Teaching Social Studies
This article discusses the teaching of K-12 social studies in the United States. Social studies is the name given to a constellation of interrelated disciplines -- including economics, political science, geography, history and civics -- that are intended to provide students an increasingly sophisticated understanding and appreciation of themselves, our society, and the experiences of others in societies around the world. The basic pattern for social studies education was established by the 1916 report of the National Education Association's Committee on Social Studies. However, in the century since social studies was established as a proper subject in U.S. public schools, many education experts have lamented that students have been subjected to a program of study that emphasizes rote memorization over critical thinking and an in-depth understanding of the subject matter.
According to a formal definition issued by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), "Social studies is the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence . 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" (National Council for the Social Studies, 1994).
Unlike English and math, which have been fixtures on the American educational landscape since the founding of the country, social studies has a much more recent history. Its roots can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution that swept Great Britain and the United States in the early nineteenth century. Beginning with the British textile industry in the late eighteenth century, machinery began to change the way business was conducted on both sides of the Atlantic. Inventors harnessed the awesome energy of water and coal, and workers crammed into cities like London and Manchester to work in the factories that began to mass produce consumer goods.
Industrialization reached the United States as well, and one side effect was the growth of the American city. In 1860 there were only sixteen cities with a population over 50,000, but by 1900 there were seventy-eight (Walker, 1967, p. 57). Immigrants who sought a better life for themselves and their families poured into this land of plenty: ten million came between 1865 and 1890 (Johnson, 1998). "By 1890 New York had half as many Italians as Naples, as many Germans as Hamburg, twice as many Irish as Dublin, and two and a half times as many Jews as Warsaw" (Davidson, 1951, p. 407).
Such rapid industrialization did not come without a human cost, however. For the common people, political corruption, big business, and the rise of industry seemed to be conspiring -- intentionally or not -- against their happiness and the economic well-being of their families. In the context of their own lives, these realities raised some troubling questions for many Americans: How could good citizens help reduce the ills of society? How should one's quest for individual rights and economic opportunities be reconciled with the needs of society? In what ways could Americans understand their place within the world?
Social studies was the result of efforts to bring about improvements in social welfare -- one student at a time. Not surprisingly, the term "social studies" goes back a to 1887 book on conditions of urban workers, where it was proposed as a tool to improve social welfare (Saxe, 1991, p. 17). Social welfare activists understood that to enact positive changes in society at large, the individual members of that society must be taught about their roles and responsibilities as citizens. That meant education.
The first serious attempts in the United States to conceptualize the discipline that would become known as social studies began at the turn of the twentieth century. In 1896, Conway MacMillan, an education professor at the University of Minnesota, advocated the use of education to form students into social rather than non-social individuals, though he didn't use the term social studies. A year later Edmund James, president of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, called for inclusion of social studies in the public school curriculum, but he predicted that his dream would take another generation or two to become reality (Saxe, 1991, p. 21).
In 1905, Arthur E. Dunn, who would later chair the social studies Committee of the National Education Association, called for "social study" or "society study" (Saxe, 1991, p. 20). While he believed that sociology should be taught only in colleges and universities, Dunn argued that a less demanding version of sociology in the form of "social study" or "society study" should be taught in all public schools.
The first formalized proposal for "social study" was given by David Snedden, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1907. He said it should be one of the five parts of the school curriculum, along with physical education, vocational education, cultural education, and "the education which aims at general mental discipline" (Saxe, 1991, p. 14).
These early proposals were made in the context of calls from progressive educators like John Dewey to orient the educational system around the needs of the child. Dewey and others argued that the teacher should be an advisor, a "Socratic midwife," helping students give birth to their own ideas through critical inquiry (Dewey, 1916, p. 38). These educators recommended communal learning and the development of problem-solving skills over rote memorization.
Progressive ideas dovetailed with calls for social studies instruction to produce more thoughtful citizens. In 1912 the National Education Association formed the Committee on Social Science as part of its Reorganization of Secondary School Studies. By the time the committee was ready to issue its preliminary report a year later, it had renamed itself the Committee on Social Studies. The committee's dual goals were "improv[ing] the citizenship of the land" and "the development in the pupil of a constructive attitude in the consideration of all social conditions" (cited in Glasheen, 1973, p. 2). While all education was to contribute to the betterment of society, social studies was particularly focused on that aim. Generally, for the committee and for Dewey, all education "must be a part of, not apart from, society" (Glasheen, 1973, p. 36).
In its 63-page final report, issued in 1916, the 21-member committee recommended a two-cycle program of social studies for grades 7-12:
Cycle One Cycle Two Grade 7: Geography and European History Grade 10: European History Grade 8: U.S. History and Civics Grade 11: U.S. History Grade 9: Civics Grade 12: Problems of American Democracy
The members of the committee briefly covered elementary school social studies, noting that it was centered on the study of geography, social institutions, and the like. They were confident that this course of study was laying the necessary foundation for secondary school social studies.
At the time, a large number of students completed their schooling by ninth grade. The intention of the committee members was for students in grades 7-9 to gain a basic understanding of social studies in case they were completing their education, and for students in grades 10-12 to gain a more complete mastery of the material in preparation for undergraduate studies in sociology, history, political science, and other fields.
However, as a warning to those who would slavishly follow the letter of the report, the members of the committee emphasized that their guidelines were precisely that. Twice quoting a relevant passage from Dewey, the members stressed that the needs and interests of the particular students in the classroom should weigh heavily in the creation of classroom assignments and discussion topics (Glasheen, 1973, pp. 32-39). The members added that this approach would result in the mastery of material related to the topics under discussion, though not necessarily the "mastery of a comprehensive body of knowledge" (Glasheen, 1973, p. 66). More specifically, the committee recommended teaching by "the problem method" (Glasheen, 1973, p. 5), wherein teachers would ask questions to spur their students to think carefully and creatively about the topic at hand. This would enable a multidisciplinary approach to addressing a given topic. The members argued that this approach would engage young minds by drawing upon their inherent interest in events taking place around them. All of this thinking was directed toward the goal of creating a self-sacrificing, "socially efficient person" who would better society as a whole (Glasheen, 1973, p. 65).
By 1924, one-third of schools had adopted the NEA's proposal for two three-year cycles for teaching secondary school social studies (Hertzberg, 1981), and the committee's guidelines continue to dominate social studies education to this day. The typical secondary school social studies curriculum echoes that of a century ago, though with some changes to make the coursework less Eurocentric:
Cycle One Cycle Two Grade 7: World History/Cultures/Geography Grade 10: World Culture/History Grade 8: U.S. History Grade 11: U.S. History Grade 9: Civics/Government or World Cultures/History Grade 12: American Government and Sociology/Psychology
Constructivism vs. Objectivism
Some of the debate about the state of social studies education centers on two philosophical theories of knowledge that have often been pitted against each other: constructivism and objectivism.
Constructivism places emphasis on interdisciplinary approaches and synthesizing ideas. "Constructed knowledge is embedded in one's own authentic...
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