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A Purpose for Social Studies
(or what is social studies for anyhow?)

Dr. Bob Kizlik

Updated October 8, 2014

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.

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"Anything not understood in more than one way is not understood at all."

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