Elliott Seif is the author of Teaching for Lifelong Learning: How to Prepare Students for a Changing World.
In my last Solution Tree blog, “Why We Need K–12 High-Quality Science Instruction in a 21st Century World,” I identified twelve reasons why every child needs to have the opportunity to participate in a strong, coherent, inquiry-oriented science program. In this blog, I will explore ten important reasons why a strong, coherent social studies program, beginning in the earliest grades through high school, should be an important goal for all schools today.
Unfortunately, the quality of the social studies program has often been neglected in many schools and districts. In the primary and elementary grades, teachers and schools often limit the teaching of social studies or water down the teaching in order to pay more attention to tested subjects, such as English/language arts and mathematics. Secondary social studies is often taught through textbooks and survey courses that cover content and ignore interesting, meaningful, active, in-depth learning, a focus on understanding, and the teaching of critical skills such as thinking and writing.
Here are ten reasons why we need a revitalized, strong, coherent, and comprehensive social studies program at all grade levels:
- Social studies provides students with a broad and relevant knowledge base that helps them better understand and deal with today’s complex world.
- Social studies helps students develop understanding and positive values that build a common foundation among Americans.
- Social studies teaches students how to be thoughtful, active citizens in a democratic society.
- Social studies is a key vehicle for developing literacy, math and other critical skills, such as the use of evidence, research, argumentation, writing, speaking, listening, numeracy, and data collection and analysis.
- By engaging in social studies inquiry, students learn how to be capable, collaborative problem-solvers.
- Social studies develops critical and creative thinking skills.
- Social studies is a powerful vehicle for creating interdisciplinary, integrated school programs.
- Social studies helps to educate and prepare future leaders.
- Social studies promotes self-understanding and the understanding of other peoples and cultures.
- Social studies provides students with important practical information and skills that can be used in their everyday lives.
Knowledge and understanding of crucial concepts and ideas in American and world history—such as the diversity of American and world cultures and communities, key geographic knowledge and concepts, an understanding of America’s democratic heritage, and basic economic concepts and theory—as well as important concepts from other social science disciplines are critical for an enlarged understanding the place of each individual in the world in which we live, America’s place in the world, and the role of informed citizens in a democratic society.
Students are able to build common understanding and a common set of values that transcend geographic boundaries and create a concept of America as one nation. These include stories and narratives about great Americans; the ideals, principles, rights and values tied to the American Revolution and found within the Constitution; the geography and demographics of America; why we fought the Civil War and in World Wars I and II; slavery and the civil rights movement; the importance of immigration to America; Manifest Destiny; market economy principles; the Cold War; common problems Americans face today; and many other key ideas.
Students develop an understanding of current issues and events, and develop the context through which to analyze these issues and events and consider alternative perspectives and solutions. Social studies is also how students learn to actively participate in American democratic institutions—through field trips to the courts and governing bodies, learning how to register to vote, community service, and other means.
From an early age, students should read and analyze varied fiction and nonfiction texts, learn important concepts and vocabulary about history and the world around them, learn how important evidence is for accuracy of opinions and ideas, conduct research and write essays and reports, develop and conduct surveys, interpret and use graphs, and in general develop and reinforce important and vital skills necessary for living in a 21st century world.
Through essential questions, discussions, persuasive essays and other means, students work together to learn how to discuss, use evidence, and reflect on and solve problems, such as issues about the environment, poverty, race, class, economics, and politics.
Students in social studies classes discern patterns, analyze and interpret maps, take apart arguments, and invent new solutions to challenging problems.
Many elementary teachers, along with diverse secondary subject area teachers, can create interdisciplinary programs around social studies themes like community, environment and human interaction, conflict, change, and adaptation. History can be integrated with literature, social studies topics can be infused with science and math, and the arts can help students understand historical events.
As students learn about positive leadership in America and throughout the world, consider difficult issues throughout history and how they were solved, examine current issues and ways people try to solve them, and take part in civic activities, they build an understanding of leadership and what it takes to be an effective leader.
Social studies helps students understand their own backgrounds, the values and diverse backgrounds and experiences of Americans, and the wide variety of cultures and customs of people around the world and at other periods in history.
In social studies classes, students learn skills for financial literacy, career options, how to register and vote, and other important practical skills.
Based on these crucial reasons for creating a strong, comprehensive social studies program, social studies should be given a prominent place throughout the curriculum, beginning in the earliest grades. If social studies are to fulfill the important goals outlined above, there must be a greater emphasis on building a strong, coherent K–12 curriculum that uses multiple resources and powerful instructional strategies. This requires a belief that social studies is as important as reading, math, and any other subject, and that it should be given significant financial support and provided with effective professional development at all levels.
Seif, E. (2003). Social Studies Revived. Educational Leadership, 61, 54–59. https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/social-studies-revived