The Influences of Modeling:
Gaining the Competence and
Confidence To Teach


Nancy P. Gallavan, LeAnn G. Putney, and Diane Brantley

Modeling is not the best way to teach.
It is the only way to teach.

óAlbert Schweitzer


When asked to identify their least favorite school subject, most elementary school students overwhelming choose ìsocial studies,î according to a 1985 study.1 Most elementary school teachers express the same answer.2 And most elementary school preservice teachers tend to echo their mentors.3 What is happening in some United States elementary schools that creates such animosity for the one subject that breathes life into all other subjects? What is happening in other classrooms where effective social studies instruction occurs? How can we ensure that effective social studies instruction is evident for young learners and modeled to our preservice teachers? These questions guided the research for this study. We hope that our work offers helpful suggestions for teachers and teacher educators.


What is Effective Elementary Social Studies Instruction?

Elementary school social studies instruction offers many young learners their initial insights into the past, present, and future by examining global relationships and multiple perspectives that involve people, places, and events. Some lucky learners excitedly explore their first encounters with historical viewpoints, geographic contexts, civic debates, and economic dynamics in active, student-centered communities. More fortunate learners discover a multitude of political forces, sociological changes, and anthropological insights in their social studies classrooms. Effective teachers integrate the social studies disciplines with a variety of powerful childrenís literature, technological resources, engaging teaching strategies, and authentic assessments.4 However, too many young learners are not exposed to such rich learning experiences, and this deficit may influence their future understanding and appreciation of civic knowledge and social interactions.5 Why are some elementary school teachers not teaching social studies effectively? This question guided our research.


Where Do Elementary Teachers Learn to Teach Social Studies?

Elementary school teachers base their opinion of teacher effectiveness upon role models that they observe as children


(throughout their earlier elementary school years) and as adults (during their university teacher education programs)6 If social studies is not being taught successfully in todayís elementary school classrooms, then one reason for this may be that those teachers were not exposed to effective teachers or interesting lessons as young learners or as preservice teachers.

Disturbed by the apprehensions expressed over the years by preservice teachers enrolled in our social studies methods course, we decided to examine possible causes of this apparent absence of effective elementary school social studies instruction. Our research explored preservice teachersí perceived levels of (a) competence or knowledge of elementary school social studies content and (b) confidence in their own ability to teach elementary school social studies effectively. Competence and confidence were examined in relationship to the preservice teachersí own elementary school experiences as well as the modeling and mentoring they encountered during their university teacher education field experiences. Although collecting this type of data involves self-reporting and memories of childhood, we think it is valuable to ask preservice teachers about their current (and remembered) experiences and to reflect on the results.


How Were Content Competence and Teaching Confidence Examined?

To examine these two research questions, we assigned 130 undergraduate preservice teachers enrolled in a required social studies methods education course three tasks.

(1) In the first task, we asked the preservice teachers to respond to a brief survey administered on the first day of the course, before any course instruction. The survey included two scales ranking self-perceived levels of competence and confidence for teaching elementary school social studies effectively.

Competence was defined as the level of content knowledge and skills associated with the major social studies disciplines gained from their own education, K-college. Confidence was defined as the level of ability associated with specific elementary school social studies-related teaching strategies learned during methods courses and the field experience components of the university teacher education program.

(2) The second task, assigned on the first day of each class, was to write a paper within two weeks, in which preservice teachers would reflect upon their own elementary school years, briefly listing any social studies content and instructional strategies they could remember. For younger preservice teachers, such a reflection involved only a ten-year recall; older preservice teachers were more challenged as their ìtrips down memory laneî were much longer. Preservice teachers were encouraged to read the assignments, ask questions in class, and discuss their memories with one another, thus helping them generate and clarify their thoughts related to elementary school social studies.

(3) The third task challenged preservice teachers with a more substantial assignment. Each preservice teacher was required to arrange a field visit to an elementary school to observe a teacher during social studies instruction and to report specific characteristics describing the classroom observation. These characteristics included:

A. classroom environment, including resources and materials supporting social studies instruction,

B. components of the observed social studies lesson with emphasis on the social studies discipline(s) and related NCSS thematic strands,

C. curricular integration of a topic to other subject areas, with creative uses of childrenís literature and technology,

D. instructional strategies for implementing and facilitating the lesson including active student participation, higher-order questioning, critical thinking, decision-making, and risk-taking which appeared student-centered and student-empowering producing a variety of outcomes,

E. elementary school studentsí responses and interactions,

F. the preservice teacherís reactions and analyses with particular attention to the insights gained from this social studies methods course.

Preservice teachers were asked to describe the quality, appropriateness, availability, frequence, and relevance of each characteristic. We assigned this task at mid-semester, which allowed the preservice teachers time to expand their knowledge of effective elementary school social studies content and instruction.


What Contributes to Low Competence and Confidence?

The results of the scales reporting preservice teachersí self-perceptions of content competence and teaching confidence indicate that the majority of the respondents rate themselves with medium-low to low levels of competence and even lower levels of confidence. These ratings corresponded to their personal reflections and memories of the classroom. Many preservice teachers had no memories of elementary school social studies classes. Most preservice teachers recalled only a few and primarily negative reflections of their own elementary school social studies instruction.

Negative memories were described vividly and focused on the preservice teachersí own elementary school teachers. Field experiences also provided examples of negative experiences. Although it is expected that unpleasant experiences are more easily remembered than routine experiences, it seems disconcerting that examples were so ample. The data were organized into six domains as follows:

I. Textbooks

  • relying too much or exclusively on the textbooks (many of which were incorrect or out-of-date),
  • making students read the textbook selections aloud one at a time,
  • requiring students to write answers to the questions at the end of the textbook’s chapters,

II. Resources

  • overusing worksheets, packets, coloring sheets, filmstrips, and films,
  • limiting or including no supplementary resources and manipulatives,

III. Instructional Strategies

  • presenting information without discussion or related meaningful learning experiences,
  • requiring students to memorize and recite facts, speeches, locations, etc., without young learner understanding and relevance, re-teaching the same information year after year and during the same time of year each year,
  • requiring learners to complete the same activities, reports, etc., for every unit of study,
  • focusing the learning on trivia and organizing competitive events based on the trivia,
  • teaching content in isolation, not integrating across the curriculum, particularly not using quality children’s literature,
  • covering the content superficially without interest; providing no time for in-depth thinking,

IV. Cultural Competency

  • providing one-sided or one-dimensional viewpoints of history,
  • stereotyping and/or avoiding discussion related to certain cultures and groups,

V. Assessment

  • teaching to the test (if social studies was included on the standardized test),
  • expecting young learners to participate eagerly in group activities without educating learners in group dynamics; then assigning individual grades for group participation and productions,
  • encouraging learners to share openly in class about some issues and expecting them to sit quietly the rest of the time,

VI. Dedication

  • avoiding current events and controversial issues,
  • teaching social studies only a few days a week or a few weeks each quarter and usually at the end of the school day when everyone was tired,
  • canceling social studies instruction when time was needed for teaching other subjects (such as finishing other instruction or assignments), special events (such as testing), assemblies, early dismissals (such as parent-teacher conferences or teacher in-service days)
  • not knowing social studies content themselves, and
  • avoiding teaching social studies altogether.

The extensive list reported in the study supports Millís research conducted with elementary school social teachers.7 The evidence reinforces the need for further research of effective elementary school social studies instruction for young learners and modeling for preservice teachers.


What Contributes to Competence and Confidence?

Preservice teachers who remembered or observed effective elementary school social studies instruction were fewer in number but reported successful teachers as having knowledge, skills, and attitudes related to:

  • exhibiting great understanding and excitement for all the social studies disciplines,
  • integrating social studies across the curriculum making all the learning blend together,
  • implementing teaching/learning/assessment strategies that were active and student-centered such as role-playing, simulations, interviewing, creating models, dancing, singing, etc.,
  • providing an abundance and variety of resource materials such as maps and books,
  • modeling and guiding thinking and asking questions, engaging the learners in the learning,
  • exploring multiple perspectives on topics and issues regardless of their levels of controversy,
  • capturing teachable moments based on current events or student concerns,
  • encouraging learners to listen, think, and share respectfully with one another,
  • inviting parents to come into the classroom individually to share about themselves or as groups to see classroom demonstrations,
  • taking field trips and inviting guest speakers to share in class, and
  • ensuring that social studies instruction occurred everyday.

Interestingly, similar concerns were reported when the preservice teachers submitted their field visit classroom observation summaries. Some preservice teachers observed a few classrooms supplied with an abundance of social studies-related materials and resources; however, preservice teachers more frequently reported classrooms with few or no supplementary materials. Most of the observed lessons supported one or more of the social studies disciplines and standards; however, it was not always clear how the lessons fit into a curriculum, leading some preservice teachers to wonder if the lessons had been taught especially for their university observation assignment. Some preservice teachers noted innovative teaching strategies as modeled in their social studies methods classes. Yet, most preservice teachers reported the continuing absence of exciting, student-centered social studies lessons reflective of their own elementary school experiences.


How Can We Improve Competence and Confidence?

In summary, the emerging trends from the preservice teachersí survey responses, personal reflections, and classroom observations identified six domains defining content competence and teaching confidence. The six domains encompassing textbooks, resources, instructional strategies, cultural competency, assessment, and dedication provide insights for the influences of modeling effective social studies instruction. Elementary school teachers, administrators, teacher educators, and field supervisors should carefully examine their own beliefs and practices assessing quality, appropriateness, availability, frequency, and relevance. Learners at all ages and stages are establishing their own understanding and expectations of effective instruction.

The importance for elementary school teachers to learn, value, and model effective social studies instruction cannot be over-emphasized.8 Preservice teachers were once elementary school students themselves, and that’s when they began observing the teaching/learning process. Their early experiences combine with the methods, modeling, and mentoring provided them during their university teacher education program (in methods classes and field experiences). Guidance and support from university field supervisors, mentor teachers, and elementary school administrators can help provide the content competence and teaching confidence that is needed in our social studies teachers. As elementary school teachers increase their levels of expertise in teaching and modeling social studies instruction effectively, we hope that they will ensure the success of future generations of competent and confident teachers.



1. Joan Shaughnessy and Tom M. Haladyna, ìResearch on Student Attitude toward Social Studies,î Social Education 49 no. 8 (1985): 692-695; E. W. Hootstein, ìMotivational Strategies of Middle School Social Studies Teachers,î Social Education 59, no. 1 (1995): 23-26.

2. M. C. Schug, ìWhy Teach Social Studies? Interviews with Elementary Teachers,î The Social Studies 80, no. 2 (1989): 73-77.

3. J. L. Barth, J. M. Spencer, and R. Shepherd. ìSocial Studies: A Field at Risk.î Social Education 57, no. 6 (1993): 315-317.

4. J. Alleman, and J. Brophy, ìIs Curriculum Integration a Boon or a Threat to Social Studies?î Social Education 57, no. 6, (1993): 287-291.

5. V. Atwood, ed., Elementary School Social Studies: Research as a Guide to Practice (Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1991); W. C. Parker, Renewing the Social Studies Curriculum (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1991).

6. M. E. McGuire, ìTeacher Education: Some Current Challenges,î Social Education 60, no. 2 (1996): 89-94.

7. R. Mills, ìElementary Teachersí Views of the Role of Social Studies Education at the Elementary Level,î Social Studies Education 109, no. 1 (1988): 82-86.

8. D. G. Olsen, ìLess Can be ëMoreí in the Promotion of Thinking,î Social Education 59, no. 3 (1995): 130-134; Barth, Spencer, and Shepherd; Hootstein.


Nancy P. Gallavan is an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. LeAnn G. Putney is an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in the Department of Educational Psychology. Diane Brantley is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at California State University, Los Angles.