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By Patricia Conner and Emily Alvarez, CenterPoint
As former social studies teachers, we know well the stereotype of the discipline – asking kids to memorize facts and dates about historical events primarily through lecture-based instruction. For example, it is probably no coincidence that one of the most famous depictions of high school from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off takes place in an economics classroom.
Over the last 15-20 years, however, schools’ approaches to social studies have evolved significantly, shifting expectations for teachers. Social studies classrooms are now places in which educators teach and reinforce high-level thinking skills and help students develop a big picture understanding of the world around them and how it works. They are expected to make – and help students make – cross-curricular connections, facilitate investigation and inquiry with a variety of source material, and help young people make meaning out of a variety of viewpoints and perspectives in history and culture.
Just as in other disciplines, the changing expectations for what students should know and be able to do requires teachers to adopt new methods and pedagogies that allow them to meet the needs of the diverse learners in their classrooms. One critical component of this change centers on having students engage more with primary and secondary sources that help them think like a historian.
To support social studies teachers with this shift, they need support to build the capacity to understand what qualifies as a high-quality resource – they need guidance and tools to evaluate quality, and they need the space and time to make the cross-curricular connections so important to helping students build knowledge (for example, by providing cross-curricular planning time). This is particularly important since social studies curriculum and resources vary tremendously from district to district and school to school – and the discipline doesn’t yet have the advantage of dozens of quality-reviewed curricula like in English language arts and mathematics.
Based on our work in the classroom and coaching social studies educators, we have identified several important principles that should drive changes in professional learning to help social studies teachers engage students with more primary and secondary source material – with the objective of having students develop the capacity to understand, analyze, explain, and debate interdisciplinary challenges in the world.
In social studies classrooms, deep learning can and should happen every day. To do that, teachers need to find opportunities to truly engage students while building their mastery of academic standards and social studies content. And, teachers need the support of building and district leadership to facilitate a successful transition where students develop the critical thinking and problem-solving skills requisite for college, careers, and civic life.
Dr. Patricia Conner is a Senior Advisor for Curriculum, Assessment, and Professional Learning in the Humanities at CenterPoint, and Emily Alvarez is an Instructional Designer at CenterPoint. Both previously taught social studies in public schools in Arkansas and Maryland, respectively.