Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the Greater Metropolitan New York Social Studies Conference. This is the annual conference of the Association of Teachers of Social Studies/United Federation of Teachers (ATSS/UFT), our affiliated council which serves educators in the New York City Department of Education. I have attended this conference for many years as a social studies curriculum specialist for the New York State Education Department and later as the President of the New York State Council for the Social Studies. It was a treat to return to my home state in my new capacity to learn from New York City educators –and to share our NCSS 2016 annual research findings in a session titled “What Our Students Have to Say About Social Studies: The State of the Social Studies in 2017.”
Using our survey data, I shared the top academic skills that over 52,000 students nationwide reported to gain through their social studies classes:
- Ability to form and support opinions. (65%)
- Critical thinking. (61%)
- Ability to evaluate concepts/ideas. (57%)
- Reading comprehension skills. (55%)
- Ability to navigate online and text sources to find information. (53%)
- Ability to present information in a clear and concise manner. (44%)
Students could choose more than one academic skill in their responses. These findings led to a discussion on the continued balance of skills with content knowledge during instruction. We want students to engage in meaningful inquiry by asking and answering questions about the world around them. We also want to ensure students have a solid background in content and concepts to enable them to discern between sources of evidence and gain academic skills like those above.
One discussion that struck me was a suggestion that social studies certification could become content-specific in addition to generic. Just as many states have separate certifications in science (e.g., Chemistry, Physics), one thought was whether teaching certification in specific social studies subjects (e.g., Civics, Geography, Economics, History) would bring deeper context expertise to the classroom. It’s an interesting notion, and it would impact any state’s education regulations for instructional time, teaching certification, data reporting, assessments….to name a few things! The idea (for example) that a Geography major, certified in Geography Education and hired to teach only Geography courses, would support deeper geographical literacy skills through a richer background in Geography content is a debate.
Our survey data revealed that History is the social studies course type that is most commonly offered in high schools – 38% report the availability of four or more history courses. Almost 90% of educators report two or more history classes are required in their high schools. Only one course is offered in Civics (67%), Economics (71%) and Geography (68%), and only one course is required (94%, 91%, and 67% respectively). It would be a challenge to hire a Geography-certified teacher just for one course, unless a school sought candidates with certifications in other social studies subjects – or increased the number of pure Geography courses. In History, there’s the added challenge of “which history?” do we certify? Would we want separate certifications for U.S. History and World History? Would European History fall under World History? Then there’s the question of whether a content-specific approach would miss the critical intersections between disciplines and multiple literacies that “the social studies” together can provide.
Our survey findings did not address the depth of content knowledge that students gain from their social studies experience. Our students noted the following civic benefits of their social studies coursework:
- Gaining knowledge of world events. (83%)
- Understanding about their roles as citizens. (54%)
- Ability to understand politics. (48%)
- Understanding related to career options and the economy. (48%)
It’s important to note that so many students gain knowledge of world events and understanding in related areas through social studies coursework. Future research questions could determine discreet content knowledge that is considered effective in specific types of courses. Could specific content and concepts be prioritized on a scale or rubric so we can better map the extent to which they are a foundation for the academic skills our students clearly gain in social studies?
As always, I left the GMNY conference learning from other educators. This year, I was reminded that the balance between knowledge and understanding versus analysis and inquiry is not an “either-or” proposition. We provide students with access to a whole world of information, and the tools to use that information responsibly for drawing conclusions and taking informed action. We started a good conversation last weekend, and I think we shared a commitment to keep learning from our students, and use their perspectives to shape the future of our profession. If we know social studies provides our students with essential academic skills, how do we “know what students know” to support their engagement in social science inquiry?