What Constrains Meaningful Social Studies Teaching?

By Cornbleth, Catherine | Social Education, April 2002 | Go to article overview

What Constrains Meaningful Social Studies Teaching?


Cornbleth, Catherine, Social Education


VERY FEW ADULTS, if any, especially teachers and other school personnel, oppose "good" or "meaningful" teaching. We would probably agree, however, that such teaching is less common than we would like. Why? What gets in the way? And what can we do about it? What follow are some of the conclusions I have reached on the basis of a careful reading, analysis, and interpretation of the relevant research literature. (1) Because I narrowed my focus to conditions and circumstances that are outside the control of teachers and classrooms, I do not deal here with what teachers do or do not know, what teachers are or are not able to do, what role demands are made of them, or what the material conditions of teaching are, such as the books that are available and the number of students a teacher is expected to teach. That leaves out a lot that should be considered in particular cases and that might best be addressed locally by the people directly involved. But it also leaves us with many constraints that too often receive much less attention, perhaps because they originate outside of the classroom. Closing the classroom door, however, does not keep them out. Rather than present a rather long list of external constraints, I offer examples of patterns or climates of constraint to meaningful teaching. Borrowing from meteorology, I use the word climate to refer to prevailing conditions that affect the life and activity of a place. Sometimes the prevailing conditions are tangible, whether they are strong winds or the voices of well-organized interest groups. At other times they are less tangible--for example, a "climate of opinion."

Meaningful social studies teaching refers to teaching for learning and critical thinking that incorporates diverse perspectives and students. This means taking students beyond memorization to comprehension and coherence. It means connecting pieces or chunks of information both with each other (e.g., a diagram or web rather than a list) and with what one already knows (i.e., elaborating or extending mental schema). Critical thinking means raising and pursuing questions about the ideas one encounters. (2) Diverse perspectives include different or changing interpretations as well as the voices of various participants in events, movements, and everyday life. This kind of teaching and learning thus enables students to come to understand, for example, how and why male and female (and/or older and younger) workers tend to have different views of equal employment and advancement opportunities, or of a "hostile work environment" and "sexual harassment."

The six climates of constraint that emerged from my review can be grouped into three pairs: stifling, chilling, and drought-stricken (see Table 1).

After briefly describing each climate and how it limits or undermines teaching for meaningful learning and critical thinking that incorporates diverse perspectives and students, I encourage social studies teachers and others to consider how they can deal with rather than submit to these climates of constraint.

Stifling Climates

Stifling climates narrow or close off opportunities for meaningful learning and critical thinking. Whether they are the result of bureaucracy or rigid conservatism, they make it difficult to deal with a range of ideas in thoughtful ways. Teachers try to survive by doing as little as possible.

Bureaucratic Climate

A bureaucratic school climate with an administrative emphasis on law and order is characterized by an emphasis on following the school rules (e.g., attendance, dress, homework, grading) and keeping classrooms, bathrooms, and hallways neat, clean, and quiet (i.e., orderly). There is little or no flexibility in application of the rules or tolerance for either questioning or innovation. The underlying assumption seems to be that centralized order is prerequisite to teaching and learning, that learning will occur if teachers and students are orderly, or that learning to be orderly is sufficient. …

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