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National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies: Introduction

Standards Main Page
Executive Summary
Thematic Strands

NATIONAL COUNCIL FOR THE SOCIAL STUDIES (NCSS) 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 these curriculum standards were published. This revision aims to provide a framework for teaching, learning, and assessment in social studies that includes a sharper articulation of curriculum objectives, and reflects greater consistency across the different sections of the document. It incorporates current research and suggestions for improvement from many experienced practitioners. 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.

The approach originally taken in these curriculum standards has been well received in the United States and internationally; therefore, while the document has been revised and updated, it retains the same organization around major themes basic to social studies learning. As in the original document, the framework moves beyond any single approach to teaching and learning and promotes much more than the transmission of knowledge alone. These updated standards retain the central emphasis of the original document on supporting students to become active participants in the learning process.

What Is Social Studies and Why Is It Important?
National Council for the Social Studies, the largest professional association for social studies educators in the world, defines social studies as:

…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. Although civic competence is not the only responsibility of social studies nor is it exclusive to the field, it is more central to social studies than to any other subject area in schools. By making civic competence a central aim, NCSS has long recognized 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 the abilities to use knowledge about one’s community, nation, and world; apply inquiry processes; and 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 civic mission of social studies demands the inclusion of all students—addressing cultural, linguistic, and learning diversity that includes similarities and differences based on race, ethnicity, language, religion, gender, sexual orientation, exceptional learning needs, and other educationally and personally significant characteristics of learners. Diversity among learners embodies the democratic goal of embracing pluralism to make social studies classrooms laboratories of democracy.

In democratic classrooms and nations, deep understanding of civic issues—such as immigration, economic problems, and foreign policy—involves several disciplines. Social studies marshals the disciplines to this civic task in various forms. These important issues can be taught in one class, often designated “social studies,” that integrates two or more disciplines. On the other hand, issues can also be taught in separate discipline-based classes (e.g., history or geography). These standards are intended to be useful regardless of organizational or instructional approach (for example, a problem-solving approach, an approach centered on controversial issues, a discipline-based approach, or some combination of approaches). Specific decisions about curriculum organization are best made at the local level. To this end, the standards provide a framework for effective social studies within various curricular perspectives.

What is the Purpose of the National Curriculum Standards?
The NCSS curriculum standards provide a framework for professional deliberation and planning about what should occur in a social studies program in grades pre-K through 12. The framework provides ten themes that represent a way of organizing knowledge about the human experience in the world. The learning expectations, at early, middle, and high school levels, describe purposes, knowledge, and intellectual processes that students should exhibit in student products (both within and beyond classrooms) as the result of the social studies curriculum. These curriculum standards represent a holistic lens through which to view disciplinary content standards and state standards, as well as other curriculum planning documents. They provide the framework needed to educate students for the challenges of citizenship in a democracy.

The Ten Themes are organizing strands for social studies programs. The ten themes are:


The themes represent strands that should thread through a social studies program, from grades pre-K through 12, as appropriate at each level. While at some grades and for some courses, specific themes will be more dominant than others, all the themes are highly interrelated. To understand culture (Theme 1), for example, students also need to understand the theme of time, continuity, and change (Theme 2); the relationships between people, places, and environments (Theme 3); and the role of civic ideals and practices (Theme 10). To understand power, authority, and governance (Theme 6), students need to understand different cultures (Theme 1); the relationships between people, places, and environments (Theme 3); and the interconnections among individuals, groups, and institutions (Theme 5). History is not confined to TIME, CONTINUITY, AND CHANGE (Theme 2) because historical knowledge contributes to the understanding of all the other themes; similarly, geographic skills and knowledge can be found in more than (Theme 3).

The thematic strands draw from all the social science disciplines and other related disciplines and fields of study to provide a framework for social studies curriculum design and development. The themes provide a basis from which social studies educators can more fully develop their programs by consulting the details of national content standards developed for history, geography, civics, economics, psychology, and other fields,2 as well as content standards developed by their states. Thus, the NCSS social studies curriculum standards serve as the organizing basis for any social studies program in grades pre-K through 12. Content standards for the disciplines, as well as other standards, such as those for instructional technology,3 provide additional detail for curriculum design and development.

The Learning Expectations provide illustrations of what students learn at each level in the social studies curriculum. The language of the Learning Expectations is aimed at teachers and seeks to capture the expectations of over-arching, long-range outcomes. At each level (early years, middle, and high school), the Learning Expectations present key questions for exploration related to each theme.* The Learning Expectations also provide illustrations of the types of purposes, knowledge, and intellectual processes that students should demonstrate in student products. The purposes identify the reasons why it is important to study each theme. Learners build knowledge as they work to integrate new information into existing cognitive constructs, and engage in processes that develop their abilities to think, reason, conduct research and attain understanding as they encounter new concepts, principles, and issues. An appendix highlights Essential Social Studies Skills and Strategies (see pages 163-166) for learners. Students represent what they learn in products that demonstrate their ability to use information accurately, and that reflect the thinking and research skills acquired in the process of learning. Students should learn both to conceive and implement self-directed projects and to participate in group projects. The development of the writing skills of students is an important objective of the products, which also include visual presentations. As a whole, the standards are a framework for education for citizenship in a democracy, and provide students with the democratic dispositions, values, and attitudes needed for civic engagement.

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 Learning Expectations shape practice, emphasize skills and strategies, and provide examples of both ongoing and culminating assessment.

Who Can Use the Social Studies Standards?
The social studies curriculum standards offer educators, parents, and policymakers the essential conceptual framework for curriculum design and development to prepare informed and active citizens. The standards represent the framework for professional deliberation and planning of the social studies curriculum for grades from pre-K through 12. They address overall curriculum development; while specific discipline-based content standards serve as guides for specific content that fits within this framework. Classroom teachers, teacher educators, and state, district, and school administrators can use this document as a starting point for the systematic design and development of an effective social studies curriculum for grades from pre-K through 12.

State governments and departments of education can use the standards to:
Review and evaluate current state curriculum guidelines or frameworks;
Guide standards-based education by clarifying long-range goals and expectations; and
Develop a state curriculum framework that focuses both on short-range content goals and long-range social studies goals.

School districts and schools can use the standards to:
arrow Review and evaluate current social studies curriculum with a view toward long-range goals;
arrow Provide a framework for pre-K-12 curriculum development;

**Almost all of these Snapshots were crafted by the Task Force members, or (in the case of Snapshots reproduced from the earlier standards) by members of the Task Force that developed the standards published in 1994. The basis for the creation of Snapshots has been the personal experiences of members of the Task Forces as teachers, teacher educators, and supervisors. The Snapshots are designed to reflect the various ways in which performance indicators can be used in actual practice.

arrow Provide ideas for instruction and assessment; and
arrow Serve as the basis for professional development experiences.

Individual teachers can use the standards to:
arrow Evaluate current curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices;
arrow Provide learning expectations for units and courses that are consistent with long-range social studies goals within and across grade levels; and
arrow Acquire ideas and examples for alignment of learning expectations, instruction, and assessment.

Teacher educators can use the standards to:
arrow Guide the development of pre-service and in-service teacher education programs and courses;
arrow Provide professional support for the advocacy of social studies;
arrow Introduce pre-service and in-service teachers to the nature and purpose of social studies;
arrow Enable pre-service and in-service teachers to plan instruction consistent with long-range purposes of social studies; and
arrow Assess instructional planning and supervise the teaching of pre-service and in-service teachers.

Parents and community members can use the standards to:
arrow Understand how social studies develops civic competence for the benefit of both the individual and society;
arrow Advocate for social studies teaching and learning in grades from pre-K through 12;
arrow Assess the quality of social studies education in local school districts; and
arrow Assess children’s development as social studies learners.

The publications of National Council for the Social Studies, including its journals Social Education and Social Studies and the Young Learner (for grades K-6), as well as books, regularly include lesson plans and other guidelines for implementing the social studies standards. A video library providing snapshots of the social studies standards in actual classrooms and linked to standards themes, which was produced by WGBH Educational Foundation, can be accessed at the Annenberg Media website at

How Do Content Standards Differ from Curriculum Standards? What is the Relationship Between Them?
Content standards (e.g., standards for civics, history, economics, geography, and psychology) provide a detailed description of content and methodology considered central to a specific discipline by experts, including educators, in that discipline. The NCSS curriculum standards instead provide 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 are not a substitute for content standards, but instead provide the necessary framework for the implementation of content standards. They address issues that are broader and deeper than the identification of content specific to a particular discipline. The ten themes and their elaboration identify the desirable range of social studies programs. The detailed descriptions of purposes, knowledge, processes, and products identify the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that social studies programs should provide students as part of their education for citizenship. The social studies curriculum standards should remind curriculum developers and others of the overarching purposes of social studies programs in grades pre-K through 12: 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.

Since standards have been developed both in social studies and in many of the individual disciplines that are integral to social studies, one might ask: 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)4 provide a range of specific content through which student learning expectations can be accomplished. 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. National history standards and state standards could be used to identify specific content related to the topic of the U.S. Civil War.

The civic mission of social studies requires more than the acquisition of content. Since social studies has as its primary goal the development of a democratic citizenry, the experiences students have in their social studies classrooms should enable learners to engage in civic discourse and problem-solving, and to take informed civic action. The national curriculum standards for social studies present purposes worth caring about, processes worth engaging in, and knowledge worth learning. They provide the essential 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.
  2. For national history standards, see National Center for History in the Schools (NCHS), National Standards for History: Basic Edition (Los Angeles: National Center for History in the Schools, 1996); information is available at the NCHS website at For national geography standards, see Geography Education Standards Project, Geography for Life: National Geography Standards (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Research and Exploration, 1994); information is available at For national standards in economics, see Council for Economic Education (formerly National Council on Economic Education), Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics (New York: National Council on Economic Education, 1997); information is available at For psychology, high school psychology content standards are included in the American Psychological Association’s national standards for high school psychology curricula. See American Psychological Association, National Standards for High School Psychology Curricula (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2005); information is available at
  3. National Educational Technology Standards have been published by the International Society for Technology in Education, Washington, D.C. These standards and regular updates can be accessed at
  4. See note 2 above.
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