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'Boring' Social Studies: One Teacher's Remedy

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Social-studies teachers report that many students find their subject boring. At conferences from coast to coast, teachers and professors meet to discuss the future of social studies or to debate what should be "the scope and sequence" for various grades. They have as much difficulty reaching a consensus as Congress does on the budget. For the students' sake, perhaps they should agree to disagree, even at the expense of facing the future with more than one approach to the scope and sequence of social-studies courses.

The current discussions remind me of one area of divergent opinion among supporters of "progressive" schools, back when the progressive-education movement was in full flower. Opinion in the movement ranged between those who wanted to emphasize what changes in education could do for society and its reform and those who stressed what schools could do for the individual if children's individual differences received due recognition. An analogous range of opinion seems to complicate the sincere efforts of those who would give "the social studies" a firmer direction and a clearer role in this period of educational reform.

As a retired teacher, mainly of junior-high-school English and mathematics, I approach the current debates about social studies with enough teaching background in the field to claim an amateur's right to toss my ideas into the fray. I am one who believes we should construct social-studies curricula with our focus on the needs and capacities of students, not on societal reform.

Because of my experience, I concentrate my thinking on the middle grades, 5 to 8, asking myself why boys and girls in these grades should be "bored" with social studies and what might be done to pique their interest. Surely these are the crucial years. In my experience, it has been clear that the high-school student's attitude toward history has been fairly well set by the time he enters 9th grade.

Recently, I looked at several 6th-grade social-studies textbooks. Some of them troubled me on several counts: the amount of material covered, its appropriateness for 6th graders, and the style of writing.

I can easily see why many 6th graders are bored. Apparently, someone has decided that the students should cover the entire world, from its human beginnings until the day before a textbook goes to press (excluding the United States and Canada, which are usually covered in 5th grade).

Even a college student would have trouble trying, in one year, to develop an understanding of events spanning so much time and space. An 11-year-old student who is good at memorizing definitions can perform well, but I doubt he learns much that endures if teachers try to cover all that these textbooks prescribe. Such superficial treatment can turn students against history--and social studies in general.

Some of the topics covered--such as the economies, governments, and cultures of China, Japan, and the U.S.S.R.--are too important for us to try to make pre-adolescents understand them, giving them a false sense of mastery after touching only a simplistically presented surface.

If the coverage were slowed to a reasonable pace, with many more pertinent details, there is more than enough material suitable for the middle grades. High-school courses can then do justice to contemporary complexities when students have the background to involve themselves intelligently.

The writing style of these textbooks is too dependent on readability formulas. The result is a predominance of short words in short, choppy sentences. I suppose complex sentences are too long and "complex" to be readable.

Overall, today's conception of what constitutes social studies is muddled and confusing. For example, New York State's 1982 K-12 social-studies program contained this statement of purpose for the 6th-grade: "The 6th-grade program focuses on a social-science perspective emphasizing the interaction of geography and economics. The core disciplines of geography and economics are used to develop and draw relationships and understanding about social/cultural, political, and historic aspects of life in Europe, the Middle East, and other regions of the world. Historical insights are used as a means of developing a total perspective rather than as an organizing framework for the grade." I'm not even sure I know what all this means.

So what would this amateur do if charged with designing a social-studies curriculum for grades 5 through 8? First, I would shelve the term "social studies" and instead use "history" and "geography," making it clear to students that these are branches of the social sciences which borrow now and then from other branches.

In my curriculum, 5th graders would study the Western Hemisphere, starting with exploration and colonization, spending most of the year on the United States, but also looking at Canada and Latin America. The focus would be on people, their motivations, the way they lived--all examined within a chronological framework, but with little emphasis on any but the most important dates.

In 6th grade, students would begin a three-year sequence with a look at man's early beginnings. Most of the year would be spent on the early civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean. Seventh graders would look at the fall of Rome, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, and study the 16th-century explorations in depth.

As they do today, 8th graders would cover much the same ground as in 5th grade, but with a difference more appropriate to their greater maturity.

In all three years of the sequence, there would be time set aside for quick looks at simultaneous developments in other parts of the world, including, for example, ancient China in 6th grade and 19th-century Latin America in 8th grade. Throughout the four years, there would be appropriate geography lessons and map study.

Even as 8th-grade history concentrates on the United States' growth and westward expansion, I would hope that 11th- and 12th-grade U.S. history would cover the years after the Civil War--with an emphasis on such topics as politics, international affairs, labor-management relations, and the civil-rights movement. With care, 5th, 8th, 11th, and 12th graders could all study U.S. history without undue (and boring) repetition.

In addition to history and geography texts, it would be useful for students and teachers to consult supplementary nonfiction sources and read period novels.

I expect that some will protest my curriculum's neglect of certain areas of the world. Some educators believe the native countries of various ethnic groups should receive as much time as the United States does.

I disagree. Except for the Indians, who were already here, and the blacks, who were brought here as slaves, all of us--or our ancestors--came to the U.S. voluntarily, forsaking other lands to become Americans. Nothing can change the fact that our country's philosophical and political roots go back to the ancient Mediterranean cultures, to the Greeks and the Romans, and to the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is important that we understand these roots, whatever our individual heritages.

I do agree that both Indians and blacks deserve more attention in our history books than they have often received. But in general I am skeptical when groups demand special consideration because of their ethnic origins.

Whatever the climate of recent decades, I believe concern for the future warrants an accent on what is American--unhyphenated--particularly in the nation's public schools. A vital part of our history includes the arrival of vast numbers of people from other lands and the enrichment of all our lives by their varied contributions, but the emphasis in our social-studies courses, particularly in the early years, should be on the United States and those earlier cultures that contributed to our beginnings.

Firmly grounded in the meaning and purpose of history, as well as in the history of their country and its antecedents, students should move on to high school ready to branch out into detailed study of other countries and into other disciplines of the social sciences. If areas of study are appropriately chosen, if textbooks are written in a style that dignifies both students and the subjects they study, and if teachers are themselves enthusiastic and well-informed, young people should be anything but bored.

Vol. 05, Issue 02, Page 19

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