Improving the social sudies curriculum

iStock_000008669788XSmallSocial studies curricula in the primary grades are often criticized as trite, redundant, and unlikely to help students achieve important educational goals. Educators disagree about how to improve social studies curricula. It is variously suggested that cultural literacy, history or social issues should be the focus of instruction.

Researchers Jere Brophy and Janet Alleman, Michigan State University, believe that the traditional focus on developing an understanding of universal human needs and institutions (food, clothing, shelter, families, communities, communication, transportation and government) found in all societies are important ideas for students to understand. However, Brophy and Alleman do share critics’ concerns about the triteness, redundancy and piecemeal information provided in the major textbook series. These researchers favor developing more powerful curricula and instruction that develop these ideas in depth, with attention to their application in the students’ local community and in the world.

Brophy and Alleman’s research demonstrates that children do not learn about human needs and society’s institutions intuitively. Primary-age students’ prior knowledge about these topics includes naive ideas and misconceptions that cause students to ignore, distort or miss the implications of new information that conflicts with their existing ideas. These researchers suggest that it is helpful for teachers to be aware of common misconceptions so they can plan instruction to address incorrect ideas directly.

Instructional Topics

In attempting to identify the main ideas worthy of inclusion in a primary social studies curriculum, Brophy and Alleman seek a balance between the three traditional sources of curricula: knowledge of enduring value; the students’ needs, interests, and current development; and the needs of society. The instructional units Brophy and colleagues are developing “emphasize teaching for understanding by building on students’ prior knowledge and developing key ideas in depth and with attention to applications to life outside of school.”

The curriculum begins with a focus on universal human needs and social experiences as seen in the students’ homes and neighborhoods. Physical examples, classroom visitors, field trips, students’ families and children’s literature are all used as sources of information.

Assessing the Implementation of Proposed Lessons

These researchers report that their initial efforts did not produce high-quality instruction. Teachers had difficulty maintaining focus on important themes and lesson plans did not give teachers enough information and support. The researchers then began collaborating with one teacher who demonstrated skill in sustaining focus on the theme of the instruction as well as providing good implementation of lessons. In partnership with this skilled teacher, Brophy and colleagues were able to identify problems and subsequently to revise instructional plans.

Preliminary findings revealed several weaknesses in the curriculum. The textbook series did not provide teachers with a clear idea of the goals and purposes of social studies. The content was thin and did not develop key ideas in depth. The lesson plans designed by Brophy and colleagues highlighted key ideas and spelled out main points to develop, but these lessons did not appear to provide enough structure and scaffolding support for primary-age students. The researchers concluded that students need direct teaching when key ideas are introduced and when lessons are summarized.

Lessons were redesigned to begin with a teacher-directed presentation of information, followed by questions. Students’ comments and questions led researchers to include more information about how things function and cause-effect relationships in the new instructional units. Researchers were surprised to find that children’s literature was difficult to use, and many of the initial selections were dropped from the curriculum. Both the text and the illustrations were sometimes difficult for first- and second-graders to understand, and either problem could derail the class from key ideas into side issues. However, some selections were found to be especially good for developing discussions of the key themes. Supplementing verbal instruction with pantomime, props, and drama was helpful in developing understanding in these young students. The home assignments designed for each unit to complement in-school activities proved to be interesting to students and their families. They engaged students in sustained conversations with their parents, and parents reported positive outcomes beyond academic learning.

Brophy and Alleman report that they are continuing their research into improving social studies content in primary classrooms. Further studies are needed to
assess students’ learning, to study the effects of a more powerful curriculum on low-achieving students, and to determine whether teachers are receiving the support they need to implement an improved social studies curriculum. These researchers continue to emphasize teaching for understanding, content that is structured around important ideas and applications to the wider world.

“Learning and Teaching about Cultural Universals in Primary-Grade Social Studies” The Elementary School Journal Volume 103, Number 2, November 2002 pp. 99-114.

Published in ERN February 2003 Volume 16 Number 2

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