By Patricia Conner and Emily Alvarez, CenterPoint

As former social studies teachers, we know well the stereotype of the discipline – asking kids to memorize facts and dates about historical events primarily through lecture-based instruction.  For example, it is probably no coincidence that one of the most famous depictions of high school from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off takes place in an economics classroom.

Over the last 15-20 years, however, schools’ approaches to social studies have evolved significantly, shifting expectations for teachers.  Social studies classrooms are now places in which educators teach and reinforce high-level thinking skills and help students develop a big picture understanding of the world around them and how it works.  They are expected to make – and help students make – cross-curricular connections, facilitate investigation and inquiry with a variety of source material, and help young people make meaning out of a variety of viewpoints and perspectives in history and culture.

Just as in other disciplines, the changing expectations for what students should know and be able to do requires teachers to adopt new methods and pedagogies that allow them to meet the needs of the diverse learners in their classrooms.  One critical component of this change centers on having students engage more with primary and secondary sources that help them think like a historian.

To support social studies teachers with this shift, they need support to build the capacity to understand what qualifies as a high-quality resource – they need guidance and tools to evaluate quality, and they need the space and time to make the cross-curricular connections so important to helping students build knowledge (for example, by providing cross-curricular planning time).  This is particularly important since social studies curriculum and resources vary tremendously from district to district and school to school – and the discipline doesn’t yet have the advantage of dozens of quality-reviewed curricula like in English language arts and mathematics.

Based on our work in the classroom and coaching social studies educators, we have identified several important principles that should drive changes in professional learning to help social studies teachers engage students with more primary and secondary source material – with the objective of having students develop the capacity to understand, analyze, explain, and debate interdisciplinary challenges in the world.

  • Training to select and use high-quality primary and secondary sources. This includes training teachers on what good sources look like, how they find them, and how to evaluate what they find on the Internet.  They need rubrics to evaluate the quality of materials, which aren’t easy to find for this purpose as current well-regarded tools like IMET are designed for evaluating quality against the Common Core in English language arts and math.
  • Building pedagogical knowledge and classroom management skills to support inquiry- and project-based learning. In social studies, there is strong rationale for having students engage in project- and inquiry-based learning that allows them to dive into sources and make meaning of them. But, teachers must strike a careful balance of giving them sufficient historical context and background to help guide the research without overdoing it (and ending up lecturing on facts and dates) or underdoing it (and letting students take on projects without helping ground the issue in the broader context of the course).  Teachers need to help students make the big connections and understand why the issue is important, answering the age-old question from students of, “why do I need to know this?”
  • Accessing sample lessons and exemplars that show how to give students the experience of struggling with sources the way a historian would. For example, giving teachers strong models of how to select and help students engage with source material that includes opposing viewpoints or having them sit in the seat of a historical figure and grapple with the problem that person had to address.
  • Finding regular time to engage with educators across disciplines to support cross-curricular connections and deepen student learning. In social studies, you can work easily across disciplines to tie college- and career-ready standards into lessons by using primary sources from those disciplines.  For example, for a lesson on inventions at the turn of the 20th century, social studies teachers can give students a chance to dive into scientific content in a way they may not be able to do so in their science classroom.  To do this effectively, social studies teachers need regular time to work with science teachers and understand how and when to make these connections meaningful for kids.

In social studies classrooms, deep learning can and should happen every day.  To do that, teachers need to find opportunities to truly engage students while building their mastery of academic standards and social studies content.  And, teachers need the support of building and district leadership to facilitate a successful transition where students develop the critical thinking and problem-solving skills requisite for college, careers, and civic life.

Dr. Patricia Conner is a Senior Advisor for Curriculum, Assessment, and Professional Learning in the Humanities at CenterPoint, and Emily Alvarez is an Instructional Designer at CenterPoint.  Both previously taught social studies in public schools in Arkansas and Maryland, respectively.