Updated: Feb 16
Scroll to the bottom of this blog post for a link to the webinar recording. This blog post and the associated webinar are part of a series sponsored by the inquirED and the National Council for the Social Studies.
Elementary Social Studies Matters
It's been a lonely fight for elementary social studies advocates since No Child Left Behind. After NCLB, schools focused their efforts on reading and math instruction to improve their standardized test scores. As a result, instructional time for social studies dramatically decreased - and in some cases - disappeared altogether.
Today, however, there is a movement growing around the country — in classrooms and district offices, in legislatures and living rooms — to bring elementary social studies back to our schools. This movement is being driven by a number of factors. In earlier blog posts, we examined how social studies instruction improves reading comprehension outcomes and how it builds background knowledge essential for future success. Those are important reasons to bring back social studies.
Perhaps more important, though, are the changes that are happening in the world outside the classroom, which can be understood through the type of learning that only social studies can provide.
According to our webinar guest Ellen Gilchrist, Executive Director of the Office of Social Studies in Detroit Public Schools, the twin crises of COVID and systemic racism were a wake-up call for social studies instruction. "If we don't teach social studies now," Gilchrist said during the webinar, "when are we going to do it? If we don't teach it now, we are failing our students."
Nearly 800 miles away from Detroit, in Olathe Public Schools, a large suburban district outside of Kansas City, Kansas, one of our other webinar guests, Dr. Tina Ellsworth, feels that same urgency.
As K-12 Social Studies Coordinator at Olathe, she sees the ongoing demographic shift happening across the US as a compelling reason to bring back elementary social studies. She reflected: "By 2040 it's predicted there will be no single racial group that will make up the majority of our country...we need to be intentional about knowing each other's histories and honoring them."
Our final webinar guest, Heather Van Benthuysen, Director of Social Science and Civic Engagement at Chicago Public Schools, connected the renewed call for social studies to the fact that it centers the teaching of powerful practices. "Social science is critical for preparing young people to be powerful and engaged civic actors" she stated, "...the foundational knowledge for that happens in social science."
So, yes — elementary social studies matters. Our guests made that clear. But, how can the movement create foundational changes in schools and districts?
Fight for Dedicated Instructional Time
Turning our beliefs into action — our movement into a daily norm — starts by fighting for dedicated social studies instructional time in the elementary classroom. It's not enough to ask teachers to include social studies lessons. It can't be another task heaped on their plates. And we can't expect our social studies teachers to wage the fight for instructional time all alone. According to Van Benthuysen, "everybody needs to say that social science is important and we need to prioritize this in scheduling. It needs to be a community effort." To promote this community-wide effort, Chicago Public Schools is drafting a visioning document for social science across its district.
The fight for instructional time should begin with knowledge building. We can't assume that everyone knows what social studies instruction is and why it's important. When many people think of social studies, they are connecting it to the kind of instruction they received as learners: multiple-choice tests, random facts, heroes and holidays.
To begin to build knowledge about social studies, use small group discussions, PD days, and promotional communications (like the one from Chicago Public Schools) to reveal what social studies is really about. These efforts should bring forward the role of social studies in interpreting and analyzing the world outside the classroom, including the systemic problems we are facing and how social studies interprets and analyzes them:
Civics examines our relationship with others within a group, whether it’s a classroom, community, or country.
History teaches us to analyze the past to inform our actions in the present and the future.
Economics asks us to investigate how we meet our wants and needs and balance them in relation to others.
Geography prompts us to consider how we affect our environment and how it affects us.
Finding Powerful Instructional Resources
With protected instructional time, community support, and buy-in from teachers — the stage will be set for a social studies resurgence in elementary classrooms. The last piece of the puzzle, of course, is instructional materials.
All three curriculum directors on our webinar recommended a step-by-step process to select the best resources for teachers. During the webinar, inquirED shared our recently created elementary social studies curriculum rubric. It breaks down curriculum evaluation into five domains:
Culturally Responsive Education
Standards-Based Instruction and Assessment
High-Quality, Diverse Sources
Learner Supports and Continuous PD
Instructional support and capacity building for teachers rose to the top of district leaders’ priorities. Gilchrist of Detroit Public Schools said, “If it’s not accessible to our teachers, then our kids are really going to struggle to love it, no matter how great the materials are.” According to a recent RAND study, "only one in five social studies teachers in U.S. public schools report feeling very well prepared to support students' civic learning."
Webinar panelists also highlighted the need for instructional materials that leave space for contextualization to students’ lived and historical experiences. inquirED CEO, Shanti Elangovan said, "If the curriculum is complete before students' voices and context are included, then there's no way you can be inquiry-based or culturally responsive."
As you continue to make the case for elementary social studies, keep connecting with colleagues from all over the country through organizations like NCSS — and stay tuned to our webinar series to connect with others who are passionate about elementary social studies.
To view the webinar below:
inquirED has moved beyond the textbook, offering a customizable, digital curriculum that supports teachers in shifting to student-centered instruction. inquirED delivers year-long, student-centered curriculum and assessment with engaging content and activities for students and embedded professional learning for teachers. Inquiry Journeys is inquirED’s core elementary social studies curriculum. Inquiry Journeys is a comprehensive inquiry-based curriculum with embedded PD that helps teachers shift their practice to a more inquiry-based approach. Learn More.