A Purpose for Social Studies
(or what is social studies for anyhow?)
Dr. Bob Kizlik
August 31, 2015
There is a lot to
be said for perspective. Achieving perspective takes time, but it also clarifies,
and at the same time is satisfying,
which I suppose is one perk of getting older. Although I am officially retired from teaching
education courses for teachers and administrators at a fairly
large public university, I have some ideas that might have resonance with people
who are currently studying to be teachers. In my career, I taught many graduate curriculum
and educational leadership courses
in regular college classroom settings and on the Internet. The other semesters,
including summer terms. I taught an undergraduate course entitled Methods and
Principles: Social Studies for Elementary and Middle Grades. I also taught a version of the same course,
but intended for students who would someday teach high school. As part of these courses, I discussed
with my mainly young students why social studies is important, and what it is
for. To be quite frank, most of my students had no idea how to even begin to
discuss this topic except to rely on old tried and true rhetoric such as, "it
helps us be better citizens" or "by understanding the past, we can avoid making
the same mistakes." By no stretch of the imagination does such
rhetoric hold water, good intentions notwithstanding.
Believe me when I say that I have read many, many of the statements by such
organizations as the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) that
describe why social studies is important. If those statements meant anything at
all in the REAL world, our students, after more than four decades of NCSS
guidance in social studies curriculum, would surely have a better grasp of the
content and would also engage in concomitant civic behavior such as voting. But
they don't. Go to the NCSS web site and see what you think. There is a vast gulf
between professed goals and actual results.
I have come to
some conclusions about this. As I have expressed elsewhere on the ADPRIMA
site, social studies is about
understanding things, and not very
much about learning skills. I have come to believe that any idea or concept that
takes more than three pages or so of explanation should be broken down into two
or more concepts or smaller ideas that reflect a meaningful perceived
relationship. I think Albert Einstein put this idea best when he said that
"scientific theories should be able to be described so simply that a child could
understand them." In social studies, we have a long, long way to go.
The countless textbooks that appeared in my mailbox, and that were described
in an endless stream of brochures that touted yet other, new approaches for
learning how to teach social studies marginalized themselves by their sheer
numbers and bulk. In many ways, they remind me of the near weekly torrent of
books on dieting. Harsh words indeed from a former college teacher.
Let me put it directly to you then.
I believe social studies should be part of the curriculum for the purpose of
helping students understand human interactions that occurred in the past, are
occurring now, and that are likely to occur in the future.
The reason for these
understandings is they may help students develop and nurture
values that will
make it more likely that they will be able to determine for any situation what
the right thing is and do it, especially when doing the right thing is hard to
do. It is about decency, respect, courage and honor. This is not a difficult
idea to understand, but it can take a lifetime to appreciate.
If learning that
Seoul is the capital of South Korea, that the Congo River crosses the
Equator twice, that the Battle of Antietam in 1862 was the bloodiest single
day in American history, or being able to describe the culture of China during the
reign of Qin Shi Huangdi contributes to this, great. Understandings are not, and
cannot "practiced" in the same way as skills, but they can be developed,
strengthened and made meaningful by students connecting new information to what
they already know. I am also of the belief that such understandings need not be
described in such obscure and complex ways as to diminish their value to the
learner. The countless mind-numbing hierarchies of social studies standards,
strands, goals and objectives that are promulgated by both public and private
entities, while often developed with the best of intentions, really haven't
contributed much to the civic and social literacy of our nation. In fact, some
would argue that measures of this literacy show a marked decline over the past
forty years or so. Perhaps many have forgotten that understanding social studies
concepts and ideas is an intensely personal thing.
So I really didn't "teach" my students how to teach social studies. That is
impossible. What I did was to motivate them to want to learn about social
studies and different ways of teaching it. They come to believe that they don't
understand anything unless they understand it in more than one way. I believe I
was successful at doing this, and it is a good feeling.
"Anything not understood in more
than one way is not understood at all."
thriller novel I wrote for the Kindle:
The Bucci Strain: Imprint
Robert Kizlik &