Saturday, July 19, 2008

Should We Be Teaching This in "Social Studies?"

(I’m still not feeling like I have much to add to the conversation at the moment, so instead I’ll just share some half-baked musings - yes, even more half-baked than usual. I write this even though I understand that many schools already have too much they are supposed to "cover" in Social Studies, and with full knowledge that my own school had budget cuts that impacted the number of teachers we have teaching Social Studies. I still think these are important questions to ask.)

For some reason I got to thinking about the term "Social Studies" the other day. Like many high schools, my school doesn’t have a History Department anymore, it has a Social Studies Department. We still teach a full complement of history courses, but we also teach Psychology, Sociology, Government, Cultural Geography, Economics, Law and other courses. So as I was thinking about this I decided that perhaps I should put my broadband connection to work and look up the definition of “social studies.” Here are three that are similar, yet still offer some interesting takes on the matter (in each case, emphasis added by me so that I can talk more about it below):

  1. Social Studies: A group of instructional programs that describes the substantive portions of behavior, past and present activities, interactions, and organizations of people associated together for religious, benevolent, cultural, scientific, political, patriotic, or other purposes.
    National Center for Education Statistics
  2. Social studies is a term used to describe the broad study of the various fields which involve past and current human behavior and interactions. Rather than focus on any one topic in depth, social studies provides a broad overview of human society past and present.
  3. Social studies is the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence . . . The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.
    - National Council for the Social Studies

Past and present activities.

Organizations of people associated together for [various] purposes.

Human society past and present.

Informed and reasoned decisions for the public good . . . in an interdependent world.

And then I wondered, how many "Social" Studies Departments in high schools around the world are teaching a course on the socially revolutionary and transformative age that we find ourselves in? (Or even at least discussing it in an existing course.) As Clay Shirky talks about in Here Comes Everybody, group forming is ridiculously easy and we are still in the very early stages of a change that rivals the development of the “Print Culture” that arose in the centuries following the invention of the printing press. Aren’t the societal changes we’re seeing as the result of technology and the Internet specifically, as well as other flat-world factors, the essence of what "social studies" is about?

Now, I’m not suggesting that they shouldn’t teach history or all those other courses – there’s tremendous value in those as well. But does it strike anyone else as odd that my school – and I imagine most schools – aren’t teaching this stuff? Can’t the case be made that these changes are at least as important for our students to learn about, immerse themselves in, understand and begin to figure out the impact of as it is to learn about other great themes in history? Isn’t today’s "networked society" one of the greatest transformations ever in how we define and understand "social" and "society?" If so, then shouldn’t Social Studies Departments everywhere be scrambling to include this in their curriculum?


  1. A couple of observations:

    Subject naming background
    In Australia, each state has its own curriculum, although we are now heading fast towards National Curriculum in some subjects.

    In NSW, when we introduced key learning areas. History, geography and related subjects were grouped under Human Society and its Environment (HSIE). That change was MUCH contested. In high schools, subject departments for a while continued to be History and Social Sciences. Now many of these departments have been merged to be HSIE.
    History teachers are very (pro)active in my state and in fact across Australia.

    The point:
    We should be teaching about these massive transformations (networked society/learning)and to a certain extent that is happening, since there is some flexibility in translating syllabuses into teaching programs.

    You wrote:
    "If so, then shouldn’t Social Studies Departments everywhere be scrambling to include this in their curriculum?"

    We are a part of everyone 2.0, we can collaborate globally to insist that these changes occur or that "shift happens" as you have so cleverly said.


  2. Karl-
    First of all I have to say you are a wonderful mind reader and you do have something to say so please keep writing and don't apologize.

    History has long been Social Studies for the K-8 crowd and I had been pondering exactly what that means for the last week or so. Funny how we accept words without taking time to consider exactly what they mean. Your definition and the phrases you pulled out of them are absolutely spot on... AND they will provide tfe framework for us to identify power standards and focus our teaching this year.They move us away from wrote memorization and point us at the essential questions.I could give you a huge hug. Really this is going to be a key part of Augusts curriculum planning!
    As for the current revolution. Yes I agree with both you an Elaine. It should and can happen. When I first read your post I was reminded of course I took in my senior year of high school where we read Future Shock. What do yo think the reading list would look like for the class you are talking about?

  3. Karl--in my AP English Language class we did discuss these changes in a thematic unit on education. Our essential question: To what extent do our schools serve the goals of a true education? We read excerpts from classical texts and modern ones, including A Whole New Mind and The World Is Flat. You can see more texts and ideas on the class wiki.In discussing the rapid social and cultural changes the Internet is causing, we examined how these changes are--and should--impact our schools and the way we as individuals interact with and learn from and alongside others.

    Perhaps, this discussion you speak of doesn't belong merely in the Social Studies curriculum.

  4. @etalbert - Thanks for the Aussie "history" lesson. It's good to learn that we're all thinking about these issues.

    @barbara - I have been working on my mind reading skills, thanks for noticing. I predict that right now you're wondering if I'm going to answer your reading list question. I'm not, but simply because I need to think about it some more. Because it's fresh in my mind, I think Here Comes Everybody would be on that list, as well as several of our favorite bloggers.

    Looking forward to that hug.

    @justread - Thanks for the link - looks interesting, and I'll pass along to some of our Language Arts teachers. I definitely agree that this discussion doesn't belong just in Social Studies classes, it cuts across departmental lines. But, given the disconnected and subject-specific approach that typifies many of our current high schools, "social" studies seems (to me) to be the discipline where it most fits as a topic of academic study.

  5. As a "Social" Studies teacher I can't help but agree with you. While curricula in US and World History quite often go up to the present day, in my experience, there are few teachers who get as far as to engage with contemporary changes in an explicit way... we certainly need to help students understand some of the revolutionary changes that are happening in our world.

    But I wonder if that is the best way to approach the contemporary world, at least in History. It is hard, perhaps impossible to write a history of the present - we don't have enough perspective to truly analyze the world we are living in from the position of the world we live in (does that make sense?). Instead we should use the past as a mirror and lens to evaluate the present. I think that the ideal time to talk about today's information revolution is to engage with the printing revolution of Gutenberg. The best way to help students deal with increased connectivity is to look at the changes caused by the development of the silk road trade.

    Many teachers already do this... but I agree that more should...

    Love your blog BTW...

  6. @Richard - Agreed, it's terribly difficult to analyze the time we are living in (although it doesn't seem to bother the folks on talk radio). But I think one of the important things to keep in mind is the fact that this revolution is going to be fundamentally different than Gutenberg's in at least one respect - the compressed timeline.

    Shirky talks about this in Here Comes Everybody (or somewhere on the web that I've listened to him). "Print Culture" took several centuries to evolve and become stable - I think we don't have that kind of time now, and I think ignoring that will be terribly detrimental to our students. (I think "Digital Culture" or whatever we end up calling this will continue to evolve over longer time periods as well, but it's impact on everything in our lives is going to happen so much quicker than it did with Print Culture.)

    So, I certainly think looking at Gutenberg and the Silk Road are very useful in understanding the present situation (pretty much why we study History, correct?), but I fear very few teachers will do this in any explicit sense. And I worry that even those that do will miss the compressed timeline aspect of this new revolution, the "we live in exponential times" factor if you will. For at least the near future, and perhaps from here on out, I think we are going to have to try to analyze the world we live in on the fly, certainly learning from history but also recognizing that while parallels in history exist, this is a very different animal.

  7. Karl, you ARE a mind reader, as I was also thinking about "social studies" this week. You must be tapping into the zeitgeist...

    Anyway, on Thursday, I saw that the Partnership for 21st Century Skills released the 21st Century Skills and Social Studies Map, their first in a series of core content maps. (The press release says that math, English, geography and science will be available over the next year.)

    It was created with the National Council for the Social Studies-- note the "the" before social studies, something that I'd never considered before.

    Here's the press release, which includes a link to the map itself:

    You have a great point about the compressed timeline too-- and it makes me wonder if things are moving so fast that most teachers and administrators feel like they can't keep up. But if students have knowledge of the technology, and (the social studies) teachers know history and can help with context, it seems to me a match made in heaven.

  8. @jen boggs - Yes, I sent that map to my Social Studies folks yesterday. I had been pondering this before the map came out, but it certainly was timely. Now what do we do to make this happen?

  9. Doing it... but in the context of a non-departmental course. We thought it would be a social science course, but we actually have an English teacher teaching the course right now. The course is called: Global Communications The students learn information literacy, digital citizenship and some of the social changes that are occurring in our culture today.

  10. Karl - Its funny that you mention this because a colleague and me started developing a U.S. History course that begins with today and works backward. One of the major themes of that unit is the changes in society because of the Internet, mobile technology, and networking.
    I had always wanted to teach a history class backwards for 2 reasons:
    its more relevant to kids and most history classes run out of time before they get to the present so students background knowledge of current history is very low.

    It is an amazing and revolutionary time and needs to be covered in more than 'current events.'

  11. There is no doubt that the Social Sciences encompass everything from Anthropology to Zoology. It is encumbent upon educators to refine the present "Social Studies" curriculum based on an archaic system that screams for change, but who will decide what we need to know?

  12. @kyle and cory – Those both sound like great courses. A couple of questions:

    1. How much of the course is about the “big picture” ideas of a globally interconnected, rapidly changing, information abundant society? I’d be worried that it would end up being too much about some of the tools and not enough about the “meta” stuff.

    2. How many of your students will take these courses? I know we have to start somewhere, but shouldn’t all of our students be delving into these ideas, not just in one or two sections of an elective course?

    Again, don’t let those questions detract from the good work that’s going on, just thinking out loud (as usual).

  13. @mylod - I think we decide. I think we co-generate the course on the fly, alongside our students and our colleagues around the world in our learning networks. I think that's the only possible way to act in a rapidly changing world.

  14. Just before I checked your blog - I read the 21C Learning Skills Social Studies document. Forwarded it on to other Board members. Keeping the conversation moving...

  15. @ Karl-

    The opening unit to the course is about technology in today's world and its effect on society. None of it is about tools, all ideas.

    I am in the process of designing the course for my online high school. There will only be a portion of students taking the course, maybe 100 or so.

    I know we have to get all kids talking about these ideas, but our main U.S. History course which has 200 kids in it doesn't touch this time period or these ideas at all. The teacher is a very traditional teacher who spends most of his time on American Revolution and Civil War.

    Like you said, its a start.

  16. Thank you for a very timely post; good to know mine wasn't the only mind you were reading.

    In August I begin preparing for my district's Social Studies standards review. My role will be to help incorporate the new state technology standards and provide guidance on integrating technology into the Social Studies curriculum.

    This post, and the resulting comments, have come at the perfect time; I don't teach Social Studies myself, so the comments from those in the department have been very helpful.

    For now, I need to push these ideas into the back of my brain to percolate, and I'm looking forward to what bubbles up this fall.