2. to function as a guide for curriculum decisions by providing student performance expectations in the areas of knowledge, processes, and attitudes; and
3. to provide examples of classroom activities that will guide teachers as they design instruction (NCSS, 1994, ix)
These and other national standards documents such as those in civics, economics, geography, and history, are making their influence felt at state and district levels. Their impact is far less than some proponents would hope, but their presence as a source to draw upon is an impressive first step. As Walter Parker (quoted by Willis, 1994) had stated, "Because the standards represent the most recent blue ribbon efforts to identify essential content, to ignore them would be folly."
Federal legislation also promotes national standards. The Goals 2000: Educate America Act, signed into law in March of 1994, encourages states to set standards. However, the standards are intended as resources, not requirements, according to Michael Cohen, senior advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Education (also quoted in Willis, 1994).
We do not yet know whether national standards and assessments will improve education. Darling-Hammond (1994) argued that while standards have been promoted as a means for upgrading the curriculum and student performance in schools, they will not have this effect because top-down specifications of content linked
to tests cannot take into account diverse pathways to learning.
She further argued that school communities must undertake their own hard work on standard setting and consensus development if they are to be committed to and knowledgeable about change.
The issues that Darling-Hammond raised signal caution for making national standards-even those circulated by the NCSS-
the blueprint for social studies at the local level. However, we think that the NCSS standards do present a solid point of departure for local social studies curriculum planning. In this article we offer
a set of operating assumptions to consider when initially reviewing these standards and a set of
questions to consider when using them to enrich the locally planned curriculum.
explore and describe similarities and differences in the ways groups, societies, and cultures address similar human needs and concerns; give examples of how experiences may be interpreted differently by people from diverse cultural perspectives and frames of reference; describe ways in which language, stories, folktales, music, and artistic creations serve as expressions of culture and influence behavior of people living in a particular culture; compare ways in which people from different cultures think about and deal with their physical environment and social conditions; and give examples and describe the importance of cultural unity and diversity within and across groups. (NCSS, 1994, p. 33)
Local school districts decide what cultures to study. For example, a district that has experienced an influx of Hmong people might elect to include the Hmong culture, while another that has been impacted heavily by the Japanese automobile industry might include Japanese culture.
At the point when national standards become linked to national assessments, they would cease to be a tool for stimulating local curriculum work and innovative thinking about school changes and become, in effect, a national curriculum. Rather than defining attributes of a thoughtful program, they begin to define the who, what, when, where, and how of learning, since formulating assessments requires drawing inferences about exactly what things students will learn and when they will learn these things in order for tasks for items to be constructed. This is much more problematic, as it assumes common contexts and conditions for learning that do not exist and standardizes practice when it needs to be flexible and grounded to be effective. (Darling-Hammond, 1994, p. 488)
We are optimistic, however, that if schools first develop consensus around locally adopted goals which are congruent with the national standards, then use these goals
to guide social studies assessment, they will be recognized for creating powerful social studies programs. In turn, this should enable them to maintain the curriculum time assigned to social studies and to sustain local autonomy.
Questions for Consideration
As a springboard for planning solid social studies programs, we invite local social studies curriculum committees and individual classroom teachers to use the following set of questions for examining the NCSS standards more closely-and within the context of the individual classroom.
How many of the standards clearly connect to my current curricular plan? Are there elements of my current social studies program that need to be expanded in order to align with the standards?
For example, "While I teach
the cultures of Japan and India and use folk tales, stories, music, and other forms of artistic expression, I realize that I need to be more explicit in discussing these
as expressions of culture and that as a class we need to discuss how these influence the behavior of people. I also realize after studying the standards that when we study the range of land forms in Japan and India, we should focus on the ways these cultures think about and deal with their physical environment. Finally, we should be using our own cultures as other examples of cultural diversity."
How can the standards enhance my current social studies curriculum?
For example, "The performance expectations associated with Time, Continuity, and Change suggest that I have children identify and use various sources for reconstructing the past such as documents,
letters, diaries, maps, textbooks, photos, etc. For my third graders studying community, wouldn't it be interesting to procure some old maps from the city and historical society to look at the growth that has taken place in the past 100 years. I'm curious, myself, to know where the first house was located-and I wonder what that very first business was and where it was first located. I know my church, which has been designated as a historical landmark, has lots of information, photos, copies of the land deed, marriage licenses, etc. I'm sure the historical society and the local newspaper have pictures of past modes of transportation and the telephone company has a mobile display describing the history of communication in our community."
How can I use the standards to guide my planning for depth of understanding and reduce the breadth of topic coverage?
For example, "I might consider using Family as the content vehicle for all 10 standards at the first-grade level. I could address culture by using the family backgrounds
of the children in my class. Time could be developed using the children's families and how they change over time through births, deaths, marriages, divorces, etc. People, places, and environments could be developed through the locale in which our families live.
If we decided to expand it, we could use former family residences and places families have travelled.
We could also use family as the key vehicle for examining the interaction of human beings and their environment. I might decide to incorporate places observed through current events to extend the study of environments. Obviously, the study of family is a natural for individual development and identity and the study of interactions among individuals, groups, and institutions. Power, authority, and governance at first seemed too sophisticated for my first graders; however, after reviewing the performance expectations, I suddenly realize that the family is an institution and families who seem to function best have rules, regulations, a set of core values, someone in charge, etc. Production, distribution, and consumption are family functions, and science and technology have changed the lives of every family. In fact, it could be very interesting to compare the lives of our ancestors with ours in terms of transportation, household conveniences, entertainment, communication, food preparation and consumption, etc. We can study family global connections in a range of ways-perhaps begin by having the children survey their households for products that have been made in other parts of the world. Finally, civic ideals and practices have been slighted in my prior social studies program. I think I'll teach about the family as a group of citizens who, as Americans, have rights but also have responsibilities to their neighbors, etc. I'll also bring in the President and his family to add a national flavor and to explain his role in leading our democratic republican form of government."
How can I use the standards, accompanied by the performance expectations, to guide my selection of instructional activities?
Good social studies activities are goal oriented, appropriate in level of difficulty, feasible for the classroom, and cost effective in their time requirements (Brophy & Alleman, 1991). Social studies goals for the local grade level and classroom will emerge from the standards and expectations. For example, one of the second-grade goals might be to develop an understanding and appreciation for how people in a neighborhood or community organize for the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. The performance expectation suggests that students should be able to describe how we depend upon workers with specialized jobs and the ways in which they contribute to the production and exchange of goods and services. A teacher might decide that "An activity that supports this goal would be a field trip to several local businesses. To ensure that students learn at their level, I will do advance preparation both with the students and with the resource people. The activity is feasible because the places we visit are within walking distance. It's cost effective because we can visit all the businesses in a given morning. The structured discourse on site and back in the classroom will be planned to promote understanding, and the students' journal writing assignment will focus on the performance expectation."
How can I use the standards to align with my assessment practices?
Again, the performance expectations linked to each standard provide clearly developed ideas and align with teaching and assessing. For example, one of the performance expectations linked to Time, Continuity, and Change states that the learner can demonstrate an ability to use correct vocabulary associated with time such as past, present, future, and long ago. Teachers might develop these abilities by showing period photos and asking their students to sequence them in time or identify the periods they represent. Another performance expectation indicates that students should be able to construct simple timelines identifying examples of change. In this case, each student could construct a timeline depicting the changes that have occurred in his or her family, and then these timelines could be evaluated using multiple criteria.
How can the standards guide my resource selections?
The performance expectations offer hints regarding messages to be conveyed through literary selections. For example, one of the performance expectations for culture is that the learner will be able to compare ways in which people from different cultures think about and deal with their physical environments. This might lead a teacher to select a literary piece related to children living in the mountains of Switzerland, another depicting a family living in a fishing village in Southeast Asia, and a third illustrating the life of an Indian family living in Calcutta. Rather than focusing only on their separate lifestyles or treating the stories only as reading group activities, the teacher might encourage students to examine them in terms of how people in various places deal with their physical environments.
These examples illustrate how social studies in your classroom might be enriched by the NCSS standards. The standards and accompanying performance expectations provide many avenues worthy of exploration. They also can be used to provide direction and substance to your efforts to add depth to the social studies curriculum, and at the same time delete the overabundance of topics that have been treated superficially in the past.
In conclusion, the NCSS social studies standards and expectations can serve as a springboard for a social studies thrust at the district and school levels by providing a framework for curriculum development. Individual teachers are encouraged to use the standards to formulate outcome goals for units, guide in the self-evaluation of current practice, and provide a "bank" of idea strands for instruction and assessment. In combination, recent NCSS position statements offer a vision of the curriculum, instruction, and assessment components of ideal social studies programs. However, they continue to assume local autonomy in program planning, in the hope that classroom teachers will create social studies experiences for students that take the field to a new level of power and meaningfulness.
Five Key Features of Powerful Social Studies Teaching and Learning Meaningful
The content selected for emphasis is worth learning because it promotes progress toward important social understanding and civic efficacy goals, and it is taught in ways that help students to see how it is related to these goals. As a result, students' learning efforts are motivated by appreciation and interest, not just accountability and grading systems. Instruction emphasizes depth of development of important ideas within appropriate breadth of content coverage. Integrative Powerful social studies cuts across disciplinary boundaries, spans time and space, and integrates knowledge, beliefs, values, and dispositions to action. It also provides opportunities for students to connect to the arts and sciences through inquiry and reflection.
Value-Based Powerful social studies teaching considers the ethical dimensions of topics, so that it provides an arena for reflective development of concern for the common good and application of social values. The teacher includes diverse points of view, demonstrates respect for well-supported positions, and shows sensitivity and commitment to social responsibility and action.
Challenging Students are encouraged to function as a learning community, using reflective discussion to work collaboratively to deepen understandings of the meanings and implications of content. They also are expected to come to grips with controversial issues, to participate assertively but respectfully in group discussions, and to work productively with peers in cooperative learning activities.
Powerful social studies is rewarding but demanding. It demands thoughtful preparation and instruction by the teacher and sustained effort by the students to make sense of and apply what they are learning. Teachers do not mechanically follow rigid guidelines in planning, implementing, and assessing instruction. Instead, they work with the national standards and with state and local guidelines, adapting and supplementing these guidelines and their instructional materials in ways that support their students' social education needs. The teacher uses a variety of instructional materials, plans field trips and visits by resource people, develops current or local examples to relate to students' lives, plans reflective discussions, and scaffolds students' work in ways that encourage them to gradually take on more responsibility for managing their own learning independently and with their peers. Accountability and grading systems are compatible with these goals and methods.
Students develop new understandings through
a process of active construction. They develop a network of connections that link the new content to preexisting knowledge and beliefs anchored in their prior experience. The construction of meaning required to develop important social understandings takes time and is facilitated by interactive discourse. Clear explanations and modeling from the teacher are important, but so are opportunities to answer questions, discuss or debate the meanings and implications of content, or use the content in activities that call for tackling problems or making decisions.
Brophy, J., Alleman, J. (1991). Activities as instructional tools: A framework for analysis and evaluation. Educational Researcher, 20(4), 9-23.
Darling-Hammond, L. (1994). National standards and assessments: Will they improve education? American Journal of Education, 102, 478-501.
National Council for the Social Studies (1990). Curriculum planning resources. Washington, DC: Author.
National Council for the Social Studies. (1991). Testing and evaluation of social studies students. Social Education, 55, 284-286.
National Council for the Social Studies. (1993). A vision of powerful teaching and learning in the social studies: Building social understanding and civic efficacy. Social Education, 57, 213-223.
National Council for the Social Studies. (1994). Expectations of excellence: Curriculum standards for social studies. Washington, DC: Author.
National Council for the Social Studies. (1994, November). Making use of national standards. Update, 36(9), 1-6.
Willis, S. (1994). Making use of national standards. Update, 36(9), 1, 6.
About the Authors
Janet Alleman is Professor and Jere Brophy, University Distinguished Professor, both in Teacher Education at Michigan State University. They collaborate on research in elementary social studies.