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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Social Studies Opinion

Don’t Suffocate Students With Memorization. Get Them Talking

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 11, 2023 14 min read
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As we all gear up for a new school year, this series will offer some ideas for social studies teachers to chew on ...

Student Discussion

Kara Pranikoff is a diversity, equity, and inclusion coach working with schools in New York City. She is the author of Teaching Talk: A Practical Guide to Fostering Student Thinking and Conversation (Heinemann, 2017), in which she shares many ways to keep the balance of classroom discussion in the hands of the students:

Distill social studies to its purest objective and you discover that you are teaching this: how to be a kind and respectful human who helps to improve society. Our youngest students study how people live and work together. Ideas come alive as we discuss community and identity and how we can all take on roles that are interdependent and enable us to thrive. In the older grades, we develop these same ideas in locations further away in geography and time. We might consider how people have adapted to their environment, the way needs are met in different cultures, or the role of government as society evolves. We learn about history so we can understand the world we are living in today.

In every grade, we must center the ultimate goal of instruction—the creation of a better future. As the National Council for the Social Studies imparts, “The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.” (Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies)

A democracy depends on active citizens who think about what is happening around them and who have the skill and confidence to speak up. Our social studies classrooms become the practice ground for these goals. It’s our job to give students interesting things to think about and the space to share their ideas.

What does this look like in action? Find something that sparks curiosity and turn the classroom discussion over to the students. It’s an easy shift with major impact. The most effective instructional strategy a social studies teacher can use is to provoke thinking and student-driven conversation.

We begin by calling students to engage. Read a picture book. Present a primary source. Show a political cartoon. We open a dialogue by asking, What do you think? Then, it’s our job to stay quiet. Resist the urge to answer student questions. Instead, give them time. Make space for them to look, read, and listen carefully, to hear each other’s ideas, to consider the evidence, and to develop their own beliefs.

The teacher becomes the facilitator of discussions, leaving the discourse in the hands of the students. When we speak, it’s to stimulate interactions between the thinkers in the classroom and the content they are digesting. Open-ended questions keep the discussion firmly rooted in the minds of the students. The social studies classroom is not only filled with facts but is also filled with curiosity, action, and student ideas. The predictable bumps in understanding can be navigated by the teacher while the focus remains on student talk.

When an idea needs to be clarified ask, What evidence gives you that idea? If a new piece of information needs to be considered alongside content you’ve discussed earlier ask, What else have we talked about that supports that idea? When a student shares an interesting thought worthy of further consideration, you can linger by asking, Who understands what this classmate is thinking?

In our world where some are susceptible to hide behind the screens of social media, or absorb sound bites deemed as news, it’s even more important that we teach students how to engage in productive conversation that grows ideas. We can teach them to respectfully navigate a difference of opinion. We can guide them in developing their thoughts with persuasive arguments. We can teach them that there is strength in rethinking an opinion and changing your mind.

Most importantly, we can teach young students that their thoughts are a vital part of the conversation. When they see something in their current lives or in the history they learn that concerns them, they can speak out. They are entitled to question if something is fair, to wonder whose perspectives are left out, to envision more equitable ways of engaging the whole of society.

The greatest thing we can do in social studies is to give students entry to the ultimate objective: the creation of a stronger democracy. We need to let students see that as a society we are growing and changing all the time and that their voices are crucial to that development. Student ideas that create positive change begin in the social studies classroom.


‘The C3 Framework’

Candy Holloway (@CHollowayELA) is the 6-12 ELA curriculum coordinator for the Fort Zumwalt school district in Missouri.

Pat Brown (@brownpatrick8) is the executive director of STEAM and CTE for the Fort Zumwalt district and the author of the bestselling NSTA book series Instructional Sequence Matters:

Focusing on fewer, more significant ideas is critical to avoid superficial “coverage,” while allowing more time to engage students in the active, meaning-making processes necessary for developing conceptual understandings. Conceptual understanding is key and refers to knowledge at a deep level so students can transfer to new settings in college, careers, and civic life—a hallmark of contemporary social studies education called the C3 Framework.

While the C3 Framework and state-level standards documents provide a vision for social studies education, standards are not curriculum. Therefore, teachers and curriculum teams need to use the standards to design a specific pathway for teaching and learning.

What are the most effective instructional design features for promoting enduring understanding in social studies?

The most successful instructional design begins with clarity about desired learning outcomes (Essential Element 1 below) as well as the process that students will use to develop a conceptual understanding (Essential Elements 2 and 3) and show the target learning has occurred (see Wiggins & McTighe 2011). A critical component in a quality unit plan is alignment—all three essential elements are aligned to each other. Below we summarize three essential elements for high-quality instructional design in social studies. We also provide a visual to summarize the essential planning features.

Essential Element 1: The Social Studies Disciplines

This first element in the design process provides clarity about the social studies discipline (civics, economics, geography, and history). This is where state-level standards for specific grade spans help target content that contextualizes learning.

Essential Element 2: Classroom Inquiry

The second element addresses the ways in which students use compelling and supportive questions to explore the social studies disciplines (i.e., inquiry-based approach). Inquiry refers to the strategies students use to collect data that will serve as evidence to answer questions and is heavily addressed in Dimensions 1, 3, and 4 of the C3 Framework. Sources then provide data and tasks related to the compelling and supportive questions that should help guide students in active meaning making while they develop historical thinking skills. Here lies the bulk of teacher instructional design work because educators will need to determine how students will access specific knowledge from state standards (Essential Element 1) with inquiry strategies and resources that are grade-span-appropriate and available (Essential Element 2).

Essential Element 3: Historical and Social Analytical Lenses

Essential Element 3 encourages students to examine social studies topics through different themes to gain more nuanced as well as holistic views of disciplinary topics (e.g., culture, time, identity, etc.) (see NCSS). This is where students use unique perspectives to analyze trends, patterns, and causal relationships, explaining and understanding history and the social sciences.

While we have artificially separated these essential elements for consideration in lesson design, their special combination leads to conceptual understanding and transfer learning. The essential elements listed above illuminate the subtle interplay between analytical thinking, process, and social studies disciplines needed to ensure students are success-ready K-12 and beyond.

How Can the Critical Features Be Used for Instructional Planning and Reflection?

These questions that follow can help support the process and be used either to plan instruction or reflection to guide PLC work and ensure they are addressing essential elements in social studies education.

When these essential elements are used in planning instruction, teachers can work to identify the pieces of each essential element that are present in their lessons and overall units. While lessons should incorporate each essential element, it is a much smaller scale that may only include a few components.

In PLC work, teachers can collaborate about teaching strategies within Essential Elements 2 and 3 and work to ensure each element is present in the planning process, as well as assessments of student learning.

● What disciplines do the standards identify for the grade span? (Essential Element 1)

● What experience and knowledge do students have related to the standards, inquiry abilities, and ways to analyze history and social sciences? How can students’ background experiences serve as assets to learning? (Essential Elements 1,2, and 3)

● What compelling and supporting questions are related to the content and students’ experiences? (Essential Element 1 and 2)

● How can students use features of inquiry (e.g., asking questions, using data as evidence for sensemaking, analyzing sources, and communicating understanding) to investigate compelling questions? (Essential Elements 2 and 3)

● What sources are relevant to completing the task? (Essential Element 2)

● From which analytical perspective(s) are students going to approach the questions and sources to construct understanding? (Essential Element 3)

● How are students going to communicate their understanding? (Essential Element 2)

● How can students use their new understanding to take action? (Essential Element 2)

● How are students going to evaluate their own learning? (i.e., promotes metacognition). (Essential Elements 1, 2, and 3)

Closing Thoughts

Through thoughtful planning, teachers can provide an environment in which students ask questions and practice real-world skills using multiple perspectives to understand their world.


Telling Stories

Elizabeth Stein, Ed.D., is a special education and Universal Design for Learning instructional coach and consultant. She is the author of Two Teachers in the Room: Strategies for Co-Teaching Success (Routledge) and Elevating Co-Teaching through UDL (CAST).

So many strategies come to mind—yet it took me less than one second to come up with the one—single most effective strategy to implement during social studies instruction. Before I just blurt it out, let’s build up a sense of purpose. When done right (in my opinion), the content should be shared as a story. As a Hey, kids … listen to what happened to people that lived way before you and me! Listen to what they experienced and what they did to pave the way for the way we live today.

This approach takes any video or written text and brings it to life by engaging the students in enlightening conversations about it—creating opportunities for students to expand their background knowledge and feel something—not just remember something. In my opinion, social studies should never, ever be about merely memorizing and staying awake long enough to get to a sense of relief that class is over. No. let’s use class time wisely. So, how do we get students interested while guiding them to retain information—not just for the test on Friday—but also as a way to pique their interest around the actions that others took before us? For starters, teachers can:

1. Take time to share the content in a storylike, conversational manner where students have the opportunity to feel/say “Wow, that’s cool—I never knew that! Or I wonder why …”

2. Provide students with a tool for paraphrasing the information in their own words—telling the story in their way. That’s it!

Enter Cornell Notetaking Strategy

Based on my more than 20 years using this strategy across elementary, middle, high school, and higher education—I say, if you are looking for the one single most effective strategy to use in social studies (or any content area for that matter) look no further!

How it works:

Based on more than two decades of my implementing this strategy, here’s all you need to know to apply tomorrow!

1. Have students set up their note page (digital or pen and paper) in a double column note-taking fashion that leaves space on the page for a horizontal line at the bottom of the vertical line.

2. Share your content using multimedia, visual, auditory, and any other mode you design.

3. Present the key words/concepts that are important to know and have students write each on the left side of their paper.

4. After you share the “story” of the historical content, have students write the definition or explanation of each key word on the right side of the paper.

5. At the conclusion of the lesson, students reread their notes and craft one or two paragraphs to explain the historical event using the words and information in the above two columns.

6. Have students share their paraphrased paragraphs with at least one peer. If time, have a few students report out.

The information, shared in class is intentionally transformed to provide students with the opportunity to make sense of the information in a way that guides attention, engagement, motivation, and yes, you guessed it, retention of the material in a way that brings the information to life in meaningful ways.


Thanks to Kara, Candy, Pat, and Elizabeth for contributing their thoughts!

The new question of the week is:

What is the single most effective instructional strategy you have used in social studies classes?

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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