What should our kids know? How should they learn it? When should they learn it? These are questions that are asked repeatedly at many school board meetings. So much so, that now we have Common Core Standards. Oh, but not every state has adopted those, and some that did are dropping them. Here in Old Dominion, we have the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs). And then, there is the National Council of the Social Studies (NCSS) with their 10 themes. Yet, with all of this guidance, the issue of how to, or even whether to, teach social studies is constantly up for discussion.
The argument of teaching social studies holistically – as an integrated approach – rather than through the individual disciplines (geography, economics, civics, history, etc.) is a regular debate in many schools. And while it is true that the teaching of social studies touches on many areas of import, such as standards, basic general educational concepts, civics and citizenship, diversity, and global interdependence (just to name a few), it is also clear that all of the individual disciplines are so interconnected it becomes difficult to tell where one subject ends and another begins. Therefore, it is imperative that we teach our children about the world through a holistic approach to social studies rather than simply visiting each discipline individually.
Of course educators have to produce results with respect to the standards. But which standards should be followed? NCSS recommends that all social studies programs incorporate 10 major themes: Culture, Time, Continuity and Change, People, Places, and Environments, Individual Development and Identity, Individuals, Groups, and Institutions, Power, Authority, and Governance, Production, Distribution, and Consumption, Science, Technology, and Society, Global Connections, and Civic Ideals and Practices (NCSS 2010). Simply from the names it can be seen under which discipline a theme might fall. Yet, it is also clear that they cannot be separated. Common Core does not specify social studies standards at the elementary level; rather social studies are incorporated into the reading standards. Which makes sense – generally students need to be able to read in order to consume social studies content.
Virginia SOLs are labeled History and Social Science Standards of Learning. The title indicates a history bent, but the standards seem to incorporate History, Geography, Civics, and Economics. And when the Enhanced Scope and Sequence documents for any grade level are examined, it can again be seen that they are all intertwined.
From a general education perspective, teaching social studies in the integrated form will allow for students to develop the 21st century skills we hear so much about. Looking at the social studies as a whole, rather than its individual parts will enable students to be more objective, analytical, reflective, logical, as well as promote the concepts of critical thinking and problem solving. The holistic approach engenders a life of discovery and a love of learning that can easily be lost in boring fact-laden lessons that do not engage students. Because we all know that learner engagement leads to achievement. And isn’t that the end goal – the achievement of a lifelong love of learning and effective and responsible citizenship?
Even the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21) advocates a holistic approach to learning. This organization is dedicated to creating best practices in that encompass the civic, global, and digital realms, and the themes P21 propose include global awareness, financial, civic, health and environmental literacies, with the goal of students being able to understand the implications of civic decisions. This fits perfectly with the NCSS position regarding social studies.
Over and over we hear that students need to be able to understand the world in which they live; they need to be able to make connections to the information they encounter. The theory that teaching the social studies rather than individual disciplines helps explain the relationships children have with their schools, their communities, and even the larger world around them is sound. As mentioned previously, the single social studies disciplines tend to overlap and are interrelated in at least one way. Taking a more holistic approach to social studies allows for students to be able to synthesize information they encounter on a daily basis; it allows them to make connections between the information they receive and the world around them.
Consider the concept of multiculturalism. If we only taught history or geography without looking at the relationship between the two (as well as the implicit economic and civic factors), students may miss the nuances of the impacts multiculturalism has on their own lives, how the individuals of other cultures fare in American society, and/or how to be able to interact in a productive, respectful, and empathetic manner with people of other cultures. The teaching of social studies as a collective subject rather than one fragmented into individual disciplines fosters the teaching of multiculturalism, which is paramount in our country today. No longer are our students sitting in a classroom full of similar faces and friends from similar backgrounds. Yet, inside the home, they will have little knowledge or exposure to other cultures. This teaching allows for us to instill in our children an appreciation of those aspects of our friends and ourselves that are different, yet still maintain our identities.
Our classrooms are already a place primed for practicing good citizenship as a result of the diversity that enters each and every day. This diversity allows for children to be placed in situations with others from very different backgrounds, and who are likely to have very different viewpoints, and they all have to learn to work together and learn together, whether or not they always agree. Civic issues involve several different disciplines, so the integrated format is necessary in order for our children to develop a deep understanding of the matters that are prevalent in our society.
The social studies as a whole help explain societal changes over time. Because younger students may not realize that society is not static. Basic tenets and mores change on a daily basis. Technology comes into play and creates new situations that demand new “rules” to govern interactions, whether online, person-to-person interactions, or other technological advances in machinery, medicine, and science that may cause unease with ethics, business practices, or equity.
Look at the environment and the study of ecology. This is no longer a purely scientific issue. Yes, the advent of industrialization, rampant motoring, overuse of natural resources have had geological and ecological impacts on our world. However, society and the values at any point in time have guided these principles over the decades, and now must again come into play as we work toward trying to repair what we can and stifle any further destruction. Additionally, the concept of water, vegetation, and animal life are geographic topics. Yet, the notions of resources, supply and demand fall under the economics umbrella. And the discipline of civics wraps the mores and legalities for use of the above into a cohesive matter of concern that all relate back to how to survive in a world where there is environmental strife. Teaching social studies, especially when looking at global topics allows children to learn how to function in a world where finite resources are being consumed at alarming rates, some even to the point of near depletion, where the movement of people and cultures creates a mosaic of people in any given location, and where all countries are reliant on each other for economic stability.
There are daily news stories of war, conflict, national differences of opinion, strife, poverty, famine, and health epidemics. The conflict between Israel and Palestine, for instance, has impacts here in the United States. Our government is constantly brokering deals, threatening action, all of which may create product shortages, have financial ramifications or result in a military operation that will take family members away from home. This conflict has many reasons – religion, economics, and geography among them – so how are children to make informed decisions if we only focused on one discipline? The level of poverty in many African nations is also regularly on the news. Our country sends relief workers, food, and other forms of aid to try to help. Students will better be able to understand the why behind this if they are educated from a more holistic approach rather than simply from one of history, or geography, or economics. Focus on a single discipline only paints a portion of the picture of any situation in the world today.
When looking at the various disciplines, it is clear that they cannot be taught individually and still allow our students to meet today’s standards, let alone function as critical thinkers in the world we live in. History helps create those connections among topics, as well as outline the relationships between past, present, and future. Geography provides the understanding of how those historical events were able to happen, and how the impacts traveled from one place to another. Those connections between disciplines are another reason for the whole approach rather than the divided one. If we expect our children to make connections to the curriculum and the world in which they live, they should be examining these things from all perspectives then encounter at one time.
Due to the ways that we behave as citizens, and how we operate within our communities, our country and our world are changing and expanding, the ideas of being a responsible citizen has become more challenging. As a result, our methods of educating our children in the ways of citizenship need to change as well, preparing them for the 21st century version of a good citizen, which requires a holistic approach, rather than one focused on just one discipline.