Social Studies Education

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michael j. berson
bárbara c. cruz
james a. duplass
j. howard johnston

preparation of teachers
susan a. adler


The contemporary social studies curriculum has its roots in the Progressive education movement of the early twentieth century. With its emphasis on the nature of the individual learner and on the process of learning itself, the movement challenged the assumptions of subject-centered curricula. Until this time, the social studies curriculum was composed of discrete subject areas, with a primary emphasis on history. To a slightly lesser degree, geography and civics were also featured, completing the triumvirate.

There were indications that change was coming when the 1893 Report of the Committee of Ten on Secondary School Studies advocated an interdisciplinary approach in the social studies. By 1916 the National Education Association (NEA)'s Committee on the Social Studies was urging that an interdisciplinary course of instruction be created based on the social sciences. When the NEA 1916 report established social studies as the name of the content area, it presented the scope and sequence that is still in use at the start of the twenty-first century. Social studies received further support when the 1918 Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education called for the unified study of subject areas heretofore taught in isolation. This course, called social studies, would have as its main goal the cultivation of good citizens.

The emphasis on citizenship development was understandable. At the time, because of increased immigration from non-English speaking countries, educators were given the task of teaching English and "the American way of life" in addition to their content areas. As World War I raged in Europe, social studies courses were viewed as a means of developing patriotism among the new foreign-born citizens.

Indeed, citizenship education was one of the main missions of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) when it was formed in 1921. What began as a service organization intending to close the gap between social scientists and secondary school teachers soon advanced an integrated study of the social studies and a broader conception of social studies education.

The Role of Social Studies in the Curriculum of U.S. Schools

The terms social studies education and social science education are often used interchangeably and are, at times, a source of confusion. Social studies is the preferred term in part because it is more inclusive. Although social science typically refers only to academic disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, psychology, geography, economics, and political science, the term social studies includes the aforementioned social sciences as well as humanities disciplines like history, American studies, and philosophy.

At the elementary grade level, social studies is typically organized and taught in an integrative and interdisciplinary fashion, but by the high-school-level social studies teaching and learning are organized by courses in the academic disciplines. At all levels, however, the goals of social studies have been characterized by Peter Martorella (1985) as: (1) transmission of the cultural heritage; (2) methods of inquiry; (3) reflective inquiry; (4) informed social criticism; and (5) personal development. Personal development has traditionally received the greatest emphasis at the elementary level; at the high school level, methods of inquiry have received more emphasis. As phrased in the curriculum guidelines released by the NCSS (1979), "the basic goal of social studies education is to prepare young people to be humane, rational, participating citizens in a world that is becoming increasingly interdependent" (p.262).

Elementary social studies. In the early 1940s, Paul Hanna articulated the Expanding Communities approach as the vehicle in elementary education by which teachers could best present social studies knowledge. For the most part, Hanna's model has been characterized as organizing the content as a series of concentric circles starting with the self at the center and progressing to the family, school, neighborhood, until reaching the international community. It also provided a thematic approach to the content: protecting and conserving; creating, governing, producing resources, transporting, expressing, educating, recreating, and communicating. The content approach still dominates elementary education, but the thematic approach has largely disappeared.

Eric D. Hirsch's (1987) concept of core knowledge has gained some footing as an alternative to the Hanna model. Hirsch proposes a core of information that every American should know. The core knowledge approach relies heavily on world (some would characterize this as primarily European) and U.S. history and culture, democratic ideology, geography, and literature that amplify the human experience; the content is organized to introduce students to subject matter at all grades but at different degrees of intensity.

Secondary social studies. The 1960s brought significant changes to the middle school and high school curricula with the introduction of the elective system. Courses in subjects like anthropology, economics, sociology, and psychology were added to a curriculum that had formally been primarily limited to world history, world geography, government, and U.S. history. Advanced Placement courses were also introduced.

In 1994 NCSS published Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies. Citing the need to promote civic ideals and principles for life in the twenty-first century, the standards consisted of ten interdisciplinary thematic strands as a guide for developing social studies curriculum.

The National Council for the Social Studies

The National Council for the Social Studies was founded in 1921, and is the largest organization in the United States to focus exclusively on social studies education. Historically, the organization was established as a coordinating entity and clearing-house. It evolved at a time when social studies was immersed in disagreement on scope and sequence. Dissent ensued among teacher educators and content specialists, and certification requirements in the social studies were nonexistent. The founders, comprised of professors from Teachers College at Columbia University, envisioned NCSS as the unifying organization that could merge the social studies disciplines with education.

At the start of the twenty-first century NCSS plays a leadership role in promoting an integrated study of the social studies and offers support and services to its members. The membership includes K12 teachers, curriculum specialists, content supervisors, college and university faculty, students, and education leaders in the social studies. The organization has members in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and numerous foreign countries. It draws on multidisciplinary studies and emphasizes a civic-based approach.

The council has articulated a framework to foster academic and civic competence by integrating national standards across disciplines. These NCSS standards are published in Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies, and serve as a guide for decision-making by social studies educators. They have integrated approaches from the social sciences, behavioral sciences, and humanities to aid in structuring a comprehensive and effective social studies program. Ten themes are highlighted in the framework, which include culture; people, places and environments; individuals, groups, and institutions; production, distribution, and consumption; global connections; time, continuity, and change; individual development and identity; power, authority, and governance; science, technology, and society; and civic ideals and practices. The council also has developed position statements to guide the profession on critical areas of education, such as ability grouping, character education, ethics, information literacy, multicultural and global education, religion, and testing.

Teaching Social Studies in Other Countries

The term social studies appears in the literature and the names of professional associations and organizations, academic institutions, and curriculum projects and centers throughout the world. Its meaning, however, is as varied as the contexts in which it appears, and may have little to do with the way content is organized or delivered. Three types of content organization predominate.

Social studies in its most interdisciplinary form combines the integrated study of humanities and the social sciences. This integrated focus appears in relatively few nations, such as the United States and Canada, where both instructional materials and curriculum objectives focus on interdisciplinary learning. In other nations, the mandate for such a system is somewhat more direct. Australia's Adelaide Declaration (DETYA) calls upon schools to prepare students to "exercise judgment and responsibility in matters of morality, ethics and social justice, and the capacity to make sense of their world, to think about how things got to be the way they are" and to "be active and informed citizens" committed to democratic principles and ideals. Recent changes in Japanese national educational policy and law require all students to study integrated courses such as "Human Beings and Industrial Society." The Constitution of the Republic of China (Taiwan) requires education for citizenship that "shall aim at the development among the citizens of the national spirit, the spirit of self-government, national morality, good physique, scientific knowledge and the ability to earn a living" (Article 158). And, while no "social studies" course is mandated per se, the South African Ministry of Education requires that the "values of human rights, civic responsibility and respect for the environment [be] infused throughout the curriculum."

The more common use of the term social studies is as an organizing term for the social science disciplines in faculties, schools, and professional interest groups. In Ghana, for example, social studies faculties in the local secondary schools and university are composed of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and other social scientists. Similar organizations are found in Zimbabwe, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, and other nations throughout Asia and Europe.

The organizational patterns noted above exist in a minority of nations in the world community. The large majority of educational institutions, including schools, universities, ministries of education and culture, and local educational agencies organize the social studies into separate, distinct disciplines: history, economics, anthropology, political science, and other traditional social sciences. Indeed, the university entrance examinations or secondary school exit exams in nations such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and Russia, for example, focus on specific social science disciplines, notably history and geography. Even in nations with emerging integrated curriculum standards such as Japan and the Republic of China, however, examination programs tend to follow traditional social science academic disciplines.

Issues and Controversies

Since its very inception, social studies education has weathered a number of controversies and challenges. The core idea of an integrated field of study has been under scrutiny since its earliest days. The field's eclectic nature not only draws on a wide range of disciplines, but also attracts continuing debate and conflict.

One of the most publicized controversies in the United States was triggered by the curriculum "Man: A Course of Study" (MACOS) during the 1960s. Developed with a National Science Foundation grant, the mixed media curriculum was designed to stimulate the learner's curiosity, promote scientific literacy, and help children learn to think like social scientists. Almost immediately, the program was at the center of a backlash from the "Back to Basics Movement." Central to the MACOS controversy was its focus on inquiry and discovery rather than content. Among other things, critics charged that students were not developing basic skills, that the curriculum promoted cultural relativism, and that it was a threat to democracy. Not surprisingly, the curriculum was eventually phased out.

Conflicts regarding new teaching and learning strategies still abound. For example, role-playing and simulations, guided imagery, cooperative learning, and technology-based learning have all received their share of criticism and opposition.

The content of the social studies curriculum has also been the source of debate and disagreement. When the National Center for History in the Schools published National Standards for World History: Exploring Paths to the Present in 1994, some educators charged that the standards were too inclusive; others claimed that certain groups were omitted altogether. Other controversies center on the plausibility of a national curriculum and the ongoing development of state-level standards, mandates, and high-stakes testing.

Debates surrounding culture continue in the teaching of history, geography, ethnic studies, and multicultural education. While many educators support a cultural relativist position, many others argue that "the mission of public schools is to instill in children our shared, not our separate, cultures" (Ravitch, p. 8). These "culture wars" (as termed by Nash, Crabtree, and Dunn) have resulted in a rich, intellectual, and academic debate that will hopefully illuminate the field. Global education and international studies have also been criticized for their emphases on issues and events outside the United States' borders. Critics charge that global studies advance cultural relativism, minimize patriotism, and emphasize skills at the expense of content. Advocates point out, however, that national borders are becoming less relevant in the face of technology, international politics, and environmental issues.

The Future Role of Technology in the Social Studies

Technology has gained prominence as a tool within the social studies with the potential to enhance current pedagogic practice. Although an increasing body of research suggests that technology can improve academic achievement, changes in social studies instruction based on these findings have been tempered by the following: (1) questions about the efficiency and effectiveness of computer technology applications in the classroom; (2) the role of teacher education institutions and school settings in facilitating or hindering computer-based activities;(3) the unrealized potential of technology; and (4) the overlooked consequences of technological development on children and youth with regard to their social functioning, interpersonal interactions, and global understanding. Various technologies such as Internet and web-based resources, hypermedia, data instruments, digital video, and tele-collaborative teaching represent emerging resources implemented in social studies instruction.

Technology, however, is more than just a tool of instruction, and these resources have effects on the political, social, and economic functioning of American society. Technology's impact on society is exemplified in the phenomenon of the digital divide that separates those who are information rich through their access to telecommunications, computers, and the Internet from the information and technologically poor. Within the social studies educators focus on the differential impact of privileged access to these resources in the early stages of development and consider the potential ongoing consequences of this separation of haves and have-nots on economic success, civic influence, and personal advancement.

Social studies education will continue to evolve as it is affected by events and trends in the United States and abroad. These include the globalization of the media and the economy, advancements in technology, shifts in schools and school demographics, teacher accreditation standards, student testing mandates, changes in the American family, and swings of the political pendulum. These forces will certainly impact ideological perspectives and influence the direction of the social studies in the future.

See also: Civics and Citizenship Education; Curriculum, School; Elementary Education, subentries on Current Trends, History of; Geography, Teaching of; History, subentry on Teaching of; National Council for the Social Studies; Secondary Education, subentries on Current Trends, History of; Technology in Education, subentry on School.


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Berson, Michael J.; Lee, John K.; and Stuckart, Daniel W. 2001. "Promise and Practice of Computer Technologies in the Social Studies: A Critical Analysis." In Critical Issues in Social Studies Research for the Twenty-First Century, ed. William B. Stanley. Greenwich, CT: Information Age.

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Michael J. Berson

BÁrbara C. Cruz

James A. Duplass

J. Howard Johnston


The development of the education of social studies teachers mirrors, in large part, the history and changes of teacher education generally. Social studies teacher preparation has moved from teachers' institutes and normal schools begun in the nineteenth century to teacher colleges and university-based teacher preparation in the twentieth century. But the education of social studies teachers has also had to take into account the unique definitions and issues connected to the teaching of social studies.

Defining Social Studies

Social studies is remembered by many who have gone through schools in the United States as a series of names, dates, and state capitals. In fact, both the definition and content of the field have been a matter of controversy since the early twentieth century. Social studies can be seen both as an umbrella term for a broad field of studies encompassing history and the social sciences and as an integrated field of study in its own right. But whatever the definition, the objectives of social studies education are highly contested. Values such as patriotism, an appreciation of free enterprise, respect for diverse cultures and nations, and knowledge of the structures and functions of American government are each seen by some group as the major goal of social studies teaching. The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) defines the field as "the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence" (NCSS webiste). Because the NCSS standards for the education of social studies teachers (1997) are widely accepted by teacher preparation programs, the goal of enabling learners to acquire knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to citizen participation helps to provide a focus for both the social studies curriculum and the preparation of social studies teachers.

Structure and Organization

What most distinguishes the preparation of social studies teachers from the preparation of other secondary and middle school teachers are the course requirements in their teaching content field and the special methods course. There is a good deal of variation of requirements across the fifty states. Since social studies is an interdisciplinary field, a major concern regarding content requirements is that of depth versus breadth across the various disciplines. How much content knowledge in each of the disciplines making up social studies is enough? How can prospective social studies teachers be prepared both broadly and deeply in all the areas they are expected to teach? In some programs, pre-service teachers major in social studies and take a broad array of courses across history and the social sciences. In other programs, they major in one field and take one or more courses in each of the other social studies disciplines. In some states teachers are certified in "social studies," while in others they may receive certification in a particular discipline such as history or geography.

The social studies methods class is the cornerstone of the professional course work taken by prospective social studies teachers. In this course teachers are expected to learn how to transform content into curriculum and to select and implement appropriate teaching strategies. Through the social studies methods course, combined with related field experiences, pre-service social studies teachers must learn ways to bridge the gap between the experiences of learners and content knowledge. However, although the methods course is a key component of the pre-service education of social studies teachers, there is not general agreement on a number of issues concerning this course: What should be the depth versus breadth of methods taught? How much emphasis should be given in this class to the needs of diverse learners? How much time should be spent preparing pre-service teachers to work with statemandated assessments? What emphasis should be placed in the methods course on developing a sufficient background in the social science disciplines?

The question of subject field content is complemented by the related ontological question, often dealt with in the social studies methods class: What is the nature of knowledge? How teachers conceive of knowledge determines, to a large extent, how they will teach. Is knowledge transmitted by experts or is it constructed by each learner? In teaching methods classes, pre-service teachers may be asked to consider whether history, for example, is largely basic facts of what happened, a method of inquiry, or broad concepts and ideas that enable learners to understand today's world. Generally, the answers teachers develop to these questions are based on the beliefs and expectations pre-service teachers bring to the teacher education program. They bring their already developed conceptions of the content as well as what it means to teach and they make sense of their teacher education experience through the screen of these preconceived ideas. For this reason, the study of pre-service teachers' perspectives and the influences on forming and changing these perspectives has been an important focus for research.

The issues raised by a consideration of the social studies methods class are confounded by the fact that in some programs the instructor of that course may not be a specialist in social studies; indeed, that individual may not be well acquainted with the field itself. Thus questions about the nature and goals of the field may be dealt with only superficially or not at all.

In-Service and Staff Development

Professional development occurs in both formal and informal ways. Informally, students, the school culture, collegial interactions, administrative interaction, and support all work in powerful ways to shape the development of teachers. Formal mechanisms explicitly aimed at guiding teacher development are in place as well. Increasingly, schools and school districts have begun to create and implement teacher induction programs. These programs are intended to provide support for beginning teachers as they deal with day-to-day challenges. Often, a beginning teacher is paired with an experienced teacher who serves as an advisor, guide, and sounding board. The goal of teacher induction programs is to both assist and retain novice teachers and revitalize mentor teachers. But little is known about the making of effective mentors and mentor programs.

Another professional development opportunity routinely provided by school districts is the schoolor district-developed in-service program. Once again, there is no common program model. Such programs may be one-day presentations or yearlong sustained efforts. They may be built around the idea of teachers working together to improve their teaching or they may rely on outside experts who make an occasional appearance. Teachers may see these programs as meeting their needs or as completely irrelevant.

There is the expectation, in many states and school districts, that teachers will continue to do graduate work in their teaching field or in professional education. While teachers in such programs are expected to find useful ways to apply what they learn to their teaching practice, there is generally little support in the classroom for these efforts. Some teachers find that membership in professional associations, such as the National Council for the Social Studies, is a meaningful form of professional development. Reading journals, attending conferences and workshops, and working with other teachers in one's own field are important benefits of getting involved with professional associations. However, not all schools and school districts are supportive of teacher involvement in professional associations. Districts often expect membership in professional associations to be at the teacher's own cost and on the teacher's own time. Some districts will discourage teachers from taking time from their teaching to attend professional association meetings and conferences, while others support such efforts as a form of professional renewal.

Certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is a challenging form of professional development voluntarily undertaken by experienced teachers. National board certification in social studies, as in other fields, is based on a demonstration of a teacher's practice as measured against high and rigorous standards. Yet, states and school districts differ in the support they give to teachers seeking board certification and in the ways in which they recognize those who achieve certification through this rigorous process.

Major Trends and Issues

Important trends in the education of social studies teachers are similar to those in teacher education as a whole, but they are often manifest in distinct ways. The growing interest in accountability for both teachers and students, for example, is a major issue in the early twenty-first century. The work of teaching and teacher education has come to focus increasingly on helping students to meet state standards. In addition, many states require teachers to pass some form of content knowledge test to receive certification. In social studies, both student content standards and teacher testing may be highly political rather than professional. Decisions about what knowledge should be taught are often very controversial. Decision-making often involves politicians, content experts with divergent points of view, and the general public, as well as professional educators. Consensus among and within various groups may be difficult to attain; those with the most powerful voices often become the decision-makers.

Another challenge for teaching and teacher education is the appropriate use of technology both in teacher education programs and in K12 classrooms. Research suggests that social studies pre-service teacher motivation is increased by online dialogue, facilitated (but not controlled) by the instructor. Additional research suggests great potential for improved learning of social studies through the use of technology, such as using the Library of Congress website to bring primary sources into the classroom. However, at the start of the twenty-first century, teacher educators are only beginning to use technology in sophisticated ways in their own teaching and only just developing ways to prepare teachers for high-power uses of technology.

Teacher education faces the challenge of preparing teachers to effectively teach culturally and linguistically diverse students. In social studies, issues of diversity go to the heart of the field. The concept of citizenship on which social studies is based must be a dynamic one that considers the many different cultural and national identities of learners. It must also take into account that citizenship in an interdependent world must have a global, as well as a national, component. Making the social studies curriculum meaningful and significant for learners and for society remains the greatest challenge of social studies teaching and teacher education.

See also: Elementary Education, subentry on Preparation of Teachers; Teacher Education.


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Susan A. Adler

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