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On teaching social studies


Suggested standards for practice*

I. Instructional Capacities

Plan with your students’ characteristics in mind

Cultivate responsive approaches to teaching. Consider a wide range of diversity, including culture, range of abilities, dialect and language such as ESL status, Special Education needs, and temperaments, such as restless kids or shy kids. Also consider group dynamics. How do students work together? What time of day is best for my students given what I want to teach?

Cultivate critical content knowledge for teaching

What do you know about this? What don’t you know? What partial knowledge or misconceptions might you have related to your lesson or unit topic? What are you curious about? What might you be biased about? How will you learn more? What might be challenging in terms of connecting teacher level knowledge to children’s capacities for understanding? Why does this matter?

  • How can you clearly present your understanding about this issue or concept to students?
  • How does this concept relate to core democratic values of American democracy?
  • What knowledge, information and skills within and also across history, geography, civics or economics help you to understand this concept?
  • What other content is related or relevant? You should be able to see connections within and across disciplines, to synthesize information and concepts. How can you make connections across the curriculum? How can knowledge of literature, the arts, math, science or technology help you to understand and teach this concept?
  • What is the importance of this concept for your students, school, community and state?
  • What is the global impact of this concept or issue?
  • Why are some people affected more or less than others?
  • How does this issue or concept influence or affect different people according to factors like age, race, gender, culture, religion, income level, region or nation?
  • Who has the power to change this?
  • How do citizens have power over decision makers who influence this issue?
  • Just as there are many ways to view an historical event, there are many ways to view a policy issue in potential need of democratic action. Explain how and why two people or interest groups might have different views on this concept.

Teach as a lifelong learner and change agent

What skills do you already possess that you could build upon? And what resources do you already know about that will help your teaching practice grow in this new direction? What learning opportunities in everyday life could help you reach your goals? What questions do you want to answer along the way?

Think about what might need to change in your school setting in order for your students to gain more significant learning. Would you need to change any of your own habits, attitudes or approaches to teaching in order to make this happen? Any policies? What support would you need for this change?

Make use of your community for curriculum inspiration and inquiry. What sort of people, places and local issues inspire students? What can they do and where can they visit to understand social studies in a real life context?

Relate social studies experiences to students' lives and families. What can students do after they leave school that will continue their learning? Can their families get involved?  In what ways can you make these concepts come alive and keep the learning a part of the student and the student's life?

Know your rationale

Can you justify what you are teaching and why you are teaching it? Know why it matters in terms of its meaning to students, the value of the subject content, opportunities for inquiry and its importance to the community and to society before you begin.
Assess students’ prior knowledge and interests

What have students recently been learning? What is your students’ prior knowledge? What are their conceptions, misconceptions and interests related to your lesson topic? How will you figure out how well the students already understand? What sort of related knowledge is present or absent? Consider using artifacts--“things”--to stimulate discussion and help reveal students’ thinking, such as contemporary or historical photographs, maps, recordings, primary sources. You might read a storybook to get them thinking. Identify conclusions you have reached about how these students understand and think about the content and concepts, making note of what they don’t understand. Then identify the instructional implications of each of the conclusions you have reached.

Begin with major concepts and Big Ideas. 

What are you really teaching? Before you plan instruction consider the main social studies understandings and ideas you want to develop. What are the essential understandings or significant ideas developed in the lessons? What are the most important understandings about the topic that your students will need to develop, and how do these relate to one another, and to related skills, values and dispositions? What do you want students to learn (know, appreciate, learn and apply)? What particular learning outcomes, concepts, skills and dispositions are gained?

Cultivate inquiry

Your students should have the ability to autonomously pose questions, seek information, draw conclusions, formulate solutions to problems and produce knowledge. How can this happen as you teach?

Plan ahead: Before teaching, be clear on

    • 1. What you want the student to know (facts, information, processes, skills)
    • 2. What you want the student to understand (Big Ideas, concepts, principles, generalizations)
    • 3. What you want the student to be able to do as a result of this learning experience
    • 4. Assessments: What sorts of evidence will you accept that they have learned 1-3?
    • 5. Scaffolding, sequencing and preparation: What is the sequence of experiences (lessons) that will propel students from 1 to 4?  What will students need to know to do the major projects and gain the major understandings?

A.  Knowledge and habits of mind for social studies teaching
    • Understand public democratic values - government of, by and for the people –as the foundation of social studies. Public values are different from corporate values and from private values. Acting in the public good requires citizens to critically evaluate not just for themselves but for all. We listen and negotiate multiple view points to make choices not in self-interest but with regard to human rights and public interest.
    • Understand the content knowledge of each of the disciplines that reflects key social studies areas such as anthropology, history, sociology, geography, government, political science, political philosophy, economics and cultural expression.

    • Develop the capacity to use knowledge as interdisciplinary and in social context. Understand the relationships among social studies disciplines and the relationship of social studies to other disciplines and ways of thinking.

    • Develop the capacity to question power and authoritative messages across media.
    • Develop the capacity for analysis, synthesis and judgment. Be able to analyze and synthesize information from various subject areas and information sources to develop a rational individual judgment. Enable students to independently seek knowledge from multiple sources and perspectives, see connections and understand contexts, and question and analyze messages from various forms of media, including texts, people, literatures, technologies, and the visual arts.

B. Habits of imagination and empathy
    • Develop the capacity of imaginative and emotional response.
    • Develop the capacity to see from another’s point of view. 

C.  Ethical commitments
    • Develop a sense of human connection and collective responsibility.
    • Develop dispositions toward working for change and making a better world.

II.  Commentary on the standards

The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) has defined social studies as "the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence" (http://www.socialstudies.org/about/). In Michigan, the teaching of social studies includes history, geography, civics, economics, inquiry, public discourse and decision making and citizen involvement. Increasing global interdependence, in addition, requires teachers to have a greater understanding of the major world issues to prepare their students to be world citizens.

The teaching of social studies is more fully realized in ASSIST moving beyond traditional approaches to include:

A personal and interpersonal education, with an emphasis on students’ curiosities, present contexts and communities as a sources for learning. Teachers and students seek personal growth and growth in their capacity to relate well to others as a foundation for intellectual and civic growth.

democratic education exploring important themes such as the nature of democracy and democratic values, the just exercise of power and authority, equitable distribution of resources, the nature and uses of historical knowledge, tensions between identity and sustainability and global justice. This is rooted in loyalty to all global human beings and every single person’s rights to nutrition, health, shelter, security, and more broadly happiness, autonomy and cultural freedom,

A civic education rooted in an expansive idea of global citizenship and democratic faith in dialogue, that sees all of us, at one and the same time, as part of a new and changing whole - linked, connected, implicated, mutually influencing and requires knowledge of issues and action on behalf of fellow citizens. Students and teaches are engaged in being active participants rather than passive onlookers. They understand the practical implications of theoretical knowledge through the experience of integrating and applying relevant content knowledge to self, local, community and global issues.

A cultural education that departs from cultural essentialism and reframes it as a dynamic process changing social, linguistic, intellectual and aesthetic values and relationships (among global and local people and places).

An integrated, poststructural education that recognizes intermixture, hybridity, and complexity and questions the supposed fixed realities, boundaries and understandings of an earlier era (nation states, national cultures, identities, divisions between science/nature, reality/appearance, center/periphery, etc.), and ideas of subject matter. 

A critical education that continuously explores meaning, power and positionality and is aware that all teachings, texts and media claim, distort, enhance, open and close perspectives. 

A transforming education involves students in the world in ways that their emotions are stirred and imagination ignited. It allows no fact or concept to be morally and emotionally neutral, and goes beyond happy multiculturalism. It acknowledges, probes and confronts deep and sometimes intractable differences, and difficult, tragic and frightening knowledge, yet enables change and calls on students to accept responsibility and reconsider new perspectives. 

*Written by Dr. Elizabeth Heilman, M.S.U. faculty