We need to have a frank talk about social studies in elementary classrooms. The good news is, we are. In fact, the recent National Council for Teachers of Social Studies conference had many sessions not only on the challenges of implementing a social studies curriculum but also on creative solutions. In addition, a recent report from the RAND corporation, “The Missing Infrastructure for Elementary (K–5) Social Studies Instruction,” shares many of these challenges and makes recommendations for prioritizing social studies in elementary school. The full report is available for download, but here are some of the main conclusions.
- State-level infrastructure varies widely and is missing in many states. The mechanisms include assessments, academic standards, and laws.
- Local-level infrastructure in districts and schools is missing in relation to other core subjects, such as English language arts and math. In fact, there’s less reported professional learning and accountability related to social studies.
- Only half of elementary principals reported adoption of comprehensive curriculum materials, which is a key piece for other core subject areas.
- Elementary schools that do in fact have curriculum materials, professional learning, and the like report a shared presence for social studies teaching practices.
- States work to adopt more rigorous and consistent standards and frameworks.
- State departments of education support and provide better transparency on high-quality social studies curriculum materials.
- Districts provide support (professional development, teacher evaluation, etc.) targeted to social studies.
- States determine how to hold schools accountable for improving student achievement in social studies.
As an educator, you most likely read these findings and thought, “Yes, those findings make sense,” or “I’ve had a similar experience.”You may have a feeling of helplessness and believe that all of those recommendations are outside your sphere of influence. You may even be thinking, “Well, there’s nothing I can do.”
Let’s consider instead what educators at the classroom level can do, along with some resources to support it.
Integration with core content
While there are many levels and frameworks for integration, educators can do their best to make authentic and meaningful connections to social studies in the teaching of other core content. In fact, in 2017 the National Council for the Social Studies articulated integration as a valuable practice for social studies in elementary schools: “Integrating social studies throughout the day eases competition for time in an increasingly crowded curriculum. With a strong interdisciplinary curriculum, teachers find ways to promote children’s competence in social sciences, literacy, mathematics, and other subjects within integrated learning experiences.”
One key takeaway is that integration of social studies should be meaningful and not an extra—integration for integration’s sake. Rather, as educators teach the various content areas, they can look for explicit moments to teach social studies concepts and skills. This isn’t simply reading a social studies–themed text but instead adding explicit instruction on that theme or concept. The Council of Chief State School Officers offers some concrete integration practices, including selecting texts for integration that support social studies content learning and using said standards when planning for integration.
Tip: When planning a unit, start with the standards, and find authentic connection between social studies standards and other content standards.
Leverage open education resources
We’re all looking for high-quality resources, and one of the challenges indicated in the Missing Infrastructure for Elementary (K–5) Social Studies Instruction report is access to those materials. Instead of paying for resources, many states and organizations have contributed to the Open Educational Resources Commons. Many states have their own “hubs” with resources that have been vetted and aligned to standards. Resources include lessons, videos, texts, handouts, and activities. All of these resources are free to access and can be customized to meet the needs of educators and students. This will help save time in planning and perhaps alleviate associated stress.
Tip: Search by standard in order to better ensure alignment. All the resources can be overwhelming, and those linked to standards are more likely to be of high quality.
Consider focused Inquiries
Inquiry can be viewed (sometimes rightfully) as an overwhelming and long process. Indeed, many inquiry-based practices, like project-based learning, involve extended inquiry overtime. If that’s not possible, a more focused inquiry that’s limited in time will allow you to explicitly engage in high-quality social studies teaching.
I slightly modified a second-grade New York state inquiry task titled, “Urban, Suburban, and Rural,” aligned to the inquiry arc of the College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework. It involves the following steps: (1) engaging students in an initial discussion on the support question, (2) examining the featured sources to write a performance task, and (3) a summative task where students apply their learning and continue to cite featured sources.
Focused inquiry on types of communities: How Would Our Lives Be Different If We Lived in a Different Kind of Community?
- C3 Framework indicator: D2.Geo.2.K-2. Use maps, graphs, photographs, and other representations to describe places and the relationships and interactions that shape them.
- Staging the question: Create individual or class brainstorm lists of how students’ lives might be different if they lived in a different place.
- Supporting question: How are communities different and alike?
- Formative performance task: Write a paragraph describing three characteristics of the local community that are similar to or different from the comparison community.
- Summative performance tasks: Argument: How would our lives be different if we lived in a different kind of community? Create an argument through a product of choice that addresses the question of how people’s lives are affected by where they live. Use examples shared in class to support your ideas.
- Extension/taking action: Research a challenge or problem in a different community and brainstorm ideas to help.
Featured sources: These are used to answer the supporting questions and are cited in the performance tasks.
Source A: An image bank (sourced from websites and/or curriculum materials): Daily life in urban, suburban, and rural communities
Source B: Teacher-gathered images of the students’ community and other communities
If more time is allotted, educators can expand these inquiry experiences to include more primary sources with questions and formative tasks. C3 Teachers links to many state hubs that have many inquiries with multiple steps that include more primary sources and formative tasks. I share ideas about all these tasks in another article.
Tip: Avoid a “simple story”; these inquiries are not about getting the right answer per se, but instead about getting complex answers. This is possible with an effective choice of primary sources and a good question.
While these ideas don’t completely alleviate the challenge that elementary social studies faces, they are small yet meaningful changes that educators can make to support student learning. They show what can be done, rather than instilling a feeling of helplessness in the face of many challenges that may feel out of your control. And it’s a way to meaningfully advocate for high-quality social studies teaching in elementary schools. After all, education is about creating hope.