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.

Social Studies Is the Study of People

People are the domain of social studies. This includes people as nearby as family and as far away as those who live in the most distant nations. It includes people living now, those who lived long ago, and those who will live in the future. Social studies has the potential to be the best part of the school day because it is when children connect with other people. As children learn about others, they will be fascinated by differences among cultural groups, while at the same time they will find the commonalities that create a shared sense of humanity. It is a complex task to teach about people, and information must come from many fields of study. The NCSS definition points out that it is the various disciplines of the social sciences and humanities that provide the content for what is taught during social studies. While history and geography should serve as the core of social studies, it is imperative that the other social sciences are not neglected; rather, they should be a significant part of every social studies program. The other social sciences are anthropology, economics, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology.

The humanities (literature, the performing arts, and the visual arts) are an important part of social studies, too (Eisner, 1991). The arts serve two functions. First, they help children better understand the people, places, and ideas they study. Stories, songs, dances, plays, paintings, statues, and other works of art allow students to become acquainted with the people who created them. Second, children can show us what they know by expressing themselves through the arts. As Barth (1993) points out, social studies involves integration of the social sciences and the humanities. A good social studies unit of study should pull information and ideas from several different fields.

Social Studies Should Help Students Acquire Knowledge, Master the Processes of Learning, and Become Active Citizens

The knowledge children acquire as a part of social studies tends to be the highest priority for teachers, parents, and the children. The common perception is that this is what social studies is all about—knowing things like the location of the Rocky Mountains, the conditions aboard a slave ship, and the purpose of a mailbox. This is too limited a view because social studies must be a vehicle for children to become better communicators, thinkers, researchers, computer users, and artists. Finally, all three definitions state that the ultimate goal of social studies is active citizenship in our society, as our students use the knowledge they have acquired and the processes they have mastered to make communities, the nation, and the world better places. This is the position of the NCSS, that the “core mission of social studies education is to help students develop the knowledge, skills, and values that will enable them to become effective citizens” (NCSS Task Force on Revitalizing Citizenship Education, 2001, p. 319).

In the end, there probably will never be one universally accepted definition of social studies. This lack of consensus reflects fundamental disagreements on the primary purpose of social studies. Consider the following points of view on social studies teaching and learning, expressed throughout the last 100 years:

  • Social studies should promote the acceptance of cultural diversity (national survey of elementary and middle school teachers reported by Leming, Ellington, & Schug, 2006).
  • Social studies should focus on the major events and important individuals in American history and seek to transmit to young people the American concepts of liberty and equality (Leming, Ellington, & Porter-Magee, 2003).
  • Social studies should be issues centered, as students search for answers to problems and dilemmas confronted by people today and in the past (Evans, 1992).
  • Social studies should develop democratic citizens who are more than loyal and patriotic; good citizens are also critics of, and participants in, their government (Engle & Ochoa, 1988).
  • Social studies should focus on the big ideas of the social science disciplines, and the essential activity for children is problem solving (Fenton, 1967).
  • Social studies should be child centered and permit students to pursue topics of personal interest (Kilpatrick, 1918).

Perhaps a good way to conclude our discussion of the definition of social studies is through example.