Social Studies is the forgotten subject in our time of high stakes testing and the emphasis on proficiency in reading and math. We have watered this subject down to a unit theme or topic that we use to guide our reading instruction. I can hear you shouting at the computer, “I integrate!” Yes, we do integrate social studies ideas but we rarely teach in our elementary schools to the depth of our standards. In reality, when we integrate our instruction, there is a “star” and a subject that supports. When it comes to social studies, the “star of the instruction” is normally our reading because we are emphasizing how to apply reading skills or strategies in context. When we focus on social studies such as the Branches of Government, do we equally emphasize the reading skill and strategies?
When you examine Common Core K-5 history/social studies standards you will find that there are not any! Common Core only addresses the areas of reading and math. Luckily, North Carolina adopted the Essential Standards to address the areas of science and social studies as well as health, world languages etc. Here is where the integration is necessary because these two were not designed together. Learning to integrate where social studies AND reading equally become the focus rather than social studies being the consistent supporting subject is our obstacle. A problem we need to address to ensure our students cannot only read the words on a page but truly understand and make connections because they have the needed background necessary.
In 2001, with the enactment of No Child Left Behind, the Center on Education Policy did a study and found 44 percent of districts reduced the time and emphasis on social studies instruction. This percent increased in schools that were failing because the focus was on “closing the achievement gap.” Our neglect of social studies has serious effects that I believe we will feel as our students grow and begin to interact as citizens and become our work force and voters.
The National Council of Social Studies (NCSS) states that the purpose of social studies in the elementary grades “is to enable students to understand, participate in, and make informed decisions about their world. Social studies content allows young learners to explain relationships with other people, to institutions, and to the environment, and equips them with knowledge and understanding of the past.” Social studies helps students become problem solvers and better decision makers because they have practice and instruction in analyzing historical events of the past. When you are able to think through situations and give decisions value, it helps you become better at evaluating your own actions and situations. Debates and role playing helps students learn to think through multiple perspectives and to value ideas other than their own. Collaborative learning which is often employed in social studies projects and research allow students to learn how to communicate, become leaders and team members that can work towards deadlines and project completion.
Integration of social studies is better than not teaching the subject but as educators we must remember the importance of our social studies standards. It is imperative we create life long learners who understand how they can contribute to society as a good citizen. Social studies helps students become adults who can listen critically, ask questions and think beyond the words being spoken to the effects of the actions.
I know that TIME is the barrier. My challenge is that we find opportunities to teach social studies to the depth of the standard and to ensure that students understand the concept not just in isolation but how it applies to the real world and bigger picture. Our county ELA/SS Maps are a good beginning to see how we can address the standard and infuse ELA. But, we must continually question as we teach from these maps, am I teaching the social standards or merely spending more time reading about a social studies topic? (There is a BIG difference!) Vertical discussions and alignments are crucial to ensure we do not overlap instruction but build on concepts that broaden our student’s understanding of the world and community.
Together we need to keep in sight the importance of ALL our standards and that when we slight one for another—we are not giving a balanced education. Balance is the message that needs to be sent to those that make laws and educational decisions. Being proficient math and reading students is important but if they cannot think critically, exhibit characteristics of a good citizen, consider multiple perspectives, and know how to interact with others they will not be a productive and active member of the community. Isn’t that our ultimate goal?
Article Accessed on February 20, 2016: http://www.socialstudies.org/positions/powerfulandpurposeful