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The Evidence Base for Social Studies: Social Studies in Elementary Education
The Evidence Base for Social Studies: Social Studies in Elementary Education

What We Know

According to Seif, there has never been a greater need for social studies programs to prepare students for the future (2003). At a time when a meaningful social studies program is crucial at every level, Seif finds data indicating a reduced emphasis on social studies during the elementary school years (2003). Evangelina Jones, Valerie Ooka and James Rodriquez go as far as to state that social studies is an invisible subject in many elementary classrooms (2001). William Galston’s research provides hard evidence for these statements: between 1988 and 1998 the proportion of fourth-grade students who reported taking social studies daily fell from 49% to 39% (2003, p. 9). Seixas adds that social studies is not seen as a serious or challenging subject by many elementary school teachers and students (2001, p. 550). As a result, elementary school students fail to see how the social studies can be useful and functional in the real world (Ediger 2004). There is research that provides a means to counter this trend. Alleman and Brophy find that social studies education empowers students and "goes a long way toward fostering self-efficacy." (1997, p. 108).

Elementary social studies education is important as it provides students the ability to:
  • Recognize themselves as part of history (Alleman and Brophy 1997, p. 108);
  • Recognize and apply spatial relationships as analytical tools (Macken 2003, p. 63);
  • Empathize with other people and appreciate their activities as intelligent adaptations to time and place (Brophy, Alleman and O’Mahony 2003, p. 40);
  • Develop an understanding of continuity, change and chronology (Hoge 1994).

What does research state about the role of social studies in elementary education?

James Barth identifies social studies as the interdisciplinary integration of social science and humanities concepts for the purpose of practicing problem-solving and decision-making for developing citizenship skills on critical social issues (Zarillo 2004, p. 4). This position is also taken by the National Council for the Social Studies in Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for the Social Studies (1994, p. 157). Social studies helps students learn how to keep control of their lives in this changing world and, as such, it must allow for exploration, experimentation and inquiry, all within a structured, yet creative environment (Sunal 1990, p. 74). Levstik and Barton expand on the citizenship component of social studies and believe that elementary students need to learn to take part in meaningful and productive discussions with people of diverse viewpoints (2001, p. 8). Charles Haynes makes this point as well when he says, "We talk about academic achievement and testing and accountability, but none of them will make any difference if we don’t understand what it means to be an American…holding the pluribus and the unum together" (Schield 2004, p. 46). This, Haynes says, is the task of the social studies teacher, especially at the elementary grade levels.

Two goals of social studies programs are identified in Sunal’s research. Sunal lists these goals as follows: 1) enable students to learn content and patterns found in social studies; and 2) help children learn content through using intellectual process skills such as observation and inference (1990, p. 11). Sunal also states that since the social world affects all parts of our lives, social studies education should be an integral part of the early childhood curriculum, not separated from other curricula (1990, p. v.). Early childhood teachers should weave social studies as a thread through the entire school day for preschool and kindergarten students since social studies is the glue that bonds together the elements of the curriculum (Charlesworth and Miller 1997, p. 282). Andrew Johnson asserts that social studies in the elementary classroom needs to be given as much attention as reading and writing, as conceptual knowledge from social studies makes reading and writing easier (2000, p. 30). Elementary school children’s success in social studies learning is critical and related to the quality and quantity of social studies instruction provided (Hoge 1994).

What does social studies look like in the elementary school classroom?

Understanding of complicated concepts like culture, environment and society develop gradually over time; students learn more each time they encounter these concepts and reflect on the meaning and significance of what they’ve studied (Levstik and Barton 2001, p. 11). Beginning as early as preschool, Rahima Wade finds that children learn through social interaction and direct sensory involvement with the environment (2002, p. 120). The teaching of only facts reduces their intellectual abilities and denies students the expressive potential inherent in their humanity (Liss 2003, p. 248). Downey and Levstik conclude that social studies instruction should begin in the early years and focus on in-depth sustained study of significant material, rather than shallow coverage, making use of age-appropriate learning strategies (1991; Hoge 1994). Developmentally- appropriate practice for young students includes real and relevant experiences in which they can initiate their own learning, construct knowledge and engage in individually appropriate activities (Wade 2002, p. 120).

Charlesworth and Miller note that in the preschool classroom, the traditional early childhood learning center approach allows students to acquire basic skills through social studies content (1997, p. 282). For example, at the block center, students develop social skills such as relating to others, cooperating in a group and begin developing self-esteem. At the same center, they develop their cognitive skills of classifying, comparing, contrasting and problem-solving. Reflecting concepts of community and geography at this center are the use of blocks to construct roads and buildings. Lev Vygotsky states that when children interact with other people and work in cooperation with them, a variety of internal developmental processes begin to operate that do not engage when children work independently (Zarillo 2004, p. 30). This helps explain the success of the learning center approach.

Only by becoming familiar with students’ cognition will teachers be able to design instruction that expands their student’s conceptual understanding (Barton, McCully and Marks 2004, p. 70). Zarillo stresses that social studies should focus on the big ideas found in history or geography as it gives all children a shared view of the past (2004, p. 5). Focusing on big ideas allows children to pursue topics of personal interest. Instruction needs to begin with students’ interests and experiences (Levstik and Barton 2001, p. 46). Offering students a variety of resources promotes student interest by supplementing the textbook. Hoge observes that supplemental materials, field trips and current event discussions provide students the opportunity to evaluate information and build their understanding of the world around them. The developmental tasks typical for the primary grades must guide the structuring of situations that lead to problem-solving and decision-making (Messick and Chapin 1997, p. 295). Ediger suggests teachers provide ample opportunities for students to apply previously acquired learning through problem-solving such as developing a hypothesis about a social studies issue (i.e., need for a stop light by counting cars that do not stop with just a stop sign; location of a crosswalk by recording the number of people who cross at a certain location other than the established crosswalk and ask these individuals "Why?") and test the hypothesis. Teachers need to observe and guide the students in this process, but Ediger reminds them not to allow a hypothesis that is too easy because that leads to student boredom. Ediger promotes the use of inquiry and having students express what they have learned in their own words, written or orally depending on the age of the students (2004). This provides students a reason for learning and assists them in becoming objective observers and participants in their government (Zarillo 2004, p. 5). Allowing students to express what they have learned through a variety of methods promotes deeper understanding and application of the social studies, lessening reliance on knowledge of isolated facts (Seixas 1994, p. 299).

Integration of social studies with other content areas has become quite common in many elementary school classrooms. Informal observation often reveals that episodes of integrated teaching in the social studies emphasize lower-level skills and formulations of content, not higher-level skills (Schug and Western 2002, p. 254). Alleman and Brophy found that integrated curriculum lessons in current elementary social studies textbooks limited the scope and reduced the meaning and importance of social studies content (1997, p. 305). However, the integration of other content areas with the social studies can be very successful if certain criteria are met. Alleman and Brophy, along with Ediger, identify some guiding principles for integrated elementary lessons/activities (1997, p. 302; 1998). The integrated lesson must be a useful means of accomplishing a worthwhile social studies goal. The lesson must represent social education content appropriately and not distort the integrity of the subject matter. The lesson must be geared to the appropriate level of difficulty and be feasible for implementation within the constraints under which the teacher and students must work.

What this means is that social studies should predominate in integrated lessons (Ediger 1998). Teachers can ask themselves this series of questions when constructing or using integrated lessons (Alleman and Brophy 1997, p. 309; Ediger 1998):
  • Does this lesson have a significant social education goal or is it forcing integration for integration sake?
  • Will this lesson guide students to understand the subject better?
  • Would this be a desirable lesson for a social studies unit if it did not feature cross- subjects integration?
  • Will the lesson provide quality sequencing in teaching social studies?
  • Would an outsider clearly recognize the lesson as social studies?
  • Does the lesson allow students to apply authentically important social studies content?
  • Does the lesson involve authentic application of skills from the other disciplines?
  • Is the lesson structured properly; will students understand and be able to explain the lesson’s social education purpose?
  • Will the students be likely to accomplish the social educational purpose of the lesson?

For a lesson to be considered part of the elementary social studies curriculum, its primary focus should be one of the social studies goals that have been established. If this is not the case, the time and costs should not be taken out of the social studies curriculum (Alleman and Brophy 1997, p. 306).

The function of social studies is to develop students’ understanding of the society in which they live. The social studies for young children must be concrete, involving children in doing and experiencing. Social studies must help students become active, competent members of their family, community, nation and world (Sunal 1990, p. 2).
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