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National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies: Executive Summary

Standards Main Page
Executive Summary
Thematic Strands


…the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence. Within the school program, social studies provides coordinated, systematic study drawing upon such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics, and natural sciences. The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world. 1

The aim of social studies is the promotion of civic competence—the knowledge, intellectual processes, and democratic dispositions required of students to be active and engaged participants in public life. By making civic competence a central aim, NCSS emphasizes the importance of educating students who are committed to the ideas and values of democracy. Civic competence rests on this commitment to democratic values, and requires that citizens have the ability to use their knowledge about their community, nation, and world; to apply inquiry processes; and to employ skills of data collection and analysis, collaboration, decision-making, and problem-solving. Young people who are knowledgeable, skillful, and committed to democracy are necessary to sustaining and improving our democratic way of life, and participating as members of a global community.

The curriculum standards for social studies provide a framework for professional deliberation and planning about what should occur in a social studies program in grades pre-K through 12. National Council for the Social Studies first published national curriculum standards in 1994. Since then, the social studies standards have been widely and successfully used as a framework for teachers, schools, districts, states, and other nations as a tool for curriculum alignment and development. However, much has changed in the world and in education since the original curriculum standards were published. These revised standards reflect a desire to continue and build upon the expectations established in the original standards for effective social studies in the grades from pre-K through 12. This revision incorporates current research and suggestions for improvement from many experienced practitioners.

The revised standards continue to be focused on ten themes, like the original standards. These themes are outlined in Chapter 2. They represent a way of categorizing knowledge about the human experience, and they constitute the organizing strands that should thread through a social studies program, from grades pre-K through 12, as appropriate at each level.

The ten themes are:

Through the study of culture and cultural diversity, learners understand how human beings create, learn, share, and adapt to culture, and appreciate the role of culture in shaping their lives and society, as well the lives and societies of others. In schools, this theme typically appears in units and courses dealing with geography, history, sociology, and anthropology, as well as multicultural topics across the curriculum.

Through the study of the past and its legacy, learners examine the institutions, values, and beliefs of people in the past, acquire skills in historical inquiry and interpretation, and gain an understanding of how important historical events and developments have shaped the modern world. This theme appears in courses in history, as well as in other social studies courses for which knowledge of the past is important.

This theme helps learners to develop their spatial views and perspectives of the world, to understand where people, places, and resources are located and why they are there, and to explore the relationship between human beings and the environment. In schools, this theme typically appears in courses dealing with geography and area studies, but it is also important for the study of the geographical dimension of other social studies subjects.

Personal identity is shaped by family, peers, culture, and institutional influences. Through this theme, students examine the factors that influence an individual’s personal identity, development, and actions. This theme typically appears in courses and units dealing with psychology, anthropology, and sociology.

Institutions such as families and civic, educational, governmental, and religious organizations, exert a major influence on people’s lives. This theme allows students to understand how institutions are formed, maintained, and changed, and to examine their influence. In schools, this theme typically appears in units and courses dealing with sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science, and history.

One essential component of education for citizenship is an understanding of the historical development and contemporary forms of power, authority, and governance. Through this theme, learners become familiar with the purposes and functions of government, the scope and limits of authority, and the differences between democratic and non-democratic political systems. In schools, this theme typically appears in units and courses dealing with government, history, civics, law, politics, and other social sciences.

This theme provides for the study of how people organize for the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services, and prepares students for the study of domestic and global economic issues. In schools, this theme typically appears in units and courses dealing with economic concepts and issues, though it is also important for the study of the economic dimension of other social studies subjects.

By exploring the relationships among science, technology, and society, students develop an understanding of past and present advances in science and technology and their impact. This theme appears in a variety of social studies courses, including history, geography, economics, civics, and government.

NewStandardDots_09.gifGLOBAL CONNECTIONS
The realities of global interdependence require an understanding of the increasingly important and diverse global connections among world societies. This theme prepares students to study issues arising from globalization. It typically appears in units or courses dealing with geography, culture, economics, history, political science, government, and technology.

An understanding of civic ideals and practices is critical to full participation in society and is an essential component of education for citizenship. This theme enables students to learn about the rights and responsibilities of citizens of a democracy, and to appreciate the importance of active citizenship. In schools, the theme typically appears in units or courses dealing with civics, history, political science, cultural anthropology, and fields such as global studies, law-related education, and the humanities.

The themes are interrelated, and a school course in a social studies discipline is likely to touch on more than one theme. For example, the use of the NCSS standards might support a plan to teach about the topic of the U.S. Civil War by drawing on three different themes: Theme 2 (TIME, CONTINUITY, AND CHANGE); Theme 3 (PEOPLE, PLACES, AND ENVIRONMENTS); and Theme 10 (CIVIC IDEALS AND PRACTICES).

Since standards have been developed both in social studies and in many of the individual disciplines that are integral to social studies, the question arises: What is the relationship among these various sets of standards? The answer is that the social studies standards address overall curriculum design and comprehensive student learning expectations, while state standards and the national content standards for individual disciplines (e.g., history, civics and government, geography, economics, and psychology) provide a range of specific content through which student learning expectations can be accomplished. The NCSS curriculum standards offer a set of principles by which content can be selected and organized to build a viable, valid, and defensible social studies curriculum for grades from pre-K through 12. They provide the necessary framework for the implementation of content standards. In the example above, which illustrates the use of the NCSS standards to teach about the U.S. Civil War, national history standards and state standards could be used to identify specific content related to the topic of the U.S. Civil War.

The revised standards offer a sharper focus than the original standards on:
arrow Purposes
Questions for Exploration
arrow Knowledge: what learners need to understand
arrow Processes: what learners will be capable of doing
arrow Products: how learners demonstrate understanding

Chapter 3 outlines the revised framework at the different sets of grade levels—Early Grades (pre-K through 4); Middle Grades (5-8); and High School (9-12). The chapter presents the purposes of each of the ten themes, offers key questions for exploration that are related to the theme, and identifies what learners need to understand at the different levels. Students are expected to demonstrate the skills and intellectual processes associated with each theme, and to show their understanding through specific products that the teacher will assess.

The remaining chapters present learning expectations for each set of grade levels: Early Grades (Chapter 4), Middle Grades (Chapter 5), and High School Grades (Chapter 6). The foundation of each of these three chapters is the set of purposes, questions, knowledge, processes, and products outlined in Chapter 3 for each of the ten themes. Each chapter also contains snapshots of class activities for each theme at an appropriate grade level. These Snapshots of Practice provide educators with images of how the standards might look when enacted in classrooms. Typically, a Snapshot illustrates a particular theme and one or more learning expectations; however, the Snapshot may also touch on other related themes and learning expectations. For example, a lesson focused on the theme of TIME, CONTINUITY, AND CHANGE in a world history class dealing with early river valley civilizations would certainly engage the theme of PEOPLE, PLACES, AND ENVIRONMENTS as well as that of TIME, CONTINUITY, AND CHANGE. These Snapshots also suggest ways in which the learning expectations shape practice, emphasize skills and strategies, and provide examples of both ongoing and culminating assessment.

For social studies to perform its mission of promoting civic competence, students need both to learn a body of knowledge, and to be able to think flexibly and act responsibly to address civic issues in a diverse and interdependent world. The national curriculum standards for social studies represent educators’ best thinking about the framework needed to educate young people for the challenges of citizenship.


  1. The definition was officially adopted by National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) in 1992. See National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: NCSS, 1994): 3.
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