Social Studies: “Who Needs It?” Everyone.

Credit: Flickr user zeitfaenger.at

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.