Curriculum Opinion

Social Studies Is Dead; Long Live Social Studies!

By Dave Powell — April 07, 2015 6 min read
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It all started with a failed lesson plan.

I had a pleasant surprise yesterday: a former student named Jason, who had graduated two years ago with a teaching certificate and a self-designed individual major in Human Security—an emerging national security paradigm—took time out of his spring break to stop in for a visit. He had been, as they say, a “non-traditional” student: prior to entering college, he spent six years in the U.S. Navy, touring the world and, most notably, engaging pirates in faraway places. His experience gave him a unique perspective on geopolitics and security issues. He wrote a thesis that started with the idea that rapid globalization has fundamentally altered the structure of international relationships, resulting in situations where existing states find themselves ill-equipped to face increasing threats from non-state actors, and concluded that redefining traditional ideas about sovereignty may be a key to international stability in the future.

It was an interesting and well researched thesis, and it came as the capstone of a neatly conceptualized interdisciplinary major—one that drew on the fields of political science, anthropology, history, economics, and philosophy. Jason is a passionate, engaged, thoughtful person with a strong academic background and an interesting life story to tell. You would think this would make him an outstanding candidate for a full-time teaching job, since we hear so much about the poor preparation and incompetence of teachers, but in two years he hasn’t yet found one. He is currently teaching as a long-term substitute in a suburban school district.

But that’s just backstory; this story is about Jason’s efforts to stretch himself as a teacher, put his preparation experience to work, and maybe have an impact on his students too. And that starts with his failed lesson plan.

On the day in question, Jason had a lesson planned but, like a lot of beginning teachers, we wasn’t sure how to pace it. He did his thing and then he looked up: only fifteen minutes had elapsed and the lesson was done. There were 65 minutes left in the period.

It’s every new teacher’s worst nightmare. Not only does coming up short on time make you look incompetent, it also leaves you with a serious problem on your hands: how do you entertain a classroom full of students with that much time to kill and no relief in sight? So Jason sized up the situation and decided to do what he knew best. He started a conversation with his students about boko haram.

It worked. His students had no idea what boko haram was, but as soon as Jason started to explain light bulbs went off. Sixty-five minutes of dead space instantly morphed into one of the best hours Jason had taught all year. The period was so successful that his students asked him—a long-term sub, mind you—if he would be willing to help them start a club.

So he did. The Policy and Security club was born, and before long students were engaged in discussions not only about national security in the geopolitical space but about tough topics that hit closer to home, like the militarization of the police, the shooting of Michael Brown, and the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, that followed his death. At the first meeting, Jason laid out his expectations for the club: he told students he wanted them to ask good questions, do research, and, most of all, listen to each other.

He also did something else that teachers don’t do often enough: he asked the students what they wanted to get out of the club. Their answer might surprise people who don’t spend a lot of time in schools. We want to hear peoples’ opinions, they said, but we want them to be supported by facts and evidence. We want to talk about real issues, about things that are happening in the world right now. Most of all, they said, we want to have adult conversations: we want to be treated like we have something to say, and we want to be heard when we say it. Students choose the topics of discussion in the Policy and Security club, do their own research, and share their findings with each other. Jason, their teacher, guides them.

The students’ goals and the teacher’s goals meshed perfectly. Turns out they both wanted to be in a real social studies class.

Don’t misunderstand me here: there are social studies teachers all over the place doing good things every day. We can only hope that the reports of social studies’ death have been greatly exaggerated. Then again, what does it say about the state of social studies that it takes a failed lesson plan by a long-term sub, a desperation heave from half-court about boko haram, and a few students desperate to talk about current issues for the real stuff of social studies to be a part of school?

Maybe it’s NCLB, which didn’t include social studies in the list of tested subjects, thus banishing it to the educational hinterlands. Maybe it’s common core—these days, it seems, everybody wants to blame everything on common core. Or maybe, like Joe Kincheloe once said, it’s because social studies has become a “curricular dinosaur"—a relic from an earlier age when civic engagement was something we saw as a universal good, not something to be managed and controlled in a cynical bid to keep real political debate out of schools.

But wouldn’t it be nice for social studies to make a comeback? Think about everything that’s missing in today’s political debates—not just debates about education, but about everything else. Social studies classes, when taught well, offer spaces where issues can be explored in nuanced ways, where deliberation is more important than debate, and where listening is more important than speaking. A good social studies class serves as a proving ground for political socialization, a place for students (and their teachers) to explore social issues with people they know but who may not be much like them. School is supposed to be a place where young people are exposed to a wide variety of political views, where the comforts of home are alternately reinforced and challenged, where new identities are formed.

But instead of embracing the cultural changes that have been swirling around us, social studies has fallen into reactionary mode: when the standards movement hit in the 1990s, social studies educators decided they needed their own standards too. When “college and career ready” became the mantra more recently, the word “civic” was attached, and a bland “new” paradigm was born. It’s gotten to the point that the argument is actually being made that the solution to the problem of a marginalized social studies is to test it—but any time you hear the words “testing” and “social studies” together in the same sentence, you should turn the other way and walk as quickly as possible. Run, even. I haven’t seen the test yet that adequately—or accurately—measures civic engagement and responsibility.

As is often the case, the solution to the problem may be closer than we think. Jason’s conscientious work with his own students offers a clue: strong academic preparation, including coursework and fieldwork in education focused on integrating strong interdisciplinary content knowledge with teaching methods that emphasize current issues, contextualized historically, is a key to effective political education. And, make no mistake about it, we need to encourage and emphasize political education again—now as much as ever.

I’m not offering a firm and final solution but, hopefully, the start of a new conversation. What would a re-tooled, twenty-first century social studies look like? It’s not outrageous to suggest that social studies could be the key to turning the tide of school reform away from standardization and back toward the kind of meaningful, individualized learning experience we all craved in school but rarely had. Jason told me yesterday that he feels that he does a greater service to his country every single day that he goes to work as a teacher than he did in the entire six years he spent in the navy; he said that with absolute sincerity and the conviction that he wasn’t overstating the case in the least. It would be nice to see social studies teachers like Jason lead the charge to refocus conversation around things that really matter. It would be even better if it didn’t have to start with a failed lesson plan in order to take root.

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