Keep Social Studies in the Elementary School

Ernest Andrew Brewer
Childhood Education

May 31, 2006 20:00 EDT

In my elementary social studies methods course, I ask my students to discuss three social studies topics they studied during their elementary years. After some thought, most students could name one topic, without prompting. With some prompting, most could name two topics. Yet even after prompting, only a few students could name three topics!

Following this activity, we discuss the state of social studies in today's elementary schools. It is startling to discover my methods students' perceptions about social studies content in the elementary school. From their own experiences and observations, these students believe that there is some social studies content in the 3rd through 5th grades, but very little in kindergarten to 2nd-grade classrooms. As a methods professor, I became concerned, because their beliefs mirrored my experience teaching social studies in my final year as an elementary school teacher.

High-Stakes Testing Diminishes the Social Studies Content

During my final year teaching at the elementary school level, I found it extremely difficult to find time to include social studies content. The time available to cover social studies content had changed dramatically in my six years as an elementary school teacher. During that period, my state implemented high-stakes tests in literacy, mathematics, and science for K-12. In the years before these assessments, my peers and I considered social studies to be very important in the elementary curriculum. Teachers were given ample time to teach social studies and valued the content they presented.

Now, students and teachers are evaluated with the high-stakes tests results in mind. My state's high-stakes tests did not and still do not test for social studies content. In many classrooms' daily schedules, social studies is pushed aside to provide more time to teach "tested" material-language arts, mathematics, and science. My social studies methods students are seeing, firsthand, theoutcomeof these decisions. In some extreme cases, they find that teachers have completely stopped including social studies content in the months leading up to the standardized test. This is why I am concerned about what is happening around my state in particular and in the United States in general.

Social studies is essential in elementary curriculum. It is important to reflect on the definition and the content that constitutes social studies in the elementary school. Within the context of the world today, I believe one could make a compelling argument that social studies should be of utmost importance, especially in the elementary grade levels. In 1994, the Board of Directors of the National Council fortheSocialStudies (NCSS), the largest organization of social studies teachers in the United States, created the following definition:

Social studies is the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence. Within the school program, social studies provides coordinated, systematic study drawing upon such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics and natural sciences. The primary purpose of the 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. (CurriculumStandardsforSocial Studies, 1994, p. 3)

For this article, I will focus on four disciplines of the curriculum: history, geography, economics, and citizenship. My intent is to appeal to other professionals for an increased emphasis of social studies in K-5 education. I will provide examples of how an elementary school teacher can incorporate those four disciplines into the classroom curriculum.

History and Historical Comprehension

The content of history is the largest of thedisciplinesbeingpromoted within the social studies. The discipline of history is well covered in a student's compulsory education program. It is not uncommon for a student to be exposed to history in at least grade 8 and grade 11. Some curriculum models have students being exposed to history in grades 4 and 5. It is apparent that the knowledge of history, if not the skill, is very important to curriculum writers. I believe that the teaching of the skills of history (e.g., chronological thinking and historical comprehension) should begin very early in a student's education.

Chronological thinking is "the ability to distinguish past, present, and future time" (Zarrillo, 2004, p. 286). Zarrillo defines historical comprehension as the ability "to reconstruct literal meaning of a historical passage, identify important questions in historical narratives, identify historical perspectives, use historical maps, find information in illustrations, and understand data in charts and graphs" (p. 286).

Chronological thinking helps students understand the difference in time and how that difference affects human behavior. One can see how the Great Depression affected the behavior of those living at that time. Likewise, if one has an understanding of Iraq's history, then the recent clashes between religious and ethnic groups are placed in a context that is more understandable.

Chronological thinking can be introduced by using time lines in the classroom. Time lines show chronological events in order, are usually represented horizontally, and use intervals of equal distance. A 2nd-grade teacher could use a piece of butcher paper and keep a weekly chronological list of classroom events, and then ask students questions about the events. Two questions that lead to good discussions are: "What initially preceded the event?" and "What subsequently fol lowed the event?" Thus, thesediscussions establish the foundation for deeper chronological thinking. The older the student, the more complex the time line can be. Completing a class time line should take no more than 15 minutes per day.

Historical comprehension requires resources; however, not all resources have to come from outside of the classroom. Shared classroom experiences can be sources for historical comprehension. Primary sources are the most helpful for attaining this skill. While historical comprehension may seem to be more appropriate for higher grades, it does not necessarily have to begin there. Elementary teachers routinely change the learning environment within a classroom. By photographing the changes in the environment, for example, teachers provide concrete primary sources, which then can be used to guide students' discussion of the classroom's similarities and differences. In addition, teachers can share classroom photos from their own elementary years to compare and contrast with the students' present classroom. Remember-for elementary children, what happened 15 or 20 years ago is history1. These activities can be the foundation of the skill that is historical comprehension. As students continue their education, primary sources can be connected to time lines so that students can have deeper understandings of different time periods.

Geography and Understanding Location

Geography may be the most visible of all of the social studies disciplines in the elementary social studies. When you walk into most classes, you will see wall maps and, possibly, a globe. Unfortunately, these resources of ten accumulate dust and are seldom used in many classrooms. But, what could you do with a map? The map can be used to demonstrate the geographic skills of absolute and relative location. If the class is reading a story with a different setting, the world or U.S. map can be used to place the setting in spatial terms. When students discuss where they were born, the class can actively compare birthplaces and the school's location. The objective of that activity could be understanding the relationships between the two places. Using children's literature and discussing the setting can allow students to see where the story takes place in relation to where the class is located.

For younger students, elementary teachers can d raw a map of the school, complete with cardinal directions and a legend, and display this in their classrooms. Then, the students can use the school map to understand their classroom's location in relationship to other areas in the building, such as the cafeteria, media center, nurse's office, or principal's office. Introducing students to the concepts of absolute and relative location can help build a better understanding of their world.

Economics: The Invisible Discipline

Economics is probably the least visible of the four social studies disciplines in an elementary school. My students tell me that the majority of their economic instruction took place during their high school years. In today's society, however, an elementary student must become a savvy consumer to avoid being easily swayed by the glut of television commercials and other ads that appeal directly to children. Economics within theelementary classroom can begin by studying two areas: scarcity and personal finance.

The concept of scarcity can be thought of as the choices made when there are limited resources. Elementary students need to understand that there are limited resources and that choices have to be made in how we use those resources. Elementary students can be shown that even classroom resources, like paper, are limited. Students can plan how they will use paper, and thereby learn that what seemed like a good choice, initially, may not really be the best choice. If each 4th-grade student receives only five sheets of paper per day to do all of his or her class work, then individuals may think twice about using the paper for passing notes to peers or doodling. The students will fully realize the results of wasteful choices when they come to the last subject of the day and they have no more paper. Older elementary students can be shown that time is also a limited resource. The classroom teacher should model the choices made as she or he plans the day. Thinking aloud, a teacher can discuss how much time each item will take and plan accordingly. The teacher can estimate the time for each activity and then record the actual elapsed time. This is a clear demonstration of effective time management.

Next, the time budget can be connected to personal finance. Older elementary students should be shown how to budget their days and weeks. The teacher then can show the connection to money. Discussions can revolve around how they budget money, which is a similar skill set to budgeting time. In this instance, money becomes the limited resource and the choices can be discussed as needs/wants and goods/services. Over time, this may set the foundation for becoming successful managers and disciplined consumers.

Citizenship: Roles and Responsibilities

Of the four disciplines of socialstudies that I listed, I believe citizenship is the most important. Citizenship has a variety of definitions throughout the educational landscape. However, the definition that I tried to promote in my classroom can be attributed to Engle and Ochoa (1988), who made a case for viewing social studies as a blend of socialization and counter-socialization. Socialization could be considered the understanding and embracing of a society's norms, rules, and laws. Counter-socialization is the ability to question those rules, norms, and laws when they are oppressive. Citizenship can be considered the roles that the citizen plays within the norms, rules, and laws.

Within the elementary classroom, students assume many roles. They are first and foremost students, but they may have other roles throughout the school. As students, they are, in effect, citizens within their classroom. The rules, laws, and norms of the specific classroom affect each student. The skills that students learn or are taught about the decision-making that goes into each norm, rule, or classroom law are an intricate part of elementary students' citizenship education.

From my own observations and experiences, most elementary students learn about this type of citizenship education in a very passive manner. Basically, students are taught what the norms, rules, and laws are. Then they are expected to follow these policies, even though they had little input in the process of forming them. Elementary teachers can address this shortcoming by allowing students a much more active part in this process. At the beginning of the school year, students can help decide the appropriate classroom rules to follow. This experience allows students to not only see how the rules come into effect, but also understand the reasoning behind the rules. The class should discuss classroom policies or laws, then consider which ones are appropriate. Finally, teachers can guide students to recognize that this is what citizens do within their communities.

If classroom laws or rules are broken, teachers can allow students to take part in the deliberation process. As an elementary school teacher, I frequently had to hand down consequences. As much as I tried to be equal in all consequences, I was not. The repeat offender, the student with a history of breaking classroom laws or rules, would be dealt with differently than one who committed only a few infractions. It took me a few years to realize that I could do a better job of teaching citizenship education by discussing my own deliberations with my students. This discussion allows the students to observe that consequences and rules or laws within the classroom, and in society, are not arbitrary.

The counter-socialization aspect of the Engle and Ochoa definition can be discussed throughout the process of deciding and implementing the classroom rules and laws. Thus, students can begin to understand a deeper definition of equality and justice through their active participation as citizens within their elementary classroom. For older students, teachers can conduct parallel discussions of their roles as citizens in their classroom and the roles of citizens within their community, state, and nation. With this connection, students can better understand that in a democracy, the citizen's role is most appropriate and effective if it is an active, participatory role.


I appeal to the educational gatekeepers to keep the disciplines of social studies at the forefront of elementary curriculum. Through personal discussions and examples from specific disciplines, I hope that has taken place. I wrote this piece with the idea that the activities I suggested could be completed without investing excessive resources or time. The skills learned from doing these activities can constitute a social studies curriculum, even in an elementary classroom that, because of external influences, does not have an explicit social studies curriculum.

As discussed in the NCSS definition, there are many more disciplines within the definition of social studies. There is really no hierarchy, except within educational practice. The social studies deal with people and their interactions and relationships through time and space. At this juncture in time, when so many people are concerned with our future, and so many choices are being made that affect our future, isn't it time social studies in elementary school becomes an educational priority?

Source: Childhood Education


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