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).
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.
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
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.
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?
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
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
Does the lesson involve authentic application of skills from the other
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
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.
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).