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Social Studies in the Middle School

A Report of the Task Force on Social Studies in the Middle School
Approved by NCSS Board of Directors, January 1991

Tedd Levy, Chair, Norwalk, Connecticut; Pat Nickell, Vice Chair, Lexington, Kentucky; Peggy Altoff, Baltimore, Maryland; Loretta Hannum, Williamsburg, Virginia; Alan Haskvitz, Alta Loma, California; Mel Miller, Washington, Michigan; Richard Moulden, Bellevue, Washington


Today's young people are a source of growing social and academic concern. According to the Carnegie Corporation, nearly half of some 28 million adolescents in the United States between the ages of ten and seventeen are moderately or extremely vulnerable to "multiple high-risk behaviors" such as school failure, drugs and alcohol, unsafe sex, and violence that puts their future in serious jeopardy. Although these problems exist in all classes and groups, they are intensified by the decline in harmonious two-parent families, economic and social adversity, most pronounced in urban areas, and among the poor and minorities.

The problems of young adolescents and the changing nature of society are causing a reexamination of education and, in particular, the education of young people at the middle level.

Until the early 1900s, formal education for the vast majority of young people ended at the level we now refer to as the middle school. Only in this century has specific attention been given to the education of youngsters at this level and only in the latter half of the 1900s has this been seen as an important period of transition calling for unique educational goals and practices.

This report by the Task Force on Social Studies in the Middle School will focus attention on the young adolescent learner and provide direction for developing appropriate and meaningful social studies instruction for the middle school. We encourage members of National Council for the Social Studies to share their knowledge and skills about middle school age children and thereby contribute toward advancing social studies education and responsible citizenship among young people.

Social Studies and Schools in the Middle

We have adapted a definition useful for social studies for middle level education from Barr, Barth, and Shermis (1977) that sets forth the purpose of the program while addressing the needs of students: the social studies curriculum is an integration of experience and knowledge about human endeavors and human relations designed to foster informed and ethical participation in society.

At the middle level, educators have given considerable attention to issues involving the organization of the school and to the methods of instruction although they have largely ignored many curriculum concerns. School organizational arrangements at the middle level appear to affect the social studies curriculum, but the most recent research indicates that the dominant structure remains rooted in grade-based courses focusing on Western civilization, world cultures, and U.S. history. (Lengel and Superka 1982).

Many public schools and social studies educators have been conservative forces in American education, making it difficult to modify a strongly established curriculum and commonly accepted instructional strategies.

During the 1960s and 1970s the impetus for change often came from curriculum development centers and their allied publishers. More recent proposals for change have come from a wider range of institutions, including professional organizations, government agencies, private foundations, interest groups and individuals. Although well-intentioned, many of these efforts have neglected to give adequate attention to the distinctive nature of the young adolescent or the educational organization in the middle.

Students and Schools in the Middle

During the early twentieth century, adolescence gained recognition as a unique period of human development (Kett 1977). More recently, developmental psychologists have defined the beginning of adolescence as those years immediately preceding and including the onset of puberty. Commonly called "early adolescence," "emerging adolescence," or "young adolescence," the age range generally extends from ten to fifteen years. Donald Eichhorn (1966) coined the term "transescent," which he defined as follows:

The transescent is an individual in the stage of development which begins prior to the onset of puberty and extends through the early stages of adolescence. Since puberty does not occur for all precisely at the same chronological age in human development, the transescent designation is based on the many physical, social, emotional, and intellectual changes that appear prior to the puberty cycle to the time in which the body gains a practical degree of stabilization over these complex pubescent changes.

Junior high schools established in the early twentieth century gave some attention to developmental needs of youngsters, but it was essentially a high school at a lower level. During the 1960s, in response to growing criticisms of the junior high school, increasingly early maturation rates for youngsters, and promises of a smooth transition to high school, a new middle school model began to emerge. This model typically called for a grade 6-8 configuration with variations most often including grades 5-8, 5-7, and 7-8.

Schools at the middle level-regardless of the grade configuration-are characterized as giving attention to the unique developmental needs of young adolescents. Middle schools that address these needs have the potential to influence significantly the growth of their students (Carnegie 1989). Yet, "only occasionally does one find social studies curriculum based on developmental insights" (Davis 1987).

In general, research has identified a number of characteristics of early adolescents that have a direct relationship to the design of curriculum and selection of appropriate instructional strategies for the social studies. The following list draws largely from the work of Alexander and George (The Exemplary Middle School, 1981), Eichhorn (The Middle School, _1966), Wiles and Bondi (_The Essential Middle School, 1986), and findings reported by the Carnegie Council (Carnegie Quarterly, Winter/Spring 1990).


  • Physical changes may affect the development of self-esteem and a sense of identity.

  • Hormonal imbalances lead to mood swings and varied metabolic function, which cause pronounced fluctuations in energy levels ranging from lethargy to hyperactivity.


  • The quest for independence and self-identity creates unique emotional needs for this age, including the need for a sense of competence and intimacy with others. Adolescents waver between the desire for independence and the need for regulation and reassurance from adults.

  • A constant struggle exists between wishing to be seen as unique and wanting to conform to group norms. Adolescents often surrender individuality to the desire for acceptance by peers that leads to an inordinate concern with appearance and social efficacy.

  • The focus of social life changes from family to friends. Previously accepted values may be questioned. Conformity to peer group norms may run counter to the social expectations of adults. Affirmation and security are sought through the peer group. Group loyalty and acceptance may supersede good judgment and care and concern for others, leading to cruel and indifferent treatment of outsiders.

  • The student's assessment of personal self-worth is extremely fragile. Self-esteem is directly influenced by how well adolescents feel they perform in areas of importance: appearance, scholastic competence, athletic competence, and behavior.

  • Adolescents believe that they uniquely experience thoughts and feelings. They feel that no one else understands them or the intensity of their experiences.

  • The adolescent conscience becomes increasingly alert to the actions and values of adults and registers disappointment over perceived imperfections. A sense of ethics and altruism is developing with corresponding concern for those wronged or oppressed, for fairness, and for the pursuit of high ideals.


  • Cognitive development is related to biological maturation and will therefore show great variation even among a small group of early adolescents.

  • A great deal of curiosity emerges about the world, its peoples, and life in general. The young adolescent exhibits a vivid imagination and a wide range of interests.

  • The early adolescent begins the transition from concrete to abstract thinking. The attention span increases and students can begin to think about their own thinking. Talents can develop rapidly during this period, as can the aptitude for critical thinking and decision making.

Social Studies Curriculum: Unifying Motifs

The characteristics of middle level learners, noted earlier, can be organized in such a way that four basic themes emerge. To avoid confusion with the term "theme," often used in middle school literature to refer to organizers for interdisciplinary instruction, we shall refer to these as motifs.

These four motifs are categories of concern shared by individuals and the larger society. They should function throughout the program to personalize academic instruction and increase its relevance to the student and connection to societal imperatives. They are concerns which, if addressed positively at the individual level, can result in improved social conditions.

With the adoption of these motifs, the characteristics of the student become the driving force behind the planning, implementation, and evaluation of the program.

_1. Concern with self: development of self-esteem and a strong sense of identity _

The personal concerns of middle school students are so powerful that teachers must strongly consider them if meaningful instruction is to occur. The teacher and the curriculum can address the concerns related to self-esteem, physical growth and change, and relations with peers, and other developmental qualities within the context of history, culture, the humanities, and parts of the social studies program.

Appropriate teaching strategies include:

  • use of interest inventories, journals, independent research, student diaries and letters, biographies, performances and presentations, and portfolios.

Anticipated student outcomes include:

  • acquisition of appropriate skills and attitudes to be a lifelong learner;

  • ability to communicate effectively;

  • competence in conducting activities necessary for research, critical thinking, and problem solving;

  • ability to recognize and capitalize upon the relationships between school subjects, as well as integrate experiences with academic knowledge;

  • awareness and use of primary sources

2. Concern for right and wrong: development of ethics

Ethics has undoubtedly become a major concern in our nation today. Business and government have been tarnished especially by lapses in ethical behavior. Meanwhile, in this environment, young adolescents are forming the personal standards, values, and beliefs that will guide their decisions and actions for life, and thus influence our society. The middle school is the last best place to provide a strong sense of right and wrong to guide students toward problem solving and decision making that integrate the highest ethical standards.

Appropriate teaching strategies include:

use of role playing, simulations, interviews, mock trials, case studies, opportunities for class governance, debates, discussion of controversial issues, and prejudice reduction activities.

Anticipated student outcomes include:

  • commitment to democratic values and ethical standards;

  • ability to think critically and to analyze one's own thoughts and actions.

3. Concern for others: development of group and other-centeredness

Students learn to become responsible members of society through interactions with others. Concern for the oppressed and unfortunate is natural at this age and with nurturing can lead to a commitment of service to society. Among the most effective methods for promoting the skills and values associated with democratic citizenship is service to the school and community. Students who learn social studies content through such experiences are able to interact with people of diverse backgrounds and achieve a broad understanding of society.

Appropriate teaching strategies include:

  • school or community service, oral histories, group projects and presentations, peer tutoring, surveys and polls, media productions, cooperative learning, small group discussions.

Anticipated student outcomes include:

  • ability to function effectively as a member of a variety of political, economic, and social groups such as the family, marketplace, and the community;

  • a sense of efficacy in analyzing and participating in contemporary affairs, public policy matters, and global issues;

  • understanding of the significance of the past to one's own life and to current social issues.

4. Concern for the world: development of a global perspective

A global perspective includes the knowledge and attitudes that reflect an awareness of the pluralistic, interdependent, and changing nature of the world community. Middle level learners are developing a broad world view and the schools must engage them in examining the content and context of persisting global issues, the elements of human values and cultures, global systems, and global history.

Appropriate teaching strategies include:

  • guest speakers representing other lands, exchange programs, international pen pals, cultural programs with foreign language classes, classroom museums, culture kits, international festivals, international service projects, community-in-the-world projects, development and use of data bases, use of interactive video, computer simulations.

Anticipated student outcomes include:

  • respect for cultural diversity, knowledge of diverse cultures, and intercultural competencies;

  • understanding of and appreciation for the delicate relationship between humans and the natural world;

  • knowledge of temporal and spatial relationships and of the world as a dynamic system.

We recommend that one or more of the motifs be incorporated in each instructional unit or series of lessons or activities so that student concerns with self, ethics, others, and the world are addressed. For example, within a series on the civil rights movement, students may be asked to maintain a fictional diary; conduct oral history interviews of the 1960s or research the struggle of a civil rights activist; examine the lyrics of protest music and in a small group write and present a song to the class; or investigate existing laws to determine if any discriminate against people based on race or gender and, if appropriate, take action to change them. In this way, student needs and interests in themselves, others, ethical issues, and the larger world guide instruction toward informed and active citizenship.

NCSS Scope and Sequence Options

National Council for the Social Studies has recommended curriculum designs outlining specific scope and sequence options. At the request of its House of Delegates, it has endorsed three scope and sequence statements that provide an appropriate framework for curriculum development. Each reflects curriculum content suitable for instruction based on motifs. A summary of recommendations for grades 5-8, taken from each of these K-12 statements, follows:*

Social Studies for Citizens of a Strong and Free Nation

Grade 5: People of the Americas: The United States and its Close Neighbors

The development of the United States, its guiding principles, its diversity, and those who have made significant contributions form the core of this curriculum. In addition, students are to become familiar with the history and geography of Canada and Mexico.

Grade 6: People and Cultures: Representative World Regions

The focus is on selected peoples and cultures of the Eastern Hemisphere and Latin America representative of: (1) major geographic regions; (2) levels of economic development; (3) historical development; and (4) political and value systems.

Grade 7: A Changing World of Many Nations: A Global View

This is a continuation of the grade 6 curriculum. The content is international in scope. Emphasis on basic concepts of geography is strengthened. At least one semester devoted solely to Latin America is recommended for either grade 6 or 7.

Grade 8: Building a Strong and Free Nation: The United States

Social history and economic development devoted to the United States form the central themes of this program. Emphasis should be placed upon the personal side of history, global affairs, and international relations.

Designing a Social Studies Scope and Sequence for the 21st Century

This model does not distinguish single grade levels for middle level social studies. Rather, the developers have suggested ten broad themes and questions that each grade level cluster must address. Although every grade level should include these themes, they should be emphasized at various grade levels based on the maturity and ability of students. The themes include cultural heritage, global perspective, political and economic systems, tradition and change, social history, spatial (and environmental) relationships, social contracts, technology, peace and interdependence, and citizenship.

Specific topics appropriate to the teaching of these general themes are developed by a series of questions. For the 6-8, or middle school group, the overall topic to be addressed is "Viewing the World from Different Perspectives." Specific questions are suggested that examine regions of the earth, differing perspectives, values, life views and modes of living, and respect for others.

Social Studies within a Global Education

The global approach to the curriculum advocates the following content for grades 5-8:

Grade 5: A thematic approach to U.S. history dominates the program with special attention to concepts of interdependence, conflict, scarcity, and human rights, as well as emphasis on selected ideas that make the U.S. unique.

_Grade 6: _This level focuses on Latin America, Africa, and Asia with emphasis on the concepts of change, culture, conflict, interdependence, and development. The U.S. relationship with the developing world is examined throughout the year.

Grade 7: This level emphasizes the functions of major global systems with the first semester focused on economic systems and interdependence. A similar approach is used in the second semester to focus on political system.

Grade 8: This level begins with an analysis of basic values in U.S. society such as individual freedoms and rights, work ethic, majority rule, and equity. The second part of the program takes a similar approach to the study of non-Western traditions.

Other Curriculum Options

Various organizations and individuals have made other suggestions for the middle level social studies curriculum. A notable contribution came from the California State Department of Education with the publication of Caught in the Middle (1988) and the History-Social Science Framework (1988), both influential beyond the state. Also widely read and promoted have been the reports of the National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools, Charting a Course: Social Studies for the 21st Century (1989), the Bradley Commission's Building a History Curriculum: Guidelines for Teaching History in Schools (1988), and the Association of American Geographers' and National Council for Geographic Education's Guidelines for Geographic Education: Elementary and Secondary Schools (1984).

In addition, a small number of other agencies have developed specific middle level curriculum programs, most notably the Close Up Foundation's "Civic Achievement Award Program" for citizenship and Junior Achievement's "Project Business" for economics. A few publishers have specifically designed social studies materials or programs that reflect concern with early adolescent characteristics. We recognize that much more remains to be done and wish to encourage publishers and other organizations to devote attention to developing programs and materials specifically for students at the middle level.

Social Studies Instructional Practices

Effective social studies instruction in middle schools must be appropriate to the social-emotional needs as well as intellectual characteristics of adolescents. The role of the middle level teacher is vital in making any instructional program meaningful and the instructional practices the teacher selects are as important as content selections.

Further, the setting and climate within which meaningful social studies instruction takes place must provide a flexible but secure environment that fosters exploration, creativity, inquiry, and intellectual challenge. As a forum for democratic deliberation and action, the middle school classroom should enhance self-esteem and individual identity, be guided by the highest ethical considerations, show concern for others, and incorporate a global perspective.

Within this carefully planned setting, the following instructional practices are especially appropriate for middle level social studies:

  • Experiential learning uses concrete objects or situations from which students derive data for further thought or action. It is perhaps the single most effective vehicle for helping young adolescents make meaning out of their world. All of us learn by doing. It follows, therefore, that middle level students benefit from concrete experiences such as role playing, interviewing, community service, and similar activities in which they are able to analyze a common experience and explore ideas and values.

  • Interdisciplinary instruction relies upon interdisciplinary teams of teachers focusing upon a central theme to design instruction that draws from two or more subject areas. This widely recognized middle school practice emphasizes unifying the total instructional program. The skills and knowledge gained from study involving a variety of disciplines enhances the social studies program as well as other parts of the curriculum. Social studies topics provide a natural framework for structuring the entire middle school program and organizing the knowledge and skills from a variety of academic fields into an integrated instructional offering that considers both individual and societal needs.

  • Cooperative learning brings students of varied ability together in small groups to increase student participation and involvement in the learning process. Students take responsibility not only for their own learning, but also share the responsibility for helping other members of the group achieve instructional goals (Slavin 1987). The middle level social studies classroom is an especially appropriate place to use cooperative learning strategies. Students working with others toward a common goal draw upon their interest in the peer group that gives meaning to the relationship. A number of studies have indicated that cooperative learning enhances academic learning, fosters intergroup relations, heightens self-esteem, improves mutual concern and trust, and increases the likelihood of positive social behavior (Educational Leadership, December 1989/January 1990).

  • Heterogeneous grouping has been shown to improve overall learning although some have called grouping at the middle level "the most important unresolved issue in education" (George 1988). In a review of research on ability grouping over a sixty-year period, Slavin (1987) concluded that "almost without exception, reviews from the 1920s to the present have come to the same general conclusion: that between-class ability grouping has few if any benefits for student achievement." Further, many experienced teachers of middle level social studies are especially concerned with the negative effects that ability grouping has on underachievers and minority students in reaching their full potential.

  • Addressing controversial issues will be treated for the purposes of this report as an instructional practice, for it is not the subject matter itself as much as the inclusion of it in instruction that is important. Students at the middle level confront conflicting viewpoints, moral dilemmas, and clashes among differing values on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Meanwhile, they are seeking adventure, avenues for independent decision making, and peer acceptance. In combination, this may result in impulsive and harmful actions. Social studies teachers are remiss if they do not offer instruction that facilitates critical thinking, decision making, and problem solving-all fundamental qualities for leading a productive and purposeful life in a democracy. A judicious examination of these issues helps students integrate knowledge and skills to build a personal value system. A thoughtfully developed discussion will provide important guidance for students as they evaluate and choose between the many alternatives they face each day.

  • Performance-based assessment of learning outcomes can be most effective when student evaluations are closely linked to the program of instruction, both in terms of objectives and the tasks required. "Authentic" assessment consists of evaluation tasks that replicate the behaviors students should be able to perform in their daily lives. Typical among these are writing essays and reports, conducting research, preparing and presenting a talk, or solving a problem or a complex situation. For middle schools to adopt such an assessment program would strengthen their commitment to relevant and meaningful instruction (Wiggins 1989).

Additional Instructional Principles

Additional instructional principles are found in the various studies and curriculum proposals, including the previously mentioned Charting a Course; Building a History Curriculum; Guidelines for Geographic Education, Caught in the Middle, _and _Project 2061: Science for All Americans (1989). With modifications and additions, these principles can be applied to social studies instruction and help guide effective classroom practice for the middle level.

  • Begin with what is familiar. Learning builds upon what is familiar and interesting to students, rather than upon abstractions outside their range of experience, understanding, or knowledge.

  • Develop a historical perspective. Developing a sense of the past is an important social studies endeavor that can provide a meaningful framework for young adolescents searching for purpose and coherence in their own lives.

  • Emphasize clear communication. Clear communication requires clear thinking. Classroom opportunities to develop critical thinking are available through discussions, forums, debates, media productions and class or school publications. One's ideas are developed by trying them out with others. Personal relations, public affairs, and the demands of the media make communication skills, including listening, an essential goal for social studies instruction.

  • Offer opportunities for decision making. Students engage in a variety of activities and situations that call for decision making. Gaining control over their own learning experiences enables them to develop a sense of personal satisfaction and self-worth. Decision-making skills involving relations with others, social issues, or responses to peer group pressures contribute toward the development of skills, values, and responsibilities necessary for effective citizenship.

  • Provide a significant audience. Sharing results of student work with others provides motivation, encourages quality, reinforces learning, and can result in a sense of pride and achievement. This can be accomplished by having students display projects, publish writing, make presentations, or give performances in their own or other classes, other schools, for parents or other adults, or for the general public.

  • Expand the classroom into the community. Encourage students to take advantage of all available community resources-libraries, museums, government, businesses, knowledgeable individuals-to advance their education. Moreover, through community service, students can contribute to their society while developing an appreciation for human dignity and diversity, a respect for rights and responsibilities, and a sense of fellowship and social justice.


The growing concern over the personal and social behaviors of young adolescents, along with their academic effort and achievement, requires increased attention to the educational program at the middle level. Many social studies and other middle level programs need to be reexamined and, in many cases, thoroughly rethought and substantially revised. To effect constructive change, these programs must respond to the unique developmental needs of youth at the middle level to explore, experience, and develop a purposeful sense of the world. At the same time, these programs must respond to the need for preparing competent and compassionate citizens of a democracy.

Social studies educators face an important challenge and will need to act energetically and creatively for the future of our students and of our society.

Selected Resources


Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (125 North West Street, Alexandria, VA 22314; Tel. [703] 549-9110).

Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development (11 Dupont Circle, NW, Washington, DC 20036; Tel. [202] 265-9080).

Center for Early Adolescence (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Suite 223, Carr Mill Mall, Carrboro, NC 27510; Tel. [919] 966-1148).

Center for Research on Elementary and Middle Schools (The Johns Hopkins University, 3505 North Charles Street, Baltimore, MD 21218).

Lilly Endowment (2801 North Meridian Street, Box 88068, Indianapolis, Indiana 46208).

National Association of Elementary School Principals (1615 Duke Street, Alexandria, VA 22314; Tel. [703] 684-3345).

National Association of Secondary School Principals, The (1904 Association Drive, Reston, VA 22091; Tel. [703] 860-0200).

National Council for the Social Studies (3501 Newark St., NW, Washington, DC 20016; Tel. [202] 966-7840).

National Middle School Association (4807 Evanswood Drive, Columbus, OH 43229; Tel. [614] 848-8211).

New England League of Middle Schools (15 Summer Street, Rowley, MA 01969; Tel. [508] 948-7391).


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"Scope and Sequence: Alternatives for Social Studies." Social Education 50 (November/December 1986): 484-542.

7-12 Geography: Themes, Key Ideas, and Learning Opportunities. Washington, D.C.: Geographic Education National Implementation Project, 1989.

Shaver, James P. "Social Studies: The Need for Redefinition." In Voices of Social Education, 1937-1987, edited by Daniel Roselle. New York: Macmillan, 1987: 113-123.

Shaver, James P., O. L. Davis, and Suzanne M. Helburn. What are the Needs in Precollege Science, Mathematics, and Social Science Education? Views from the Field. Washington, D.C.: National Science Foundation, 1979.

Slavin, Robert E. "Ability Grouping and Student Achievement in Elementary Schools: A Best Evidence Synthesis." Review of Educational Research (Fall 1987).

"Social Studies for Early Childhood and Elementary School Children Preparing for the 21st Century." Social Education 53 (January 1989): 14-23.

Stevenson, Chris. Teachers As Inquirers: Strategies for Learning with and about Early Adolescents. Columbus, Ohio: National Middle School Association, 1986.

Swaim, J., et al. In Search of Excellence: The National Reports-Implications for Middle Schools. Columbus, Ohio: National Middle School Association, 1984.

"The New Teens: What Makes Them Different." Newsweek Special Edition, Summer/Fall 1990.

Toepfer, Conrad. "What to Know About Young Adolescents." Social Education 52 (February 1988): 110-112.

Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century. New York: Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1989.

Van Hoose, Hohn, and David Strahan. Young Adolescent Development and School Practices: Promoting Harmony. Columbus, Ohio: National Middle School Association, 1988.

Vars, Gordon F. Interdisciplinary Teaching in the Middle Grades. Columbus, Ohio: National Middle School Association, 1987.

Wiles, Jon, and Joseph Bondi. The Essential Middle School. Tampa, Fla.: Wiles Bondi and Associates, Inc., 1986.

  • For a more complete and useful overview, readers should consult the original scope and sequence statements, "Designing a Social Studies Scope and Sequence for the 21st Century," Social Education, November/December 1986, pp. 484-542, and Social Studies Curriculum Planning Resources. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company for NCSS, 1990.

(C)1991 National Council for the Social Studies.

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