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The Debrief

Five challenges facing social studies educators today

Kelsey Churchman
Oct 21, 2019

Teaching is a constant balancing act, requiring educators to juggle school and district requirements, the needs of individual students, and the larger goal of equipping young people to succeed. But in no subject area is this balancing act more difficult today than in social studies, where teachers and schools face a series of pitfalls that reflect both large curricular shifts and the challenge of unpacking current events.

Below, we explore some of these common pitfalls, why they emerged, and how school and district leaders and teachers can identify and address them. 

Siloing social studies minutes

To understand the unique challenges of teaching social studies today, we have to go back almost 20 years to a shift in policy that had enormous repercussions for how schools dedicate time and resources. As teacher Samantha Stearns put it in a recent op-ed for the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, “Social studies education…has never recovered from the blow dealt to it by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, with its high-stakes standardized testing in math and reading.” 

Stearns explains how the laser focus on math and reading put pressure on many teachers to increase test scores in those areas—and for social studies teachers, that often meant decreasing time spent on skills like understanding primary and secondary sources or evaluating historical arguments. “Social studies,” Stearns writes, “became the bottom rung of the educational ladder…and therefore the first of the core academic subjects to be modified or reduced to increase minutes in other subject areas.”

Falling back on legacy materials

When it comes to social studies content, a common pitfall can also be the materials themselves. Administrators may think that legacy materials like textbooks are still providing good value in the classroom, but from a teacher’s perspective that’s often not the case. A recent Newsela study revealed that while district and school administrators believed social studies teachers use their textbooks as “core content” for their students 15 days per month, instructors reported using them only 6 days a month. 

So if teachers don't use textbooks, what do they use? The majority of teachers report sourcing their own content from multiple websites; a practice requiring considerable time. Turning elsewhere to source their own content can be a significant burden, eating up time they almost never have to spare. Turning elsewhere for content also raises issues of quality and consistency, increasing the risk of using sources that haven’t been properly vetted.

Assuming all diverse perspectives are representative

Social studies teachers are increasingly finding that legacy materials, while they may try to offer diverse perspectives, aren’t adequately representative. In a time when complex issues of politics, race, and gender frequently headline the news, traditional materials like textbooks often don’t seem relevant and end up alienating students when they don’t see their stories depicted in genuine and engaging ways.

Teachers of history, civics, and other social studies classes are increasingly aware of the need for content to be both diverse and inclusive. As a recent piece in Edutopia on culturally responsive teaching notes, “when young people see themselves in the story of our shared past, they not only develop a deeper appreciation of the subject but become more civically active.”

Having diverse, inclusive materials to share and discuss allows students to see themselves in the past and the present, setting the stage to conversations about civic engagement that social studies teachers value.

Only prioritizing big events and well-known names

The stigma that surrounds social studies (and history in particular) is that it’s all about memorization: critical dates, key locations, and important figures (often white and male). This generalization often results in students viewing the subject as irrelevant and impersonal when in fact the skills developed in social studies classrooms give students the ability to navigate today’s most pressing, engaging and challenging issues.

In an Education Week blog post on teaching social studies more effectively, writer (and former social studies teacher) Bill Bigelow offers his guidance for avoiding this pitfall: “Remember, social studies is not only about chronicling events and memorizing dates. It's about questioning society, searching for patterns, and developing the tools to make the world a better place. Teaching social studies means showing how ordinary people have made a difference throughout history.”

Not providing robust resources for teaching complex topics

A recent survey confirmed that social studies teachers, more so than other content area teachers, are invested in teaching complex topics. Yet, in the same survey, both administrators and teachers acknowledged that teachers are often not adequately supported by supplemental resources or professional learning to teach these topics. 

Given recent shifts in culture and educational mandates, social studies is now more essential than ever to develop students’ ability to engage with and thrive in a shrinking world. Global citizens need to be independent critical thinkers who are well versed in diverse perspectives. And because such perspectives are hardly static, the best instructional content should prove flexible enough to capture the nuance of every story. It should go beyond the page and provide narratives that are representative of students’ lived experiences, complexity notwithstanding, and seed jumping-off points for appropriate informed action. The data shows that social studies educators are leading the charge in addressing complex topics—now, instructional content needs to catch up. 

In light of these pitfalls and the challenges they represent, it’s time for teachers and school leaders to expect more out of their instructional content. Many of the pressures social studies teachers find themselves under are exacerbated by the shortcomings of legacy materials or the difficulties of sourcing content on their own, especially when they find themselves with less time and fewer resources to work with. 

Social studies should be supported by content that’s authentic and representative of students, that helps them recognize themselves in the past and present, and which inspires them to examine current events like historians. When confronting the challenges of teaching social studies, teachers shouldn’t have to make do with materials that are old or self-sourced. They should be equipped with high-quality, relevant and authentic content that supports students in engaging with an ever-changing world.

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