Teaching Social Studies

There are many theories and views regarding the concept, structure and goals of social studies. Educators have not yet reached a common definition. Whether the subject is singular or plural and if it is a unity or a collection are a few of the questions that are left unanswered. Due to the lack of a common definition social studies teachers often face subsequent questions such as what to teach; how to teach; and why to teach. The curriculum in the country, state or district may provide some kind of answer, but the whole picture depends on one's own understanding of the subject.

One of the widely spread definitions, which tries to cover most aspects of social studies, is that of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). According to it:

"Social studies is 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, archeology, 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 develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world."

Social studies is a relatively new subject. It is a result of public school expansion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Originally social studies was tailored to preserve democratic life, improve skills for a more industrialised and technological economy and to socialise vast numbers of new immigrants. These mixed goals are the reason for the discipline's chaotic concepts.

No matter how an educator defines social studies, the discipline has to be organised like any other with curricula; including calendars, units and lessons. The subject has to raise questions, promote academic and social skills, bring disagreements, stimulate action and pay attention to controversial issues. When it comes to the goals of social studies there are three major views - the didactic, the reflective and the affective.

Those who support the didactic goal believe that social studies as a discipline has to transmit knowledge about the past. According to them the subject should focus on telling and has to have a predominantly information-processing orientation. The didactic refers to all teaching and learning activities that include gathering knowledge, from memorising dates to matching tests.

The reflective approach aims to teach students to analyse the information they receive and apply it so it becomes useful. The educators who advocate this goal think that information as an aim in itself is not enough. They seek to develop reasoning skills in their students and to teach them to form and check hypotheses.

The third view is that social studies has to be an agent of social change and citizenship education. In this case the goal of the subject is defined as affective as it involves emotions, feelings and values. The orientation is predominantly ethical and policymaking.

Each component has a different eye - didactic on the what, reflective on the why, and affective on the should or ought. It is important that all three aspects support one another and are not seen as oppositions.

What should be taught as part of social studies is another question with many different answers. In theory, the discipline may include any topics and issues that are related to human behavior, no matter if they are from the past, present or future. Some educators tie the subject with the study of history alone. Others believe that it should include social sciences as anthropology, economics, political science, psychology and sociology. There is also the idea that social studies itself is a field that provides an interpretation of society. A small number of educators consider that the discipline involves the building of student self-confidence above all. In the United States, for example, the mandated course content of social studies in secondary schools features world and US history, economics and civics or American democracy.

As a whole social studies professionals should be able to balance goals in order for their students to gain the necessary knowledge, have time for adequate discussions of data and take a position that they want and can defend. What a social studies teacher should do is teach his or her students the knowledge and skills that they will need when defending their views, decisions and actions.

Teaching Social Studies: Selected full-text books and articles

The Essentials of Social Studies, Grades K-8: Effective Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment By Kathy Checkley Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2008
Engaging Minds in Social Studies Classrooms: The Surprising Power of Joy By James A. Erekson; Michael F. Opitz; Michael P. Ford ASCD, 2014
High-Stakes Testing: How Are Social Studies Teachers Responding? By Grant, S. G Social Education, Vol. 71, No. 5, September 2007
Social Studies and the Social Order: Transmission or Transformation? By Stanley, William B Social Education, Vol. 69, No. 5, September 2005
Teaching Social Studies as a Subversive Activity By Mitsakos, Charles L.; Ackerman, Ann T Social Education, Vol. 73, No. 1, January-February 2009
Advocating for Social Studies: Documenting the Decline and Doing Something about It By O'Connor, Katherine A.; Heafner, Tina; Groce, Eric Social Education, Vol. 71, No. 5, September 2007
Teaching Social Studies on a Shoestring Budget By Gandy, S. Kay Social Education, Vol. 69, No. 2, March 2005
Authentic Intellectual Work: Common Standards for Teaching Social Studies By King, M. Bruce; Newmann, Fred M.; Carmichael, Dana L Social Education, Vol. 73, No. 1, January-February 2009
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