Social Studies Curriculum Renewal
Internationalizing the Curriculum

Glen Blankenship

Social studies programs being taught across the nation today are based on recommendations developed by a national commission of leading educators in 1916 to prepare students for their roles as adults in the twentieth century. Although this curriculum has served the nation well, today’s students will live and work in the 21st century. Additional knowledge and skills are needed by today’s students to prepare them to deal with the rapid advancement of communications, technology, and international political and economic ties. The Gwinnett County Public Schools’ newly implemented social studies curriculum focuses on goals which describe what graduates will know about history, geography, economics, government, and the behavioral sciences and what they can do with this wealth of discipline-based content information. When students understand the past and are equipped with the skills of social scientists, they will be better prepared to solve problems and make thoughtful decisions in the present, and face the challenges of the future.

In the Gwinnett County Public Schools, students will learn about significant events, trends, ideas, and people in United States and world history. By learning more about the democratic heritage of citizens in the United States, students will be better prepared to be active, participatory citizens. By learning about other nations, such as those in Asia, Africa, Europe, Oceania, and the Americas, they will have a deeper understanding of the aspirations and problems of the rest of the world. At each year of study students will connect knowledge of the past to events of the present and compare cultures around the globe to cultures in the United States. Students will continuously study about our nation and then extend their learning to include other cultures and nations.

Curriculum Development Process

To address changing curriculum needs, a committee of 94 Gwinnett County, Georgia, Public School educators carefully reviewed and revised the social studies curriculum to reflect state-of-the-art recommendations from national social studies professional organizations and educational commissions. Each school in the district was represented by a minimum of one classroom teacher. Each grade level, K-8, and each high school course had representation on the committee. In addition to classroom teachers, administrators, and support professionals also served in advisory roles.

The 94-member committee met as a whole, working as subgroups. Some work took place in 12 groups organized by grade level/course, but the group was most effective when working in 7 groups composed of cross grade level members. The most innovative, systemic reform suggestions took place in the cross grade level groups. When the committee met by grade level, the tendency was to revert to turf protection of the existing curriculum design.

The committee began its work by reading and discussing national commission reports and reports issued by professional organizations on the topic of social studies education. For 8 weeks, the committee met in discussion groups to talk about “what social studies should be.” This period of philosophical discussion, dialog, reflection, and formulation laid the foundation for meaningful curriculum revision. The goal was to plan a curriculum which would move the district from a traditional social studies program (driven by a textbook, read/write/lecture/ discuss format only loosely related to the immediate life of the student and/or adult) to a social studies program with which students could relate to the here-and-now in a meaningful context using real information to understand their world.

Curriculum Framework

The curriculum framework, The Human Experience, is grouped into four topics (see Figure 1). At the primary level (kindergarten through grade 2), the topic is Expanding Our World. Students examine ethnic groups in this country and characteristics of other cultures around the globe as compared with the United States.

At the elementary level (grades 3 through 5), students engage in a Focus on Our Heritage. At grade 3, students learn about such early civilizations as the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Egyptians, the Aztecs, and Chinese and English civilizations between 400 and 1500 A.D. At grades 4 and 5, a two-year focus on the history of the United States completes the examination of the heritage of the people who comprise the United States today.

At the middle grade level (grades 6 through 8), the topic of study is Challenges in a Global Society. A two-year world studies block provides students an opportunity to examine the world today. During year three, students examine Georgia’s connections to the world and discover the impact of world events on their daily lives.

The secondary level topic for study, Connections and Promises, is a two-year integrated U.S. history/world history course which emphasizes the role of the United States in the twentieth century. In addition, students examine political and economic systems in a global society in 2 one-semester courses. Students may also select from the following Advanced Placement courses: United States History, European History, American Government, Comparative Government, Macroeconomics, Microeconomics, and Psychology. An array of elective courses including Law, Contemporary World Affairs, Sociology, and Psychology is also available for students.

Curriculum Innovations

The Gwinnett County Social Studies Program is different from traditional programs in its approach to organizing both curriculum and instruction. The traditional expanding environments approach across grades K-5 (individual, family, neighborhood, community, state, region and nation), has been replaced with a program which “expands the environment” across the kindergarten year and then repeats the expanding environments process each year to truly internationalize the curriculum. Other improvements to the curriculum include the following items.
• The curriculum emphasizes history and geography as the two integrative disciplines of the field. In every grade, students learn that events occurred in a particular time and place, and they are always challenged to ask “Why? Why now? Why here?”
• The social studies curriculum is enriched in kindergarten through third grade. The curriculum acknowledges the multicultural character of American society —that the United States is a nation composed of many different ethnic groups and cultures. Students also examine their own cultural heritage and characteristics of cultures in other nations.
• The curriculum encourages the integration of the social sciences with literature, the arts, and the sciences.

To understand any society, whether it is the United States today or an ancient civilization, one should know how the society was ruled (political science), what groups were part of the society (sociology), and how the people worked and produced goods (economics). In order to have a better sense of the society, students should examine the society’s art, music, drama, dance, literature, architecture, technology, religion, sports, and daily life. The curriculum encourages teachers to integrate literature with the teaching of history. For example, students read journals and diaries of pioneers, the great myths and legends of each civilization, the words spoken or written by significant men and women, and novels and biographies that help them see events through the eyes of those who were there. (The changing history, 1990, pp. 10-11)

• The curriculum introduces an enriched curriculum which emphasizes the importance of studying topics in depth and from multiple perspectives. The revised curriculum eliminates redundancy of content across the grades and promotes the examination of topics in depth for greater student understanding. Examples of this improvement are the increase from one year to two years of instructional time at grades 4 and 5 for the study of United States history and geography, a two-year world studies block at grades 6 and 7, and the integration of United States history and world history (with a full year devoted to the study of the twentieth century) at the secondary level to highlight the role of our nation in the world community.
• The curriculum is organized around essential topics and focus questions. In place of a traditional curriculum guide containing instructional objectives written according to Bloom’s Taxonomy, teachers plan instruction around questions of significance which ask students to connect knowledge of the past to events of the present and compare cultures around the globe to cultures in the United States. The curriculum guide consists of three components:
• the framework of the course which includes the topics and questions,
• a background essay for each topic written by a college/uni
versity content expert which answers the questions, and
• sample lesson plans for organizing instruction.

The Role of the Teacher and the Student

The traditional role of the teacher as an information disseminator has changed to that of the teacher as a learning facilitator. Using the social studies framework and supporting materials, teachers expand and enrich instruction to meet the needs of each student. The revised curriculum encourages the implementation of a wide range of instructional activities — debates, plays, computer software, writing, performances, role playing, simulations, discussions, mock trials, student projects, and many others.

Students will go beyond the traditional role of passive receiver of information and become active researchers, investigators, and determiners of meaningful learning. Students and teachers are provided with a wide range of materials such as literature (both informational and narrative — biographies, stories, poems, etc.), computer software, laser disks, interactive multimedia, videos, primary source documents, anthologies, manipulative kits, and other reference materials. In addition to these materials, students at grades 4 through 12 also have a traditional textbook.


As we enter the 21st century, social studies education must redefine what students need to know and what they can do with that information. The economic, political and social/cultural health of the nation is tied to having an educated, informed citizenry. Curriculum reform must include a global perspective which is embedded in the core curriculum. Caution must accompany an “add-on” internationalized curriculum. A solid, integrated curriculum which makes connections among important ideas must replace the fragments of facts which characterize many social studies programs. Students should not feel compelled to ask “Why do I need to know this?” The curriculum should make the answer to that question self evident. This has been the goal of the Gwinnett County Public Schools. The challenge now is to share this attempt with other school districts so that we can collectively build on this beginning.

The extended quotation (p. 15) is reproduced by permission, from The Changing History Social Science Curriculum: A Booklet for Parents. Sacramento: California Department of Education, 1990.

About the Author
Glen Blankenship is Social Studies Coordinator for Gwinnett County, Georgia, Public Schools. His position will soon be Social Studies Coordinator, Georgia State Department of Education.

Figure 1. Gwinnett County Public Schools Social Studies Framework


Primary Level Theme – EXPANDING OUR WORLD
K Discovering Our World
1 Exploring Our World: The Americas and Antarctica
2 Exploring Our World: Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania/Australia

Elementary Level Theme – FOCUS ON OUR HERITAGE
3 Civilizations Long Ago and Far Away
4 Our Nation: New Beginnings
5 Our Nation: New Frontiers

6 International Perspectives: Europe,
The Americas, Oceania
7 International Perspectives: Asia, Africa, Middle East
8 The Georgia Connection

9 Prehistory through the Industrial Revolution
10 Global Conflict and Resolution/ Challenges for the 21st Century
11 Economics in a Global Society/Political Systems in a Global Society