Meaningful social studies for elementary students

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Florida International University]On: 26 August 2014, At: 03:47Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    Teachers and Teaching: theory andpracticePublication details, including instructions for authors andsubscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ctat20

    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

    *Corresponding author. Email: jereb@msu.edu

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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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  • Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice 359

    content in their preservice teacher education, combined with the low priority thatschool districts typically assign to inservice professional development in elementarysocial studies, leaves most elementary teachers poorly prepared to assess instructionalresources, identify the most worthwhile ones, and use them in ways that support theirstudents progress toward major social studies goals. Consequently, their view ofsocial studies often is limited to the contents of the social studies textbooks used attheir grade-level (typically purchased from one of four major publishers), andinformed by the instructional materials (maps, globes, videos, or fictional and nonfic-tional childrens literature selections) provided by their districts.

    There are problems with this reliance on textbooks. First, the textbooks contentand activity suggestions often leave much to be desired. For example, whether mostlypicture books, as is the case for kindergarten through second grade materials, ormostly prose, as is the case for upper elementary materials, the content does notconsist of networks of connected information structured around big ideas (whichwould make it both worth learning and relatively easy to learn). Instead, it consists ofparades of disconnected facts that provide a trivial pursuit or mile-wide but inch-deep curriculum. Most of the suggested activities are similarly trivial related to thetopic but not designed to develop big ideas with an eye toward application to lifeoutside of school (the same is true of most videos and instructional resources accessi-ble via the internet). The teachers manuals also do not provide much help. They mayhighlight new vocabulary words or suggest topic-related activities or childrens books,but they usually do not identify key ideas or guide teachers in systematically develop-ing these ideas for understanding, appreciation, and life application.

    State and district standards do not provide much help to elementary teachers either.For the primary and upper elementary grades, state curriculum standards in socialstudies tend to be relatively limited and vague, and school districts standards usuallyreflect those of the states. Furthermore, because of accountability pressures and testingprograms that emphasize basic literacy and mathematics skills, primary teachers arehard pressed to find time to teach social studies. A few develop social studies contentduring only six or eight weeks of the school year. Most allocate substantially moretime to social studies by teaching about core democratic values and supplementingthe textbook content with the holiday curriculum the civic socialization, historicalre-creations, and other school activities traditionally associated with Columbus Day,Thanksgiving, the birthdays of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and MartinLuther King, Jr., and other special days that provide occasions for developingstudents knowledge about American history and socializing their values as Americancitizens. Many teachers also supplement the text-based social studies curriculumthrough some of the literature selections and writing assignments that they include intheir literacy curriculum.

    However, even a content base that includes the textbook, holiday activities, andsocial education-related childrens literature selections will not lead to a coherent andpowerful social studies curriculum, because these sources are long on trivia but shorton meaningful development of connected big ideas. Providing primary students witha more powerful introduction to social education requires both a content base that isstructured around big ideas and teaching that emphasizes the connections among theseideas and their applications to life outside of school.

    As social studies educators and researchers, we have been working to developcurriculum and instruction that meet these criteria. In the remainder of this article, weexplain our rationale for adopting a new curricular approach to elementary social

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  • 360 J. Brophy and J. Alleman

    studies and provide an overview of the curriculum we have developed. Its contentfocuses on human activities related to cultural universals basic human needs andsocial experiences found in all societies, past and present.

    Concerns about elementary social studies education

    To plan good social studies programs, teachers need to clarify their priorities concern-ing social education goals and their implications for the curriculum. Most programmodels share commitment to citizen education goals, so it is possible to constructricher yet still coherent curricula by incorporating multiple perspectives. A unit ongovernment, for example, might incorporate core democratic values (citizenshiptransmission), the three branches of government (political science), what it means tobe an informed voter (reflective inquiry), and the rights and responsibilities of citizensin a democracy (social criticism component focused on whether there is justice for allin America). Still, some critics of early social studies have questioned whether it ispossible to accomplish such a challenging agenda with young learners, and othershave questioned whether it is being accomplished effectively.

    Learner readiness

    In the past, the idea that social studies involves abstractions that are not well graspeduntil at least the fourth grade caused some to argue that social studies instructionshould not begin until that time, and others to argue that history should not b...

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