Social Studies: “Who Needs It?” Everyone.

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At our last staff meeting a group of students were posed with this question: What do you not like about your school?

And one student said, “I would not make kids take social studies classes. They are pointless.”

For a social studies teacher, these real words from real students strike a nerve and even force me re-think my choice to join this profession. Did I choose the wrong subject to teach? Does the content I teach matter? Do I help my students learn the content that they need to succeed in the world?

After some reflection time, I came to two conclusions. First, I believe that I did select the best subject for me to help students grow. Second, however, social studies as it has come to be known needs to change in order to remain relevant for students.

Students who currently struggle with meaningless learning and rote memorization of facts that have zero relationship with today will experience their learning much differently if the purpose of the curriculum changes. The first shift that social studies needs to make is already underway. The impending C3 Framework rollout across the country addresses the issue of social studies standards focusing on content knowledge and less on skill. The C3 Framework stands for College, Career and Civic Life Framework for Social Studies State Standards. Rather than dictate specific demands across the country, it provides a template for creating standards in individual states that focuses on 21st century skills that connect with traditional social studies content.

C3 uniquely flips the script, encouraging students to use creative thinking and problem solving skills to make them better world citizens.

C3 uniquely flips the script, encouraging students to use creative thinking and problem solving skills to make them better world citizens.The standards revolve around an “inquiry arc” that includes four dimensions: Developing Questions & Planning Inquiries, Applying Disciplinary Tools & Concepts, Evaluating Sources & Using Evidence, and Communicating Conclusions & Taking Informed Action. A quick glimpse at the arc shows that the focus is on skills that relate to truly studying history rather than traditional disciplinary concepts and content.

Discovering how to complete a task using a trained skill provides a more engaging format for student learning. The alternative (copying notes and answering questions out of a textbook) allows no room for students to explore and connect the information to their lives a real way. By focusing on skills, the application based on content can lead to amazing results. For example, students can focus on the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and use evidence and communication skills to create a school-wide campaign for a student advisory committee to help their voice be heard–in the same way that African Americans and women pushed for change during that time period. The evidence of learning can be real and tangible to students and teachers, alike.

Creating a standardized way of obtaining and measuring the learning that takes place in project-based assessments seems to baffle educational leaders. While new standards drive the curriculum and point the way toward engaging instructional activities, standardized assessments become the measuring stick that teachers and students are bound to at the same time. The high-stakes testing requirements that each state has usually involve some form of multiple choice. Unfortunately, multiple choice is not the best measure of student growth in social studies skills. Instead, projects that focus on using these skills in a real-world setting provide the most accurate analysis of what students learn in a skill-centered classroom.

For years, students have endured content-heavy lessons and activities. Many times, students experience the dreaded “death by PowerPoint” and endless textbook readings and vocabulary memorization quizzes. Now, a seismic shift is about to take place in social studies classrooms. The future of the content area is moving into skill-based instruction, and the standardized assessments need to change in order to ensure a complete transformation.

The real change, however, won’t take place until we, social studies teachers, take the reigns in integrating the changing framework into our classrooms.

The real change, however, won’t take place until we, social studies teachers, take the reigns in integrating the changing framework into our classrooms. Rather than a predictable, boring routine of memorizing facts and practicing reading for tests, our classroom cultures must shift with the standards into a creative, artistic and modern workplace. We must create  areas of technological engagement, critical thinking, and non-traditional programs. By mixing it up, students will no longer attach the “unnecessary” label to social studies. Instead they will grow and learn new 21st century skills and just maybe, some of them will have fun doing it.

  • Robin Reid

    Social Studies

    Brison, I totally agree that social studies has to change and that the new C3 standards support this new direction for our content area.  Change is always hard and finding the right balance between skills and content will be our next challenge.  Neither skills nor content can stand independently in making social studies relevant to students. As educators, we are going to have to rethink what we do and how we do it.  Hopefully, teachers of Social Studies can practice what we teach and have a thoughtful civil discussion of what comes next for our students.

  • Caryn Huber

    Special Education


    Absolutely.  However, I think the critical thinking skills and application skills should occur across disciplines and start in the early years so that when students reach high school, teachers reinforce those skills by providing the platform.  I personally think social studies is a prime subject for all students to reflect, connect and identify; the content revolves around the human experience.  The difficult part- me included- is connecting the present, current youth culture/experience, to the content.  We as educators also need to connect and reflect on the history in the making, "life as a teenager", in order to remain relevant and compell engagement.  

    I enjoyed your thoughtful blog.

  • akrafel

    Real Change

    I fully agree with the boxed quote in your article that says, “Real change will not take place until we, the social studies teachers,….”.  The operative words here for me are, “we the social studies teachers”.  Until teachers have academic freedom in the classroom to implement whatever the standards are, the standards can not be relevant to a group of students. The teacher in the classroom must have the freedom to search for and find that relevancy for that particular group of students and follow that thread.  That is what allows full student engagement. Responsiveness to student’s needs takes place best when a competent teacher takes the reigns and responds directly to the students in the room. Then it becomes, or can become relevant.  Teachers need the freedom to stop having to say, “I know this is boring but you need it for the test.”  And be able to say, things like “How is the pattern of Chalemange consolidating power relevant to today’s patterns in the distribution of the power that affects us?” Or the like.  Teachers know how to do this, they just need to be allowed to do it.  Teachers can step up and ask for and secure the power. It is not just a dream, but is already happening in schools all over the country.  Teacher-powered departments and schools can make this ability a reality.

  • IV Shane


    No way I disagree with this article it doesn't change anything social studies should be optinal because 99% won't use that at all.