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President Heafner's Message: "Agency, Advocacy, Activism: Action for Social Studies"

In the fall of 2018, the NCSS Board of Directors created a new vision for the association, A world in which all students are educated and inspired for lifelong inquiry and informed civic action. To achieve this vision, it is imperative that we consider our shifting educational context.  In an era of activist voters, rising fear, anger, and isolation, issues-focus advocacy, purpose-driven engagement, digital civic spaces, and globally diverse interests, the ecology of social studies is changing. In the spirit of democracy and honoring the champions of human rights, civility, diversity, equality, inclusion, and justice, we must recognize the critical role social studies educators need to embrace in humanizing the curriculum, educating for empathy and action, and empowering children and youth agency, advocacy, and activism. The demographic landscape continues to shift as its racial and ethnic composition is fueled by metropolitan urbanization. This shift in the nation’s racial and ethnic makeup poses challenges for the American public schools and the society at large which require a different response from the field. What is at stake are the underlying values that define the purpose of social studies: What defines American thought and action? What can students take pride in? Who makes up a nation? How are refugees or immigrants part of a nation? Who can be called a citizen?

In 1998, members asked if social studies can be a national leader on matters of race (Pang, Rivera, & Gillette, 1998).  Approximately twenty years later, NCSS has not undertaken an intentional look at its curricular content, publications, structure, operations, membership or underlying purpose in an effort to address matters of racial diversity, equity, and inclusion. NCSS needs to intentionally examine current organizational practices and structures from a race equity approach while pushing the social studies field in a direction to more adequately serve and lead in national conversations on race.  Social studies, more than any other subject area, has the capacity to reveal the structural racism, inequality, and exclusion that endure in U.S. society, and are deeply rooted in our nation’s history and perpetuated through policies, practices, attitudes, and cultural messages. Critical inquiry by social studies educators can initiate a transformative understanding of future citizens that is foundational to shifting mindsets and promoting the culture of equity and inclusion.   

Our land acknowledgement at the 99th Annual Conference is one of many ways we can lead in reconceptualizing our ideological underpinnings. This year we opened our 2019 NCSS/NCGE/TCSS Annual Conference by recognizing that we gathered together in a place on the shared lands and waters of many Indigenous and Native Peoples. Dr. Mario Garza and Ms. María F. Rocha from the Indigenous Cultures Institute in San Marcos, which preserves the cultures of Native Americans indigenous to Texas and northern Mexico and maintains their covenant with sacred sites, and Elders of Miakan-Garza Band of the Coahuiltecan people, a state-legislature-recognized tribe of Texas, offered NCSS’s first Land Acknowledgement. “Given that all education in the United States takes place on Indigenous lands, National Council for the Social Studies recognizes the responsibility of social studies education to respect and affirm Indigenous peoples, nations, and sovereignty” (NCSS, 2018).

The ongoing diversity explosion in American schools should be greeted with optimism. It provides opportunities for revitalizing our country and providing greater connectivity to the global economy and society. NCSS can lead in defining a new vision for social studies in American schooling and creating a society that offers students more access to a culturally responsive and relevant social studies education.  Recognizing the cultural assets and racial differences of students and communities requires rethinking traditional practices and consciously developing a culturally responsive vision of inquiry. NCSS can offer direction in providing recommendations for educators to develop a deeper understanding of sovereignty, diversity, equity, and inclusion in praxis and practice.

The actual diagnosis of what is wrong in the world around us starts with us, and it starts with the children and youth around the world. Greta Thunberg’s youth climate activism has captured the attention of policy makers across the globe and inspired other youth to take informed action. As with prior youth activism in history, young people have always been at the forefront of most major social movements in civic life. Young people see the shape of our world presently and have a better understanding of it than any other generation, but we are not letting them set the agenda for the issues we pay attention to in social studies classrooms. Today’s young activists find themselves enmeshed in something larger, smarter, more diverse and ultimately more powerful than movements of the past.  Youth activism is booming post-Parkland, but many schools have struggled to connect it to formal civics preparation. Sadly, the largest wave of student activism since the late 1960s remains divorced from classroom learning and students often feel as though their experiential learning is not mirrored in social studies instruction.

Social studies is the only content area that takes as its primary mission to develop the knowledge, skills, and values necessary for young learners to become effective citizens. However, the 1994 NCSS definition of social studies as the “…the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence…” does not capture the purpose of social studies today.  Preparing students to eventually function productively as civic participants lacks rigor and the deep intellectual reasoning needed for civic life. Furthermore, when social studies is referenced in schooling, it is often in a transactional sense—with citizenship understood as the collection of skills, behaviors, and attitudes (e.g. how to shake hands, speak properly, and be punctual) that will help students to be college and career ready (Farkas & Duffett, 2010).  The purpose of social studies education is more than developing vocational capacities; it also develops civic agency and the intellectual civilities to take informed action. Students need to be skilled in how civil society works towards the common good, particularly when we are working across many policy domains, political ideologies, and systems that impact citizens within a pluralistic society. Social studies promotes knowledge of and involvement in civic affairs. Because civic issues—such as health care, crime, and foreign policy—are multidisciplinary in nature, understanding these issues and developing resolutions to them requires multidisciplinary education. These characteristics are the key defining aspects of social studies that need to be more effectively communicated to policy makers, parents, and other influencers who drive the role social studies plays within the PreK-12 curriculum.

To achieve a world in which all students are educated and inspired for lifelong inquiry and informed civic action, we must recognize the need for a responsive approach to social studies education that understands and incorporates contemporary cultural realities.  Social studies shapes society. Through civic agency, advocacy, activism, and informed action, the guardrails of democracy, social studies can fulfill its promise of critical inquiry for civic life.  For social studies to succeed, we must create an educative environment that:

  1. Harnesses diversity and individualism,
  2. Provides equal educational opportunities and confronts racialized narratives,
  3. Forges common contemporary civic values and social harmony in a pluralistic society,
  4. Adopts pedagogical approaches that promote civility, inclusion, collaborative reasoning and deliberation, critical inquiry, and participatory experiences, and
  5. Capitalizes on the positive possibilities of the internet and social media. 

Democracy thrives when informed, active, and humane citizens coexist with institutions that uphold the rule of law, civil discourse, and shared democratic values. When social studies and civics education are taught effectively, they can equip students with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to become informed and engaged citizens in a pluralistic and democratic society.

NOTE: This President’s Message is an excerpt from the Presidential Address delivered by NCSS President Tina Heafner at the annual conference on November 22, 2019.  The full version of the Presidential Address will be published in the upcoming January-February issue of Social Education.



Farkas, S., & Duffett, A. M. (2010). High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do.  AEI Program on American Citizenship.  Available at:

National Council for the Social Studies. (2018). Toward responsibility: Social studies education that respects and affirms Indigenous peoples and nations. Available at

Pang, V. O., Rivera, J., & Gillette, M. (1998).  Can CUFA be a leader in the national debate on racism?  Theory and Research in Social Education, 26(3).  430-436.