Recent trends in the social studies

Recent trends in the social studies

Marlow Ediger

There are selected trends in the social studies which teachers need to understand and analyze. These trends are relatively stable with the realization that changes and modification do occur. New ideas in teaching and learning must come forth to keep abreast with changes in knowledge involving related social science academic disciplines and duties/responsibilities of individuals in society. Also, methods of teaching change due to new research results which indicate modification do occur. Which trends should then be in evidence in the classroom for the teaching of social studies?


Diverse trends to consider in the instructional arena need to be studied and implemented as the need arises.

First, The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) has provided guidelines for teaching which assist the teacher in the school setting to make decisions in developing quality in the curriculum. These standards are not mandatory but reveal the thinking of top social studies educators and may well provide a foundation for teaching social studies. In theme form, the following are identified by NCSS for the purpose of teachers emphasizing balance among the different social science disciplines as well as duties/responsibilities faced by individuals in society:

* culture

* time, continuity, and change

* people, places and the environment

* individual development and identity

* individuals, groups, and institutions

* power, authority, and government

* production, distribution, and consumption

* science, technology, and society

* global connections and interdependence

* civic ideals and practice.

The above named ten themes stress subject matter from different academic disciplines such as anthropology and sociology when emphasizing the concept of culture. Thus, people dress in different ways, but all societies have the same need for clothing. One has only to notice The Old Order Amish In society to reveal that women wear long dresses which extend to the ankles, long sleeves on the dresses extending to the wrists, and a very high neck line. The baptized men wear beards, blue denim trousers, with suspenders including either a home made or tailor made shirt purchased in a store. Plain colors only are worn, not stripes nor checks on the clothing. Then too, Old Order Amish travel in carriages pulled by a riding horse, not a draft horse. These described differences among Old Order Amish are quite different from those of individuals in general American society. Pupils need to study and learn how cultures differ much from each other but all have the same essential needs of food, clothing, and shelter. Balance in the social studies is necessary so that pupils study subject matter involving people from diverse academic disciplines and diverse points of view (See Hostettler).

Second, state mandated testing, a federal law coming from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) which replaced the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), appears to be and is the law of the land. With state mandated testing in reading and mathematics, pupils are tested annually in grades three through eight. Selected states are holding pupils back from promotion to the next grade level due to having a test score deemed to be too low. Neill (2003) wrote the following:

“The federal law should be amended

from one that uses punishment to control

schools to one that supports teachers and

students; from one that relies primarily

on standardized tests to one that encourages

high quality assessments. Elected

representatives should listen to educators

and parents to determine the real needs

of schools. Congress should work with

the states to ensure that all schools are

adequately funded and that all children

have the food, housing, and medical care

necessary to their success in school.

In short, Congress should amend ESEA

to stop that destructive inflexibility of

“adequate yearly progress” provisions

and eliminate the requirement for states

to annually assess all students in grades

three through eight in reading and math.

The amount of required standardized

testing should be reduced and the draconian

penalties removed. Congress must

appropriate the full amount authorized

for all of ESEA. The importance of all

subjects necessary for a well rounded

education should be emphasized–but

not by adding standardized tests in more


Testing in the social studies has not been emphasized in most states. In some ways, this is unfortunate since it minimizes this curriculum area in importance. The following are implications for state mandated testing:

* one size does not fit all. This means that no exceptions in testing are made for pupils due to speaking a foreign language only or largely, nor for being mentally handicapped or possessing any other kind of deficit. All pupils take the same test within the same involved time limits. Differences in socio economic levels are to be eliminated in achievement when viewing test results from state mandated tests. This might be quite unfair when looking at educational opportunities that children from wealthier homes have. Money buys many important things such as travel to different places, adequate number of library books in the home setting, and ogportunities to join different organizations such as Boy/Girl couts, and 4H Clubs, as well as take various kinds of lessons such as piano, dance, and voice.

It is unfortunate to eliminate social studies from state mandated testing participation for the following reasons:

* it minimizes the Importance for social studies instruction in the curriculum as compared to reading and mathematics.

* it tends to de-emphasize the importance of developing social studies knowledge in the minds of pupils.

* it takes time away from the total curriculum when teachers spend much energy in getting pupils ready for mandated test taking.

* it minimizes the integrated curriculum when reading and mathematics are taught as separate subjects due to mandated testing; minimal attention is then paid to the other academic disciplines for integration purposes.

* it minimizes the importance of having quality tests to ascertain pupil achievement. The tests then might not have been pilot tested adequately in order to have necessary validity and reliability (Ediger, 2003, 6-9).

Third, three categories of objectives need to be stressed. Knowledge objectives for pupil achievement need to be selected carefully. These objectives should emphasize key ideas or major generalizations from the social sciences, which then become applicable for teaching the social studies. Knowledge ends need to be salient, achievable and yet challenging, useful in school and in society, as well as stress balance among the social sciences (history, geography, economics, anthropology, sociology, and geography). Human beings are complex individuals and need to be studied from the points of view of these six academic disciplines.

Important skills objectives, a second category of ends for pupil achievement, need to emphasize the use of subject matter contained in the perviously named knowledge ends. High expectations from the teacher and the learner himself/herself, but not unachievable should be in the offing. Skills involved should include writing activities, construction and art experiences, dramatizing, orally reporting, discussing, comprehension of ideas, as well as reading, listening, and speaking.

A third category of objectives need to stress affective ends. These significant objectives include positive attitudes developed toward the social studies, wanting to work well individually as well effectively work collectively in ongoing lessons and units of study, desiring to achieve the stated objectives, wishing to increase one’s knowledge in the social sciences, and wanting to be a good citizen in society. The objectives categories provide direction to teachers in determining what pupils are to learn (Ediger, 2000, 10-12).

Fourth, social studies teachers need to follow desired principles of learning from educational psychology so that each pupil achieves as optimally as possible. These principles of learning include the following:

* securing the interests of learners in each lesson and unit of study.

* assisting pupils to perceive purpose in learning.

* motivating pupils to become eager learners.

* providing for pupils of diverse achievement levels so no child is left behind.

* helping pupils to develop meaning pertaining to what is being studied.

By stressing these principles of learning, the teacher is assisting each pupil to achieve in a qualitative manner. The social studies teacher has a major role in setting the stage for pupil learning by using relevant tenets from educational psychology (Ediger, 2000, Chapter Five).

Fifth, emphasizing good citizenship in school and in society is a major indication for noticing the effectiveness of the curriculum. There may be differences in thinking as to what makes for a good citizen. But there are also agreements pertaining to what makes for quality citizenship. Galston (2003) wrote the following criteria for civilic education:

* Civic knowledge promotes support for democratic values. The more knowledge we have of the workings of government, the more likely we are to support the core values of democratic self-government, starting with tolerance.

* Civic knowledge promotes political participation. All other things being equal, the more knowledge people have the more likely they are to participate in civic and political affairs.

* Civic knowledge helps citizens to understand their interests as individuals and as members of groups. There is a rational relationship between one’s interests and particular legislation, the more knowledge we have, the more readily and accurately we connect with and defend our interests in the political process.

* Civic knowledge helps citizens learn more about civic affairs. Unless we have a certain core of knowledge, it is difficult to acquire more knowledge. Moreover, the new knowledge we do gain can be used effectively only if we are able to integrate it into an existing framework.

* The more knowledge we have of civic affairs, the less we have a sort of generalized mistrust and fear of public life. Ignorance is the father of fear, and knowledge is the mother of trust. Civic knowledge improves the consistency of citizens’ views as expressed in public opinion surveys. The more knowledge people have, the more consistent their views over time on political affairs. This does not mean that people do not change their views, but it does mean that they know their own minds.

* Civic knowledge can alter our opinion on specific civic issues. For example, the more civic knowledge people have, the less likely they are to fear new migrants and their impact on our country.

It is important then to stress an adequate number of units on civic education with quality objectives and learning opportunities, as well as proper assessment procedures to ascertain what pupils have learned.

Sixth, Multi- media need to be used in teaching and learning situations so that the objectives of instruction might be achieved more readily. These include the following:

* audio aids including cassettes, musical recordings, discussions, reports, explanations, oral reports, read alouds, and peer reports,

* primary sources in order that pupils may read and study original accounts of specific happenings being studied.

* maps and lobes used to locate specific places. Here, pupils learned directionality, map and globe scale of miles, and reading of map symbols. Also, pupils learned to make inferences, as well as understand latitude and longitude, ecology, fauna, flora, legends, different map projections, migration, monsoons, tornados, hurricanes, regions, terraces, urbanization, among other vital geographical concepts.

* graphs and charts which make learnings meaningful. Proper procedures and standards in making graphs are to become important objectives of instruction. Circle, bar, and line graphs need to be developed and read by pupils when readiness is in evidence. Salient charts to be made by pupils with teacher guidance to indicate information include narrative which tell a sequential story, tabulation which show comparisons of population, for example, of selected nations being studied, flow charts which show a change at a specific time, pedigree chart showing ancestral background or genealogy, classification which reveals people or items in categories such as types of homes built by different tribes of Indians, and organizational which shows the structure, for example, of city, state, and federal government (Parker, 2001).

* carefully chosen basal and supplementary textbooks, work books, library books, developmentally appropriate news magazines/news papers, and encyclopedias, as well as other printed materials used in teaching by a competent social studies teacher.

* technology such as desk top and lap computers, internet, world wide web, CD ROMS, CDs, video tapes, among others. These are valuable sources for securing vital information on a topic in the social studies well as acquired content for sharing with others through word processing and desk top publishing.

* audio visual aids including video tapes; TV replays of newscasts, documentaries, historical dramas; films, filmstrips, slides, single concept film loops, study prints, and illustrations.

* models of objects and items as they relate directly to the ongoing lesson/unit being studied. A hands on approach needs to be emphasized also such as pupils developing models, murals, bulletin board displays, creative and formal dramatics presentations, dioramas, and construction projects (Ediger, 20031144- 148).

The social studies teacher needs to carefully select objectives which are to be achieved by pupils with the use of the above named learning activities as they are developmentally appropriate and secure the interests of learners. Adequate provision should be made for individual differences including styles of learnings and the intelligences possessed (See Gardner, 1993).

Assessment of Achievement

The teacher and other interested persons do want pupils to achieve as much as possible. How might pupils reveal learnings obtained? Too frequently, what pupils have learned in the classroom is omitted in importance. State mandated test results seemingly overshadow classroom daily reports on pupil achievement. Since social studies achievement is not emphasized in state mandated tests, the social studies teacher needs to collect evidence of pupil achievement in ongoing lessons and units of study. Teacher written tests can be quite valid in testing which cover what was taught. Test results here provide the social studies teacher with information pertaining to what pupils know, and do not know. What is not known might well provide objectives for pupils to achieve. Multiple choice teacher written test items should have four plausible responses for pupils to choose from. The stem and each of the four plausible alternatives should make for a qrammatically correct sentence. Vital content should be inherent in each multiple choice test item.

Second, teacher written truelfalse test items need to to be clearly written. Test items which are false should require pupils to cross out the part which is false so that a true statement results. Doing this prevents pupils from guessing on a true/false test item.

Third, matching test items may be used to measure vital factual information achieved by the pupil. One of the two columns In a matching test should have more items than the other so that the process of elimination may not be used solely. One column of the matching test should have individual words or short phrases. If both columns have lengthy phrases or even sentences, it becomes difficult for the test taker to keep that much information in mind while matching one column with the other.

Fourth, completion tests may be used. The teacher reeds to be certain that there is enough information available in each test item so that the respondent knows how to answer it in the blank spaces. Selected teachers prefer, instead, to write short answer test items. Here, there are no blanks to fill in. Rather there are questions which require a very brief answer, generally a factual response. Facts provide building blocks for higher levels of cognition. This means that the teacher needs to be very careful with not testing pupils on trivia and the insignificant.

Fifth, for more open ended means of assessment, essay tests may be written and used. Each question needs to be stated broader than requiring specific facts, but not so open ended that an entire thick or thin book could be written in response to a question. Rather the essay test item should be adequately delimited so that the test taker knows what is wanted when providing an answer. The essay test may involve responses including the following levels of thought:

* comprehension whereby the learner interprets the meaning of a graph which contains group data.

* making use of information. The learner is asked to use the information given above the test item and then apply it to explain a historical incident or to a geographical place.

* critical thinking whereby pupils are asked to analyze a significant concept in terms of possible meanings.

* creative thought in which learners are to come up with a unique answer to a societal problem.

* evaluation whereby pupils assess a solution, given in the essay test items, to a problem in society.

Sixth, standardized tests may be used to assess pupil achievement. These published tests must have high validity and reliability, as provided for in the latest Mental Measurements Yearbook, located in selected public school or university libraries. The contents in the Yearbook analyze different tests and provide recommendations for its use. Not all tests have a social studies component. The Stanford Achievement Test does have a social studies subtest. Instead, a standardized test may have a study skills component which can be quite applicable to the social studies, an example being The Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

Test results are usually given in percentiles for each test taker. Thus, each pupil is compared with others’ test results in being all the way from the 99th percentile to the first percentile. The score a pupil receives from taking the test is then compared with the norms of the standardized test as given in their Manual. Standardized tests have their merit if they possess high validity and reliability, as well as provide diagnostic information on how the teacher may assist the learner to achieve more optimally as a result in having taken the test (See, Airasian).

Seventh, many educators advocate a port folio approach in determining pupil achievement on a day to day basis. A random sampling of pupil products then become a part of the port folio. Thus, the port folio may contain items such as the following:

* written work of a pupil in the social studies, snapshots of art work, dioramas, murals, and construction work.

* cassettes of read alouds in social studies, discussions, dramatic activities, oral reports given.

* results of teacher written tests in social studies.

Portfolio results might be excellent to use in a parent teacher conference. Here, parents may view the quality of work the child has been doing. Improvements made of the involved pupil over earlier attempts may also be noticed.

It is vital to teach quality social studies units in the school setting. The best of objectives for pupils to achieve with carefully chosen learning opportunities to achieve these ends of instruction needs to be in evidence. Then too, valid and reliable assessment procedures need to be used to ascertain how much pupils have learned in the curriculum. Quality teacher observation of pupil achievement must be in evidence continually. Based on teacher observation, the results may well be used to improve the curriculum (See, Nickell).


Airasian, P. W. (1996). Classroom Assessment (3rd edition). New York: McGraw- Hill.

Ediger, M. (2000). Social Studies Curriculum in the Elementary School, (5th edition). Kirksville, Missouri: Simpson Publishing Company, Chapter Five.

Ediger, M. (2003). The School Library and the Learner. Experiments in Education, 31(8), 9, 144-148.

Ediger, M. (2003). Quality and Quantity in the Mathematics Curriculum. Edutracks, 3(1), 9,6-9.

Ediger, M. (2000). Project Methods in Science, 11 (2)9,10-12.

Galston, W. A. (2003). Civic Education and Political Participation. Phi Delta Kappan, 85(1), 9, 29-33.

Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple Intelligences: Theory into Practice. New York: Basic Books.

Hostettler, J. (1990). Amish Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University.

Parker, W. C. (2001). Social Studies in Elementary School (11th edition). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., Chapter Five.

National Council for the Social Studies (1994). Curriculum Standards for Social Studies.. Washington, DC.: NCSS.

Niekell, P. (1999). Authentic Assessment in Social Studies. Social Education, October. 1999.

Neill, M. (2003). Low Expectations and Less Learning. Social Education, 67(5), 9, 281-287.

Dr. Marlow Ediger, Professor Emeritus, Truman State University.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Marlow Ediger, 201 West 22nd Street, Box 417, North Newton, KS 67117.

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