Meaningful social studies for elementary students
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Meaningful social studies forelementary studentsJere Brophy a & Janet Alleman aa Department of Teacher Education , Michigan State University ,USAPublished online: 22 Jul 2009.
To cite this article: Jere Brophy & Janet Alleman (2009) Meaningful social studies for elementarystudents, Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice, 15:3, 357-376
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13540600903056700
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Teachers and Teaching: theory and practiceVol. 15, No. 3, June 2009, 357376
ISSN 1354-0602 print/ISSN 1470-1278 online 2009 Taylor & FrancisDOI: 10.1080/13540600903056700http://www.informaworld.com
Meaningful social studies for elementary students
Jere Brophy* and Janet Alleman
Department of Teacher Education, Michigan State University, USATaylor and Francis LtdCTAT_A_405843.sgm(Received 7 October 2008; final version received 21 January 2009)10.1080/13540600903056700Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice1354-0602 (print)/1470-1278 (online)Original Article2009Taylor & Francis1530000002009JereBrophyjereb@msu.edu
This article begins with an overview of elementary social studies, considering itspurposes and goals, historical and contemporary controversies about learnerreadiness and curriculum content, and commonly reported problems withtextbooks and time pressures. It then considers proposed reforms, first consideringapproaches recommended by others and then focusing on the approachrecommended by the authors. This approach features units on cultural universals,organized around powerful ideas developed with emphasis on their connectionsand applications. Common features of the units are described and then illustratedas they play out in a unit on government. The final section describes how anexemplary elementary teacher implements these units in her classroom in waysthat personalize them to her students home backgrounds, uses a narrative style forestablishing a common content base, and in other ways addresses the challengesof teaching content-rich subjects to young learners with limited backgroundknowledge and literacy skills.
Keywords: social studies; elementary grades; cultural universals; curriculum;government
Curricula conventionally are divided into the arts and humanities (focusing on personalexpression and communication), the sciences (focusing on the physical world), and thesocial sciences (focusing on the social world). The school subjects are distinguishedfrom the disciplines that inform them. School curricula are organized to prepare studentsfor life in the present and future. The students learn something about how disciplinarygenres and tools are used to generate new knowledge, but most of their time in schoolis spent learning discipline-based knowledge and skills that they can draw upon toinform their personal, social, and civic decision-making in life outside of school.
In the USA, the elementary (and sometimes the secondary) social educationcurriculum is taught as integrated social studies, rather than as separate courses inhistory or the social science disciplines. That is, instead of being organized within asingle discipline and emphasizing discipline-specific content and issues, social studiescourses integrate content drawn from multiple disciplines and emphasize goals ofcitizen preparation.
The emergence of social studies as a coherent school subject organized to prepareyoung people for citizenship is credited to a committee report issued by the NationalEducation Association (1916), calling for incorporating content from history, geogra-phy, and civics within a social education strand to be called social studies. Its content
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358 J. Brophy and J. Alleman
would be selected based on its meaning and relevance to students and its value inpreparing them for citizenship. This vision is still emphasized by contemporary socialstudies educators. For example, the National Council for the Social Studies definessocial studies as the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promotecivic competence, adding that its primary purpose is to help young people developthe ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizensof a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world (NCSS,1994, p. 3).
Elementary social studies developed along the lines envisioned in the 1916 report.The curriculum drew from history, geography, civics, and economics, and later fromsociology, anthropology, and psychology. Content was taught as integrated socialstudies, rather than as separate courses in the academic disciplines. Gradually, theexpanding communities sequence became the dominant structure and framework.Also known as the expanding horizons or expanding environments sequence, it beginswith a focus on the self in kindergarten and then expands the purview to the familyand school in first grade, the neighborhood in second grade, the community in thirdgrade, the state and region in fourth grade, the nation in fifth grade, and thehemisphere or world in sixth grade.
Competing approaches to social studies
Within the commonalities established by this shared heritage, contemporary socialstudies educators hold contrasting definitions of citizen education and assumptionsabout how to accomplish it. Their contrasting views resemble the curricular debatesthat occur in all subjects and reflect continuing struggles among supporters of fourcompeting ideas about what should be the primary basis for elementary and secondaryeducation (Kliebard, 2004). The first group believes that schools should equipstudents with knowledge that is lasting and important. It looks to the academic disci-plines as storehouses of knowledge and sources of authority about how to organizeand teach it. The second group believes that the natural course of child/adolescentdevelopment should be the basis for curriculum planning. It would align content tothe interests and learning needs associated with each grade-levels ages and stages.The third group works backward from societys needs, designing schooling to preparechildren and adolescents to fulfill adult roles in the society. The fourth group seeks touse the schools to combat injustice and promote social change, by focusing curriculumaround social policy issues.
In practice, mainstream social studies has focused on transmission of the culturalheritage, emphasizing didactic teaching of content that features support for the statusquo, focus on Western civilization, and inculcation into American political values andtraditions. Periodically, it is challenged by historians and social scientists who wantpreservation of the integrity of their disciplines in the form of separate courses, or bysocial reformers who want more inquiry into and discussion of social issues withemphasis on critical thinking, values analysis, and decision-making.
Debates about the nature and content of social studies have focused primarily onthe secondary grades. Elementary teachers often do not know much about thesedebates, or even much about social studies as a coherent curricular strand. Their teach-ing preparation is heavily focused on literacy and mathematics. Most take only asingle course in social studies education as undergraduates and acquire little or noadditional social studies education thereafter. Limited exposure to social studies
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content in their preservice teacher education, combined with the low priority thatschool distri