In addition to establishing a curriculum framework, another and even more important role for the NCSS standards is to have them serve as a discussion paper or script which allows educators to better communicate with one another as well as with the several fields of inquiry that make up the content of our craft. This script provides the common grammar and logic that will inform professional development designs, and foster understanding of the fundamental knowledge of social studies.
The standards enable teachers to communicate across grade levels and subject specializations with one another and with others (i.e., students, parents, colleagues, and the larger community) by using a common vocabulary. For example, the curriculum standards have identified the knowledge, skills, and essential understandings students should gain as they study and work their way through school. To this end, teachers need to plan meaningful instructional activities to help students achieve important social studies content, skills, and attitudes.
As teachers reflect on the ten social studies themes they should grapple with such questions as:
Let us start with a truism: a teacher can only teach two things - what he or she knows, and who he or she is (character). In their broadest sense, knowledge means an understanding of the content fields we teach, our instructional practices, human growth and development, and the larger social context for learning known as the community. Broadly speaking, character means integrity, a commitment to excellence, achievement, and justice.
All of us need to address these factors of knowledge and character. We know, for example, that the half-life of a baccalaureate degree is about 3 years or less. That is, one-half of what we have learned is obsolete or irrelevant within 2 or 3 years after graduation.
What does this indicate to those of us who have been teaching for 10 or 25 years, or even longer? How do we confront new information as it becomes available to us? How do we conceptualize an ever-changing world? On the other hand, our character is challenged every day by a society that seems to have misplaced many of its values. Yet, the community expects educators, and rightly so, to be ethical pillars of society and role models for students. Meeting these challenges, we believe, will help to ensure the survival of our republic.
How can the NCSS standards help with all of this?
With regard to knowledge, the standards provide a curriculum design that is comprehensive. It is a design that will allow teachers to construct a discipline-oriented and integrated contemporary curriculum that addresses both theory and instruction "best practices." But, especially important, when it comes to knowledge, the 10 themes provide an excellent blueprint for quality professional development programs. Each of the themes establishes a framework within which K-12 teachers can learn and work together.
All of the standards have a K-12 content component which becomes more sophisticated as young learners progress grade by grade through school. For example, the content standard "civic ideals and practices" may require young learners to help construct rules for their classroom which they will practice within their school. Older children may engage in community service by volunteering to tutor younger children in their school or they may gather, analyze, and apply information about a policy issue facing their local community, such as, the location of a new highway or shopping center. High school students might examine the role of the media in shaping public opinion to support or defeat a political candidate or an issue facing the community or state, e.g., to extend the school day by an hour and/or the school year to 240 days. Activities such as these allow students to understand aspects of civic participation with increasing degrees of active involvement in shaping policies which affect them. Such activities lay the foundation for later civic action in their adult lives.
Numerous staff development opportunities enable teachers to work together to develop the themes of the standards. For example, colleagues or outside resource people (discipline content specialists) could be invited to help teachers gain content information on each theme, to become aware of additional resources for teaching the content, and to plan effective learning activities. Other consultants who have expertise in assessing student performance, and so forth could also be invited to provide needed staff development. Teachers could also take advantage of nearby conferences and workshops which offer content and methodology for implementing the NCSS standards. Such programs should include attendance at the annual NCSS national, regional, and state social studies meetings.
While the NCSS curriculum standards were designed to serve as a K-12 framework within which all other social studies discipline standards can and should find a home, perhaps their most important role will be in the establishment and design of professional development programs that help all of us enhance our understanding of who we are, what we know, and what we want our students to learn.
Copies of the NCSS Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (1994) may be obtained from the National Task Force for Standards in Social Studies, Bulletin #89, BU890094 for $15.00 ($12.75 for NCSS members) plus $2.50 for postage and handling. Send your order to: Whitehurst & Clark, 100 Newfield Avenue, Raritan Center, Edison, NJ 08837 or call 1-800-683-0812.
About the Authors
H. Michael Hartoonian is President of NCSS. Dr. Margaret A. Laughlin is a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay where she teaches both elementary and secondary social studies methods courses concurrently, as well as courses in curriculum and foundations. She is an active member in NCSS and has published in Social Education. She is also active in the Wisconsin statewide social studies curriculum and assessment committees and is a vice-president of the Wisconsin Council for the Social Studies.