Engaging Students in Authentic Practices in the Social Studies Classroom

Throughout the course of my cycle with our social studies department, it has been evident that the focus has shifted from relying on purely content to engage our students. Our planning and reflection meetings have been very fruitful in aligning our core values for the department. Our teachers have begun to focus on the essential skills that are required by those who study the social sciences. Analyzing the origin of sources and the validity of each source will no doubt be a fundamental skill of all citizens in an age where access to information is universal and such information may not be tethered to the truth.

During our sessions, we have primarily focused on planning and reflection in these courses. What has come out of these conversations is an understanding of how the new standards align with the skills needed to do authentic work in the field of understanding human behavior, rather than the regurgitation of historical events. Understanding those events in the context of history by looking at the thoughts of those who lived through such events, gives our society a lens in which they can relate their own lives to the world around them.

As determined by these standards, it will be a valuable experience for us as a team to begin diving into what skills we want our students to be able to demonstrate, and what content will allow us to meet our learning goals. Again, with the goals being an understanding of how to “do social science,” rather than the surface level understanding of social events. As we have discussed many times, this shift is really going back to the fundamentals of understanding events as they happened by those who experienced them. Not only their perspective but the perspective and responses of their contemporaries. This shift will require us to look at our curriculum alignment and develop a scope and sequence in which these standards are achieved while prioritizing the content that is used for them the use the desired mastery of a skill. Thank you, Mr. Westart, for working with me through the course of this cycle and reflecting with me on ways that we could restructure what we do to meet the needs of our students. This will undoubtedly be an ongoing process for the department in the future.  

Our social studies department has done an amazing job of incorporating primary sources and encouraging his students to understand history through such historical perspectives. As we have discussed many times, the standards have come full circle, in which we are adopting practices that were marked in textbooks from the 1960s. These textbooks focused on engaging students in the analysis of primary sources, and the relation of historical events to their own lives and the world around our students. By challenging students to understand history through a historical perspective, students have been able to participate in the authentic work that any researcher would do throughout the course of their career. These skills are what is essential for our students to be able to do.

While I am in favor of focusing on the skills necessary to actively do history, this doesn’t mean I don’t value that can be gained from understanding the historical content and the lessons that they provide. The content is something that should be examined in our discussions of scope and sequence as well. Being a former history teacher, what I most values is that we serve our students’ best interests by giving them the opportunity to fully understand the process that historians use to come to conclusions about historical events, for our students to develop those conclusions on their own, and most importantly for our students to develop their own arguments based on evidence that can be found in the historical record. You cannot provide this to students without focusing on the skills needed in the field.

Ideally, we will be able to construct model lessons for the future and can use what we develop to plan for future lessons no matter what the content area. With a focus on skills, we will be able to create instructional strategies that will be applicable to the content. Such a methodology will give our students the advantage of understanding the pillars of social studies rather than the superficial & short term memorization of content-driven instruction.