Definitions of Social Studies
In 1992, the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) adopted the following definition of “social studies”:
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, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics, and natural sciences. 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. (NCSS Task Force on Standards for Teaching and Learning in the Social Studies, 1993, p. 213)
The NCSS, the professional organization of social studies educators, has played an essential role since 1921 (www.ncss.org). The NCSS definition seems to be a good place to start our discussion of how to teach social studies in an elementary school classroom. The existence of an “official” definition is somewhat misleading because authorities in the field have long debated the dimensions of an appropriate definition of social studies (Barr, Barth, & Shermis, 1977; Barth & Shermis, 1970; Dougan, 1988; Evans, 2004; Griffith, 1991). The NCSS definition states the topics covered in social studies and clarifies the purposes of social studies teaching and learning. Barth (1993) provides a simpler definition of social studies:
Social studies is the interdisciplinary integration of social science and humanities concepts for the purpose of practicing problem solving and decision making for developing citizenship skills on critical social issues.
I think this is a useful definition. It emphasizes the ultimate goal of social studies teaching—to help students think critically and to use what they know to be active citizens. I have a definition, too:
Social studies is the study of people. Social studies should help students acquire knowledge, master the processes of learning, and become active citizens.
A closer look at my definition and a discussion of those provided by the NCSS and Professor Barth should bring social studies into sharper focus.
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