Teaching social studies in a polarized world

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In recent years, division over how social studies should be taught has plagued school districts around the country.

The irony, according to Lawrence Paska, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies, is that in many places, the subject is “not being taught, period.”

Social studies is sometimes seen as an afterthought, left out of daily instruction, he said. But instead of strengthening social studies or helping more students engage with the subject, the focus in recent years has been on undermining or attacking it, he said.

The increasing politicization of social studies was a concern shared by many educators, education leaders, researchers and advocates at last week’s annual NCSS conference in Nashville. Sessions examined ways educators can navigate state laws that limit conversations on race and other difficult topics, as well as how they can develop the high quality materials and instruction those attending said was vital to preparing students for civic life.

About 3,500 people attended the conference, among them K-12 and higher ed educators who teach the subjects that constitute social studies — including history, civics, geography, economics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, law and religious studies.

Last month, NCSS updated its definition of social studies as the “study of individuals, communities, systems, and their interactions across time and place that prepares students for local, national, and global civic life.” The revised definition is meant to emphasize an inquiry-based approach, in which students start by asking questions, then learn to analyze credible sources, said Wesley Hedgepeth, NCSS president.

The group also chose to set out guidance for elementary and secondary school social studies instruction, to emphasize that education in the topic must begin in the early grades, Hedgepeth said.

The inquiry-based approach is defined within the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards, a set of decade-old, Common Core-like guidance for social studies. The approach has received pushback from conservative politicians who want to see more “patriotic” social studies curriculums, experts at the conference said.

Critics say revisions, or attempted revisions, to social studies standards by policy makers in states such as Virginia and South Dakota remove inquiry-based learning. The new standards instead emphasize “rote memorization of facts that are deemed to help children become more patriotic,” said James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association. Educators and researchers say these efforts are part of a pattern — deliberate or not — of flooding state standards and curriculums with so much content that it becomes impossible for teachers to spend the time needed to go in-depth on topics and for students to engage in critical thinking or questioning.

Educators participate in an advocacy workshop led by Virginia teachers on preserving social studies state standard revisions at the annual National Council for the Social Studies conference in Nashville. Credit: Javeria Salman for The Hechinger Report

While it isn’t new for state legislatures and boards to step in to dictate what’s taught, what’s different now is that laws prohibit teaching certain histories rather than requiring them to be taught, according to Grossman.

While many educators at the conference seemed to want to avoid politics and focus on their instruction, they recognized that simply choosing to be a social studies teacher can be seen as taking a political side. Conservative politicians today increasingly see social studies teachers as targets, attendees said. Educators from Virginia, Texas, Tennessee and Kentucky, among other states, said fights over social studies standards or anti-critical race theory and anti-LGBTQ+ laws have been bruising. Some talked about receiving death threats and being doxxed, while others said they were increasingly fearful of losing their jobs.

In a workshop on how educators can get involved in advocacy efforts surrounding state revisions of history and social studies standards, Virginia teachers shared how they organized to fight a controversial social studies standards revision under the administration of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Sam Futrell, a middle school social studies teacher and president of the Virginia Council for the Social Studies, said educators organized their state professional organizations and local unions to push back against a draft revision that she said included several errors and omissions such as referring to Native Americans as “America’s first immigrants.”

Sessions at the conference also focused on how to strengthen and improve social studies materials and instruction. Educators from several states, including Maryland, Iowa and Kentucky, spoke about the need for curriculum and resources that don’t simply cater to big states like Florida, California and Texas. Social studies curriculum publishers from Imagine Learning, Core Knowledge and Pearson also talked about their efforts to update materials to make them relevant to kids from diverse backgrounds and to work more closely with educators in different states to meet their needs.

Some school leaders said they need high-quality resources that can help teachers who aren’t specialists in a particular subject or area of history to fill gaps in their knowledge. Others said the absence of a national approach to social studies instruction is an obstacle to ensuring that all students have a common framework for understanding the country and its history and participating in civic life.

Bruce Lesh, supervisor of elementary social studies for Carroll County Public schools in Maryland, said that while math, science and English have national frameworks for instruction, nothing equivalent exists in social studies. The C3 Framework discusses how to teach social studies, but it’s not like the Next-Gen science standards or Common Core English and math standards that lay the groundwork for what to teach and help all students gather a common set of knowledge and skills.

In those other disciplines, said Lesh, “There was an effort to take the inequity out of what was taught to students.”

This story about social studies was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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