What’s Ahead for Social Studies?

Have you heard about Goals 2000? If not, you will. It is the Clinton Administration’s retooling of America 2000. Has your principal asked you to review standards from your state, or from any of the standards projects (four of which have an impact on the social studies)? Has your community been focused lately on violence (in and out of school), or the challenges of diverse values in a pluralistic, multicultural society? Has your classroom (or school) become a place in which computer literacy is a concern, a reality, or a dream? If you have been grappling with any of these questions and the issues they represent, take the time to read this PERSPECTIVE.

We asked Denny Schillings, President of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), Charlotte Anderson, Immediate-Past President of NCSS, and Bob Stahl, President-Elect of NCSS to share their perspectives on “What’s ahead for social studies?” They shared significant ideas, perspectives, and visions on social studies for younger learners. Most importantly, their discussions focused on you — the social studies teacher. They explored the challenges, the opportunities, the hopes, and the future of the exciting and critical role that social studies teachers play in helping students to become competent, responsible, participating, and valued members of their communities.

M.M., Ed.

How can social studies insure the development of competent, participating citizens in light of today’s societal problems and changing demographics?

Stahl: Actually, “social studies” can’t do anything. By this I mean that even if NCSS or a national, state, or district agency developed the best social studies program ever, this program cannot teach students. We must make it clear that it is the elementary teacher who must eventually facilitate social studies education in his or her classroom, and who personally must take steps to insure the expected competency.

The research on outcomes-based education and appropriate cooperative learning reveals that many of the problems, situations, and factors outside the classroom can be effectively offset by facilitating students’ academic competence. We can do more to help students in achieving social studies content and skills goals, including prosocial skills and attitudes. And, we cannot change much of what goes on outside the classroom until we change much of what goes on inside it.

Anderson: Social studies educators have to be vigilant advocates for quality social studies programs that begin in the earliest grades and continue through high school graduation. To accomplish this, teachers have to be both good teachers in the classroom and effective advocates outside the classroom for what they value in the curriculum and in their instructional arenas.

Education policy-makers confronted with the dual pressures of restricted resources and poor student achievement often respond by replacing social studies — especially in the primary grades — with other curricular focuses deemed to be somehow more “basic.” Social studies advocates can make at least two convincing arguments to confront this challenge. First, that social studies does not displace the 3R’s, but rather enhances the 3R’s by developing these competencies in the context of engaging social studies lessons.

And second, that without the solid foundation of a quality elementary social studies curriculum, students will not be able to develop the complex set of competencies that underpin civic competence.

Schillings: It seems to me that the most important thing a teacher at any level can do is to instill a sense of pride in their students. I think that one of the reasons younger and younger students are turning to gangs and violence is a lack of self-worth. A lack of self-worth is also manifested in student use of drugs, which is occurring at earlier and earlier ages. So it is important for the teacher to strive to bring about a sense of identity and community in their students’ lives. That means involving students in classroom projects that seek to identify and offer solutions to both hypothetical and real problems. Projects that show students they are not the only ones experiencing doubts or frustrations, and that by working together, there is hope.

Anderson: Teachers who are effectively working to promote civic competence draw on all the resources available to them including community resources. They will take their students into the community to see adults at work in the city council, the local courts, and civic action groups. They will be honest with their students about social problems that are not being effectively addressed as well as showing them examples of improvements. These teachers will bring community resource people into the classrooms to interact with their students. They will make certain that their students see adults of all ethnicities and socio-economic conditions in action and that students recognize that “good” people can and do adamantly disagree on what should be done. Additionally, such teachers make certain that their classroom management procedures are in line with their curriculum goals. For example, if they are committed to helping students understand democratic decision and policy-making, they will engage students in classroom rule-making and monitoring.

Schillings: I think that the most important thing that social studies teachers can offer students is a sense of their own humanity. We are by the very nature of our discipline, caring individuals, who for the most part, believe that if we work together we can help one another and society. As role models, we can lead students further down the path of developing self-worth and growth into a productive life than all the textbooks ever printed.

We are being overwhelmed by requests to quantify and qualify our work as teachers through the various standards efforts (History, Geography, Civics and Government, Social Studies) and the assessment apparatus that will accompany them. What impact will “Standards” have on the teaching of social studies?

Stahl: I for one do not resist the movement towards Standards, although I am concerned with the number of them and their adequacy. Social studies teachers need to take a firm stand and say, in clear and precise terms, this is what we expect our students to learn and to be able to do beyond the end of our courses of study. We should expect to align our curriculum and instructional activities to insure that students actually attain the targeted cognitive, affective, and prosocial outcomes. Finally, we should obtain valid and reliable evidence that nearly all of our students are actually attaining the goals we set.

My sense is that many social studies teachers are not concerned with the standards movement because they feel that the standards will either be a “fad” that goes away or are to be dealt with at a level above the school and classroom. At the same time, the number of teachers in social studies departments at all grade levels who are advocating the History, Geography, or Civics standards in lieu of a set of “social studies standards” may be telling us that these individuals are not interested in social studies but in particular disciplines. We must do a better job in preservice and inservice teacher education to move toward developing a social studies mind-set that is much different from single-discipline mind-sets.

Schillings: Some have tried to pit the various disciplines against one another. On the surface it sometimes appears that each group feels it has a monopoly on what is right for students. In reality, none of the Standards groups should feel threatened or inferior to any other.

Anderson: My first reaction to this question is to make the observation that the standards process is already having an impact on the teaching of social studies. It is having a direct and immediate positive impact by the very fact that many classroom teachers are involved in the development of standards related to the social studies — at the local, state, and national levels. Some are writing standards or contributing elements to standards documents. Others have read about standards and have participated in discussions of issues related to standards. These many diverse occasions to engage in the discussion of issues related to standards development and reflect upon what “social studies” is and/or should be are profoundly important professional development opportunities. Social studies in the classrooms of these teacher participants must be the better for it. Given the fact that such teacher participants are activists, their colleagues are undoubtedly drawn into the conversation and the ripple effect is having further positive impacts. More of us are really thinking about social studies content and instruction and that is good.
What about the negatives? If national standards are followed by national assessment, then issues of equity, of opportunity for all students to meet these standards, must be foremost among our concerns. Another concern is that such an assessment could have a negative impact on classroom practice if the assessment instruments tap into only student recall and lower-order thinking skills.

Schillings: Of course the problems associated with assessment concern me also. Examination can measure the student’s ability to recall knowledge, but what does that do for the student, or for that matter humanity, in the long run? If the various standards are to be tested, and surely they will be, then the tests must be equally concerned about what the students can do with the knowledge they have.

Are you concerned about the proliferation of standards in the field of social studies?

Stahl: I am concerned about the proliferation of standards among the separate disciplines and by NCSS because most of the dialogue has essentially not been concerned with what students actually need, but with what we want to give them or to cover. Eventually, there will be “winners” and “losers” among the different groups in this effort, with the largest group of losers, quite possibly, being the students. We must take more time to consider what students actually need and to make decisions on this basis rather than on whether a particular standard or performance objective will be accepted by other professionals.

Anderson: From my perspective, the problem is not so much “proliferation” as it is fragmentation or balkanization of social studies. Since national standards development was initiated under an administration decidedly antagonistic to social studies, separate standards development began in history, geography, and civics and government without an opportunity to examine first what a comprehensive, integrative pre-K-12 social studies program should entail. If the process had started this way and a unified social studies program design had been generated followed by the development of over-arching social studies standards, then we would now see standards emerging in each of the separate discipline areas that complement and support one another. This is not now happening.

How will the standards inform the social studies?

Stahl: The NCSS standards draw upon multiple disciplines, although the standards and performance objectives themselves are not interdisciplinary. Hence they do not, in and of themselves, inform the integration that is unique to social studies. The vignettes, scenarios, or cases that have been developed will be useful, but I am not sure how many teachers can move from these examples to bring about integrated academic study in their own classrooms.

Anderson: The density and complexity of the standards for the individual disciplines appear to be leaving users with only two options. One option is to focus on one discipline to the detriment of another (offer more history and less government, in order to meet the history standards; or more geography and less or no sociology or economics, in order to meet the geography standards; etc.). Districts and schools that choose this option will find that such a move fosters both fragmented and impoverished social studies programs. The other option is for districts and schools to do the hard work of analyzing each of the disparate standards and draw from them elements that would support a unified social studies program.
The latter option insures that social studies in the schools can provide all students with the commitment and capacities to participate effectively in their communities and address the challenges of the new century. Such civic competence requires quality instruction in history, in geography, in civics and government (areas for which federally-funded national standards are being developed), but it requires more than this. The NCSS-developed standards for social studies draw from all the social sciences and humanities for the purpose of promoting civic competence. These standards provide an over-arching framework for a comprehensive pre-K-12 social studies program that teachers and administrators can use in effectively drawing from and applying the individual discipline standards.

Social studies, as a field, is clearly undergoing a period of change. What is the impetus for this change and how should we, as social educators, should these changes?

Stahl: Except for the activity concerning standards, I would venture to say that most social studies teachers do not see this as a great period of change in social studies. Where the change is taking place is in states where their respective State Departments of Education have clearly moved in a particular direction and are tying student assessments at the state level to these objectives, or goals. If state or national student assessment were not tied to these state and national standards efforts, I seriously doubt that there would be much change at the school and classroom level. So far we have yet to see a major effort to revise specific curriculums and teaching behaviors so that they are more directly aligned with achieving the outcomes targeted.
NCSS is involved at the forefront of the changes toward national standards for the field. With a small budget, we are more than holding our own. I would like to see us move toward redefining the field of instruction toward attaining whatever outcomes or standards are selected. This is important because whoever influences the practice of teachers in the classroom will have the greatest direct impact on students, regardless of what standards are selected.

Schillings: First of all, as teachers, we should not entrench ourselves and simply say, “No, I won’t consider any suggestions for change because what I do is correct.” That is exactly the kind of reaction that has caused much of the difficulty, and caused various disciplines to be unable, or to find it somewhat difficult, to work together. Social studies educators must be true to their professional training, expertise, and desires, but we must not put our blinders on and routinely say that others are incorrect, lest we fall victim to the very myopia of which we accuse others.

How should social studies respond to changes in the delivery mechanisms employed by educators in the ’90s?

Anderson: The new educational technology is a two-edged sword. One edge cuts even deeper swaths between the “haves” and the “have-nots” — between rich and poor schools/communities/students. It takes money to acquire, to learn to use, and to maintain this technology which in turn can exponentially expand student access to information and optional learning contexts. Thus, schools that can afford the technology have expanded potential for graduating technologically competent, sophisticated students who can easily traverse the globe-spanning technological superhighways of the 21st century. Schools who can’t will graduate students incapable of maneuvering even the access ramps. As social studies educators with special concerns and responsibilities for social justice, we have an obligation to actively promote more equitable distribution of technological resources in schools throughout the country.
The other edge of this two-edged sword offers social studies educators a special opportunity to take the leadership in designing curriculum and courses that focus on issues related to “society and technology.” Such courses would not only develop technological competencies but would confront students with the moral and ethical dilemmas growing out of technological development and use.

Stahl: I do not see the majority of social studies teachers moving toward increasing the use of technology and delivery systems on a day-to-day basis in their classrooms. There are a number of reasons for this, including the focus in many schools on giving priority use of such equipment to other areas, such as math and science; and the general reluctance of social studies teachers to use the technology that has been available for several years. There has to be intensive and long-term training on how to use the new technology if we expect it to be used.

Schillings: Education as a whole is wrestling with this very question. What the social studies teacher can provide is a perspective on what the students are seeing and using. It is so important for students, who spend as much (or more) time watching television and using computers as they do in school, to understand that what they see may not always be accurate. The social studies teacher has a unique opportunity to teach skills needed to be a discriminating television watcher, computer user, or radio listener. If students can question what they are watching or hearing — is it accurate? what point of view does it represent? who is presenting it, what is its goal? — then we will have gone a long way in our quest to create thinking and participating citizens.

We invite your reactions, comments and/or perspectives on the issues discussed. Please let us hear from you.

About the Author
Mabel C. McKinney-Browning is the Director of the Division for Public Education of the American Bar Association.