage kids in active learning.

When asked about the NCSS social studies standards, Expectations of Excellence, 90% of respondents said they were familiar with them, and respondents overall viewed these standards as helpful. A teacher of a fourth-fifth grade combination class wrote, “I think the new NCSS standards have FREED me to teach the way I always have!” Another teacher noted the impact of the NCSS standards on her as making her “more aware of the things I should include within my teaching.”

Three-quarters of the teachers were also knowledgeable about the content of their state and local district standards. Several indicated that their states and districts were in the process of developing new guidelines for social studies, but were uncertain as to what would be included in these new guidelines. About one third of the teachers were involved in the development of state or district social studies standards and performance assessment tasks.

Approaches to Teaching Social Studies

Teachers indicated that their instructional approaches were eclectic and that their choice of instructional activities depended upon their goals and the topic being studied. The teachers reported using a variety of strategies in their teaching. The majority of the sample (65%) still taught in self-contained classrooms, and 47% reported teaching social studies as a stand-alone subject.

Teachers were asked how frequently they used textbooks, media, and computers. Eight-one percent reported using maps/globes/satellite images at least once each week, with 67% indicating use of these geographic tools several times a week. While 90% indicated using a textbook for instruction, 45% said they used the book no more than once per week, and 8% used no textbook. Media was used in 67% of the classes, but teachers reported using film or video less than once per week. Fewer than 25% of the respondents used the computer at least once a week, with many teachers indicating that the software programs available at the time of the survey did not match the content of their curriculum study units.

Many teachers listed several teaching resources that they use frequently, and a total of 50 different resources were identified (see Table 1). Various types of written materials dominated the teaching resources selected, while the use of pictures and other graphics was reported somewhat less frequently. Teachers noted that the skills needed to interpret various forms of visual information are also important when working with computer and Internet sources of information. Geographic tools, specifically atlases and globes, likewise require additional skills for gathering and interpreting data and were among the more frequently used teaching resources. Resources involving human interactions—such as guest speakers, interviews, living experiences, role playing, and personal experience—were used much less frequently.

Most teachers (54%) described their predominant instructional approach as being social science discipline-oriented, e.g., history, geography, economics, or social studies as a single discipline. Twenty-six per cent indicated that their social studies program was predominantly literature based. Sixty-nine per cent indicated that they sometimes teach social studies as part of an integrated, multidisciplinary social studies curriculum unit. While interdisciplinary lessons are familiar to social studies teachers, many states in recent years have promoted the integration of content through thematic units in the overall elementary curriculum. The questionnaire contained seven questions designed to obtain information on teachers’ training and use of integrated curriculum content. Specifically, teachers were asked whether their educational background and experiences prepared them to teach integrated/ interdisciplinary lessons, and what preparation they received to do so. Of those who responded to the question, “How did you learn to do integrated, interdisciplinary teaching?”, both veteran teachers (educated in the 1960s) and newer teachers (those with five years or less of teaching experience) said they had received instruction in integrated units in their initial teacher preparation programs. Others reported that they learned this approach through a variety of continuing education experiences.

Teachers were asked to give examples of themes or topics they included in their integrated social studies lessons. Twenty-one teachers did not identify any theme on their questionnaires. The remaining 77 teachers listed 217 one-or-two word thematic topics/titles used in their classrooms. These data indicate many elementary social studies teachers use interdisciplinary, integrated, or thematic units to teach social studies to elementary students.

The themes cited most often were “Native Americans,” “Westward Movement,” “Civil War,” and “Colonial America,” but no single topic added up to double digits.

Teachers in grades one and two stressed the teaching of cultural universals—such as housing, food, traditions, and cultural and environmental geography—through studies of the local community or other nations. This selection of topics clearly reflects the long-popular expanding horizons concept, which still dominates elementary textbook series and state curriculum guidelines, with slight modifications for the facts that the United States is now oriented more globally and is receiving immigrants from a wider range of nations.

Beginning with grade three, the largest number of titles given for integrated or thematic units fits into the category of history. Local history or the history of groups (such as immigrants, blacks, and inventors) tended to dominate the content. Geographic themes, the second largest category, focused on regions and map study. A very few third grade teachers mentioned topics related to the disciplines of economics and political science/civic ideals/democracy.

Teachers in grades four to six, and respondents in the “others” category, offered a more diverse range of responses. However, integrated study units overwhelmingly focused first on history, second on anthropology (culture, including multicultural studies), and third on geography. When disciplines not usually associated with history and the social studies were included in an integrated unit, the respondents indicated that science disciplines such as physical environments were most frequently integrated with social studies. When literature was used as the integrating mode, it was to teach about either the Holocaust or other cultures. One experienced teacher commented that elementary teachers need training and resources for dealing with topics related to economics and the globalization of world communities.

Providing for Student Differences

Teachers reported using a wide variety of strategies to respond to the different needs of their students (see Table 2). These included taped lessons, peer tutoring, journal, modified assignments (as for different reading expectations), extended time for completing work (including tests), and calling on specially-trained resource teachers. Clearly, the dominant trend is toward providing activities that are flexible in nature, including cooperative learning activities, student selection of projects, model building, and journal writing.

Most respondents wrote single words or short phrases in response to the question about providing for differences in students’ abilities and interests. Some longer statements included the terms and elaborated upon them.

Knowing the particular skills, talents and interests of the children allows me to challenge those needing challenge…[For] the children needing help, I provide the right kind of research activities/materials so that they don’t feel overwhelmed. All are challenged, but allowed to work at their own speed [and encouraged] to try their best.

I use different teaching techniques such as: cooperative learning, role-playing, lecture/ note taking, discussion. I also vary the types of assignments and rarely (if ever) assign work right from the text.

[I] prepare activities for visual/auditory/kinesthetic learners each day. I’ve begun to introduce performance assessment techniques and individualized rubrics.

Concerns about Social Studies Education

Elementary teachers were asked to identify two or three major concerns they have about social studies education now and during the next five years. All but eight respondents replied, providing a total of 208 comments that were grouped into fourteen categories. Each category included at least five expressions of concern, and could be described in terms of either a lack (see Table 3) or a want (see Table 4) of something. The concern most frequently mentioned was the lack of priority given to social studies programs in schools and districts. This low priority was sometimes perceived as coming from other teachers or school policies that either pushed for integrated units in place of social studies or indicated that reading/language arts, mathematics, or science were the primary disciplines to teach elementary students.

In addition, new district and state policies were perceived by many teachers as weakening the social studies in favor of reading and mathematics. One teacher wrote, “In Texas, higher priority is given to other subjects by the state and/or school system. Texas tests reading and math in grade five and social studies in 8th grade.” A teacher in California reported, “My principal told us this year that the state has dropped all suggested time for social studies, so it doesn’t have to be taught. Very sad! I’m still working very hard in the social studies area! This year (1997) has been the worst as the upper grade teachers are completely demoralized!” Some of the teachers also indicated that this increasing lack of priority for social studies was motivated by special interest groups who opposed elements of particular social studies content.

The second greatest area of concern was the need for more staff development in social studies for both veteran and new elementary teachers. This concern recognizes both the rapid changes taking place in knowledge and technology, and the fact that the undergraduate teaching degree provides only a small amount of the content knowledge base needed to teach social studies—and is subject to becoming quickly outdated in today’s world. Topics suggested for staff development included both increasing social studies content knowledge and adding new teaching strategies based on the application of technology to social studies content.

One teacher who strongly supported quality staff development programs reported that “because of all the workshops I’ve attended and what I’ve done with county and local standards, I’m finding other elementary teachers look to me as an expert. Even though I’m far from being an expert, I find I am more knowledgeable than the average elementary teacher.” This is a powerful statement concerning the need for continued learning.

Concerns about testing focused on (1) the misuse of test results to evaluate teacher effectiveness and student learning to rank order schools in a district or districts in a state, and (2) the lack of parent understanding of test results and rubrics used in alternative assessments. Several teachers noted the need for social studies leaders to work with classroom teachers to update the curriculum in order to meet the new social studies standards that have been adopted. They also noted that there should be a strong linkage between curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Teachers were eager to obtain good computer software for more topics, and to secure Internet connections to help both students and teachers in social studies learning.

Many of the concerns teachers expressed were familiar: the low quality of textbooks, the lack of funds for acquiring current instructional resources, the lack of adequate time for planning and teaching, and the need to develop improved teaching strategies. There were also calls for more emphasis on particular social studies content areas, specifically geography, global education, and values or character education.

 

Conclusions

Based on the responses from the elementary social studies teachers surveyed, it appears that little has changed over the years. Overall, social studies does not appear to be viewed as an important content area in elementary schools; many elementary teachers give priority to reading and mathematics, since these content areas receive priority in local and state testing programs; and teachers of elementary social studies may not be well grounded in the social science disciplines.

While the teachers in this survey do and must follow state and district guidelines, they are also interested in updating their knowledge base. They may decide to add topics that reflect the interests of their local communities and students or instructional units that teach about global events, for example, disasters or endemic hunger and poverty in various parts of the world. They seek out a variety of resources to enable them to teach these newer topics. In keeping with their belief in the need for all citizens of a democracy to be active and informed, they pay attention to the individual needs of students as they plan their daily lessons.

Elementary social studies teachers are concerned about their students’ learning, and realize that success is in part dependent upon their own efforts to grow professionally and remain current in the fields of both content knowledge and teaching strategies. Many teachers indicated that they read educational publications regularly and attend social studies conferences and summer workshops. They are aware of such current trends as the standards and assessment movement, new requirements for renewing their state licenses, the growing role of parents and community members in the schools, the problems of “at risk” children, and the movement for teacher reform and school restructuring. Based on their overall responses, these teachers want to provide meaningful social studies instruction and act as models of lifelong learning for their students.

Like most surveys, this one raises more questions than the authors initially posed, and suggests subjects for future research. For example:

Responses to these and other questions could help social studies professionals expand our knowledge of social studies instruction in elementary schools.

Perhaps the most disturbing finding of this survey, whose respondents belong to an organization that has long made citizenship education its highest priority, is how little attention is devoted to civic ideals and values in elementary schools. This omission is significant, since virtually all school districts throughout the United States include in their statements of philosophy the goal of preparing students for lives in which they will be active citizens. Social studies curriculum frameworks also offer statements supporting civic education as an essential component in developing enlightened citizens. This discrepancy in policy and practice is puzzling and in need of further examination.

Clearly, the elementary social studies teachers who responded to this survey care about their discipline, their students, and providing quality social studies programs to young learners. No doubt other social studies teachers who were not a part of this survey share similar concerns. All of these teachers should be pleased to know that NCSS is increasing its efforts to promote social studies in the elementary grades and to provide more assistance to elementary teachers.

 

References

Haas, Mary E. and Margaret A. Laughlin. “A Contemporary Profile of Elementary Social Studies Educators: Their Beliefs, Perceptions, and Classroom Practices in the 1990s.” Paper presented at Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Diego (April 1998).

Houser, Neil O. “Social Studies on the Back Burner: Views from the Field.” Theory and Research in Social Education 23, no. 2 (1995): 146-168.

Jarolimek, John. “NCSS and Elementary School Social Studies.” In O. L. Davis, Jr., ed., NCSS in Retrospect, Bulletin 92. Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1996.

Joyce, William W., and Janet Alleman-Brooks. “Resolving the Identity Crisis in Elementary and Middle School Social Studies.” Journal of Research and Development in Education 13, no. 2 (1980): 60-71.

National Council for the Social Studies. Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies, Bulletin 89. Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies,1994.

Ochoa, Anna. “A Profile of Social Studies Teachers.” Social Education 45, no. 6 (1981): 401-404.

 

Mary E. Haas is professor of educational theory and practice at West Virginia University and elementary department editor for Social Education. Margaret A. Laughlin is professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and an NCSS board member.

 

Note: The authors are grateful to the teachers in NCSS who took time to return the survey. These responses provide important base line data for further research studies related to elementary social studies. We also wish to thank NCSS for providing us with the membership list. The data generated have been shared with officers and staff of NCSS.

 

 

Table 1

Instructional Resources used on a Regular Basis in Social Studies Classrooms

Instructional Resource

Responses

Atlas or maps 37
Trade books (literature) 34
Video, library/media center, news & film strips 33
Computers and internet

21

Textbooks 22
Magazines and newspapers 15
Simulations 11
Reference books

9

Teacher created materials

7

Cultural artifacts 5
Charts or posters 5
Primary documents 5
Globes 4
Hands on projects (varied) 3
Total

196

Note: Individual teachers frequently listed more than one resource.

Table 2

Ways Teachers Provide for Differences in Interests and Abilities

 

Strategy Responses
Doing projects with multiple acceptable final products 27
Engaging in cooperative or group learning 26
Allowing students a choice of topics 13
Adjusting lessons to meet the needs for various learning styles 12
Using a variety of instructional materials 8
Using a variety of activities 8
Allowing students to work at their own speed and ability 7
Doing individual projects (either short or long term)

6

Providing for hands-on experiences 5
Knowing students’ abilities and interests 5
Providing multiple levels of instructional materials 5
Total 122

Note: Individual teachers offered multiple examples of strategies.

Minimal grouping has been done to illustrate the variety in teacher responses.

Table 3

Concerns Expressed by Elementary Social Studies Teachers for the Field: Now and in the Next Five Years

Concerns Responses
Lack of priority for social studies 36
Lack of proper testing/reporting of result 14
Lack of student interest 12
Lack of materials for some topics and poor textbooks 11
Lack of time for planning and teaching social studies 10
Lack of financial resources for supplies 10

Table 4

Suggestions by Elementary Social Studies Teachers for the Improvement of Social Studies Instruction

Concerns Responses
More staff development related to social studies 19
More curriculum development work in social studies 13
More software and Internet work 9
More curriculum emphasis on geography 8
More use of active learning strategies 5
More curriculum emphasis on values and character 5
More curriculum emphasis on a global community 5
More use of social studies to integrate curriculum 5