Contemporary Trends in Social Studies

Richard J. Cardis, C. Frederick Risinger

As we approach the 21st Century, the rapid pace of change is transforming the United States and the world. In the United States, educational change is characterized by several factors, including rapid demographic shifts, new research into the nature of teaching and learning, and dissatisfaction with students’ achievements on national tests, particularly in relation to their peers in other parts of the world. Nowhere have these changes been felt more than in the social studies curriculum.

How will social studies educators react to these changes? What teaching methods will be stressed and encouraged? Which of the disciplines that make up the social studies will take priority in the new curriculum? How will social studies educators accommodate the nation’s increasing diversity? Drawing upon contemporary research literature, newly developed curriculum guides, and blue-ribbon reports from content specialists and social studies teachers, we believe that the following social studies trends suggest how these challenges will be met.
Recent curriculum reform reports have called for more emphasis on history and geography, but also for a more genuine understanding of these two disciplines. Instead of concentrating completely on military, political, and diplomatic events or the memorization of national capitals and natural resources, the “new” history and geography place more emphasis on social history and human geography — how the average person has worked, played, and interacted with the environment. Goals in geography should highlight the relationship between human history and the earth, and between time and place. Goals in history should deal with the analysis of cause and effect, distinctions between fact and opinion, and multiple perspectives of historical events.

Multicultural perspectives, in particular, should present an accurate picture of all the different groups that comprise our pluralistic society. Still, teachers and curriculum developers must balance multiculturalism with the appropriate focus on our heritage from Western Europe, which is also marked by diversity. Without neglecting the important ideas and technological advances of peoples in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas, students should learn about the growth of political and economic freedom as it developed in Western Europe.

Today’s social studies programs should also encourage students to examine the role of the individual in society and the responsibilities and behaviors that lead to a just and fair nation. Sometimes referred to as “civic virtue,” these qualities include a sense of fair play, a respect for minority rights, tolerance and understanding of other beliefs, and a desire to actively participate in our democratic society. In the past 25 years, many social studies curricula, textbooks, and materials have avoided issues of ethics and values, religion, and controversy. This is a barrier to the development of critical thinking and decision-making skills necessary for effective participation in a democratic society.

Teaching about the impact of religion in history and contemporary society is closely linked with multicultural and ethical education. Knowing about, comparing, and understanding religious beliefs is a key element in developing tolerance and comprehension of one of the primary motivating factors in human affairs. Because dealing with such controversial topics can be difficult, one way to help students is to examine issues through the eyes of all individuals or groups who were involved using primary source documents such as newspaper accounts, speeches, diaries, and autobiographies.

If students are to acquire the understanding and skills necessary for effective participation as citizens, they must explore topics in depth. Teachers are being encouraged to cover issues in depth, using literature and writing activities. Students will then learn more information and improve their performance on standardized tests. Literature, including fiction, biography and autobiography, speeches, myths and legends, and diaries can bring historical periods to life and provide a flavor of the thought and feelings surrounding a historical event. Writing assignments which require sufficient time to explore a topic prior to writing and which involve discussions with classmates and teachers as part of the evaluation process foster the in-depth study and reflective thinking that should be a primary goal of social studies.

It is important to emphasize that meeting the challenges presented by these social studies trends will require dedicated, creative, and caring teachers and new materials designed to prepare students for the responsibilities of participatory citizenship in a democratic society and a rapidly changing world.

ERIC References
Banks, J. (1990). Citizenship education for a pluralistic democratic society. The Social Studies, 81(5), 210-214. EJ 419 716.
Examines the challenges of educating increasing numbers of minority and impoverished students to produce effective citizens and future workers.
Davis, J. E., & Davis-Hawke, S. (1988, July). Elementary social studies: Throwing out the baby with the bath water? Paper presented at the annual conference of the Social Science Education Consortium, Inc. Binghamton, NY. ED 303 399.
Argues that the advocates for change in the elementary social studies curriculum have offered curriculum revisions without providing a convincing argument for content change.
Evans, R. W. (1990). Reconceptualizing the social studies for a new millennium. Louisiana Social Studies Journal, 17(1), 26-31. EJ 433 664.
Traces historical trends in social studies education, examining pressures that have both produced and inhibited change.
Evans, R. W. (1989). A dream unrealized: A brief look at the history of issue-centered approaches. The Social Studies, 80(4), 178-184. EJ 403 153.
Reviews the history of social studies as an integrated, issue-centered field of study from its inception within the progressive movement to the present.
Evans, R. W. (1989). The future of issue-centered education.
The Social Studies, 80(4), 176-177. EJ 403 152.
Notes the attempt to replace social studies with U.S. History and Geography.
Jeness, D. (1990). Making sense of social studies. New York: Macmillan.
Reviews the history and current status of social studies in the curriculum.
Larkins, A. G. (1988). Hero, place, and value: Using biography and story in elementary social studies. Georgia Social Science Journal, 19(1), 6-10. EJ 375 591.
Contends that because of an unclear rationale for instructional goals, the expanding environment organizational scheme results in trivial course content.
LeRiche, L. W. (1992). The political socialization of children in the expanding environments sequence. Theory and Research in Social Education, 20(2), 126-140. EJ 456 509.
Argues that the expanding environments sequence fails to portray the political environment realistically.
Levine, P., & Berg, P. (1989). History in the elementary school classroom (Elementary Subjects Center, Report Series No. 2).
East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Institute for Research on Teaching. ED 309 115.
Summarizes the suggestions offered by investigative committees of U.S. historians from the 1880s to the present concerning the importance of studying history in public schools.
Metcalf, F. (1991). Revising the social studies curriculum for the next decade. NASSP Bulletin, 75(531), 7-13. EJ 421 276.
Overviews the recommendations made in the report, “Charting a Course: Social Studies for the 21st Century,” by the Curriculum Task Force of the National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools.
NCSS Task Force on Early Childhood/Elementary Social Studies. (1989). Social studies for early childhood and elementary school children: Preparing for the 21st century. Social Education, 53(1), 14-23. EJ 386 367.
Considers the current status of social studies in the elementary school and reviews preservice and inservice teacher training.
Parker, W. C. (1991). Renewing the social studies curriculum. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. ED 334 114.
Outlines how professionals who work with children in the schools–teachers and local curriculum planners–can reform the social studies curriculum.
Patrick, J. J. (1989). The Bradley Commission in the context of 1980s’ curriculum reform in the social studies. History Teacher, 23(1), 37-48. EJ 409 564.
Examines the challenge that presents itself when many social science disciplines compete for space within the limited core curriculum.
Shaver, J. P. (Ed). (1991). Handbook of research on social studies teaching and learning. New York: Macmillan.
Reviews research on a variety of social studies issues.
Stahl, R. J. (Ed.). (1994). Cooperative learning in social studies. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.
Reviews research and presents strategies for implementing cooperative learning in the social studies.
Whelan, M. (1992). History and the social studies: A response to the critics. Theory and Research in Social Education, 20(1), 2-16. EJ 450 762.
Defends the Bradley Commission on History in Schools and the National Commission for the Social Studies’ recommendations that history should be the basis of social studies instruction.

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About the Authors
Richard J. Cardis is a graduate student in Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction at Indiana University. C. Frederick Risinger is Associate Director of ERIC/ ChESS Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education.