Panel Circulates Draft Standards For K-4 History

By Debra Viadero — February 16, 1994 4 min read

Students as young as kindergartners should learn about diverse facets of history ranging from life on the Western frontier to Marco Polo and the disadvantages of travel by chariot, a draft of the first set of national standards for teaching history suggests.

Currently, history studies do not typically start until the 4th grade, when students begin to learn the history of their own states. But the draft tentatively approved this month by a panel of historians and educators calls for beginning those studies earlier.

“What we are trying to do is have teachers become more aware that students can grasp historical information at a young age,’' said Sara Shoob, an elementary school vice principal from Virginia who helped write the draft standards.

“By doing that, we’re also saying to textbook publishers and children’s-book publishers there’s a need for more literature ... that deals with these topics,’' Ms. Shoob added.

History is one of 11 subjects for which voluntary national academic standards are being developed or have already been completed. In an effort to help meet the national education goals set in 1990 by President Bush and the nation’s governors, the federal government is supporting standards-writing efforts in seven of those subjects, including history.

The National Center for History in the Schools, based at the University of California at Los Angeles, is leading the writing of the history standards. It formed the standards panel, known as the National Council for History Standards.

Complete standards recommending what every student should know and be able to do in the study of the past will not be finished until later this year. But council members, meeting in Washington, agreed that their draft standards for K-4 students were complete enough to be circulated for nationwide review.

Beyond ‘Horizons’

Surveys conducted by the National Council for History Education, a separate group based in Westlake, Ohio, suggest that most schools, if they teach social studies at all in the early grades, use an “expanding horizons’’ approach. That method begins with the child, moves to his or her family, and gradually expands to include the neighborhood, community, and so forth. The approach comes from research suggesting that young children, who often have trouble distinguishing between yesterday and today, cannot master chronological concepts.

In recent years, however, a growing number of educators--and some newer studies--have taken issue with that method. Critics say expanding-horizons studies may even bore children by teaching them things they already know.

Drawing on some of those concepts, the draft standards attempt to infuse more history, literature, and historical thinking into primary-level instruction.

They suggest, for example, that young children should be able to understand changes over time in family life, transportation, and technology. They should study the history of the indigenous peoples who lived in their region and trace the movements of people who came there from other places.

Instruction should focus as well on great world movements of people, both now and long ago.

Moreover, the draft calls for teaching students to construct historical narratives and “picture’’ time lines and to use artifacts and primary resources, such as letters and photographs, to piece together their historical ideas.

“There will be schools and educational programs who are 20 years behind the times, and they will say, ‘Don’t let a historical date in an elementary school classroom or you will damage children for life,’'' said Charlotte K. Crabtree, the director of the standards project.

“What you have to be able to do is connect the here and now,’' Ms. Crabtree said. “With little children, you never use dates--but they can understand long ago.’'

Emphasis on Literature

The standards also recommend dozens of history-oriented literary selections, many of them reflecting a wide variety of non-Western cultures, to enliven and integrate history studies for young children.

“Increasingly, research suggests that children learn, remember, and enjoy history better through historical literature,’' said C. Frederick Risinger, the associate director of the Social Studies Development Center at Indiana University and a member of the standards panel.

Mr. Risinger noted that the use of historical literature would also enable elementary school teachers, who must teach 10 or more separate subjects, to fit in more history by integrating it with the study of literature.

A few states, such as Florida and California, in recent years have begun to move toward a more history rich curriculum in the early grades.

Doing It All?

The bigger debate for primary-level history standards may be whether teachers can do it all. Standards for geography and civics are also being developed with federal aid. All three of the groups involved plan to blend their standards together for K-4 students. (See Education Week, Jan. 19, 1994.)

Meanwhile, the National Council for the Social Studies, a professional association, is independently developing broader guidelines for teaching all the social sciences at all levels.

“The debate in the field has been whether kids should be getting separate time and attention to those fields or whether there should be an integrated social-studies approach,’' said Linda Levstik, a social-studies professor at the University of Kentucky.

“You can do good teaching either way,’' she said, “but given the amount of time students have for learning social studies in the elementary school day, my inclination would be to go with the integrated approach.’'