What do you need to know about the social studies? The answer probably seems to be more than you do know or can learn. It is certainly more than you will be able to get from any textbook. As a teacher, you owe it to the generations of children that you teach to become mindfully, curiously, purposefully alive to them, to their world, to history as a thick endless blanket of stories about people and events, and to the values and rules needed for people to live together. So the real answer to the question, "What do you need to know about the social studies?" is, "As much as you can learn about history, geography, political science, sociology, anthropology, economics, psychology, and, yes, about religion, too."

Social studies in the elementary school has most often been regarded as an area that should be taught, but only if there were time. Priority time in the school day, of course, has to be given to the basic skill areas of reading, mathematics, and language. It has not been that the social studies are considered unimportant, but that the basic skill areas are seen by society, by administrators, and by elementary teachers as "basics" or "fundamentals" that have to be learned first. Important as language and mathematics skills may be, they are taught only because the children will need them to live in the social world.

The "back to basics" years of the 1970s and early 1980s had a strong adverse influence on elementary social studies. Separate studies by Gross (1977) and Hahn (1977) affirmed that the social studies were disappearing in the early grades. If anything, that trend continues in the presence of the whole-language movement (Hahn, 1985; Goodlad, 1984). Many would argue that the social studies are, after all, embedded in curriculum. This curriculum involves an emphasis on reading stories, poems, and plays, all of which have extensive social studies content. Then too, the school day itself consists of a rich and complex series of social situations and problems, ranging from homeroom to recess to lunchroom to school bus. Social studies specialists would argue that the focus in these programs is still largely on skill and that language, not social development, is the focus.

Educators and politicians may soon have to wake up to the fact that the social studies are basic and fundamental in the earliest schooling. Educational reform has not had any real impact on achievement in the basic skill areas and schools have about run out of time to take from other areas. Children simply are not likely to improve their learning attitudes. There simply has to be more attention given to help children learn about themselves and their place in and responsibility to society. The National Council for the Social Studies Task Force on Early Childhood/Elementary Social Studies (1989) has described a major purpose for the social studies as equipping children with "the knowledge and understanding of the past necessary for coping with the present and planning for the future. . . ." The Task Force went on to say that the social studies enable children to "participate in their world" by helping them understand their relationship to other people and to social, economic, and political institutions.

Barth (1993) has said that one of our most basic beliefs is that "Social Studies is citizenship education." Hartoonan (1993) has added that "our work should be to illuminate the essential connection between social studies learning and democratic values" and thus be a "liberating force in the lives of citizens." Put another way, the two primary jobs of schools are to help the society by producing effective, contributing citizens and to help the children lead happy lives in which they are enabled to achieve their potential. That is what the social studies are all about, and it is also why they are so needed in the elementary school.

Though social studies specialists disagree as to priorities, the following list identifies those purposes that are most often associated with social studies programs:

  • Preparing responsible citizens for the nation, the state, and the local area.
  • Preparing students who have the knowledge and skills in social studies needed for college.
  • Developing awareness and understanding of contemporary social issues.
  • Developing healthy self-concepts.
  • Teaching the methods of social scientists.
  • Motivating students to want to learn about the social studies.
  • Developing the ability to solve problems and make decisions.
  • Dveloping "global" citizens with a world vision.

Whatever we do as teachers is certainly done for the present, but it has to be done with an eye to the future.

In trying to help you become good social studies teachers, or good teachers of anything for that matter, it is important to get you to look at what happens if you succeed as teachers. The children you teach will, in due course, become adults themselves. They will obviously be living in a different kind of society, one that teachers must try to anticipate and prepare them for. But, beyond that, the kind of impact that teachers will have had on them and the kind of people they become are critical outcomes of education. Following are just a few of the areas where we, as teachers of elementary social studies, will have had an impact when the children we teach become adults:

  • The jobs they have and the way they do their jobs
  • The way they feel about themselves
  • The way they handle responsibility
  • The way they treat other people
  • How they meet and resolve problems and difficulties
  • Their motivation and overall attitudes
  • What they value and how they treat the things they value
  • How they relate to their heritage
  • How they relate to their environment
  • How they relate to and deal with people of other cultures, nationalities, and ethnic groups

In each of these and in other areas where teachers influence children, I think that it is safe to say that most of us would happily accept a broad variety of outcomes and still feel that we had been a positive force. The question is, "Just how much in each area can we expect of ourselves?" That is not a question that can be left unanswered. I like the analogy of putting together a jigsaw puzzle. It is always easier to do if we have a picture of what it is going to look like when we get it all together. The same holds true for teaching. From an attitudinal standpoint, I have always found it useful to envision my students 10 or 15 years into the future, and imagine them in the most positive light I can. It gives me an idea of what I am working for.

Goals and objectives should be the first and most important concerns of any teacher, especially any social studies teacher. They complement one another. Goals are distant, unmeasurable, and even unattainable. They give direction to our efforts and, if we are goal oriented and goal driven, we constantly work toward them, yet never reach a point when they are achieved. How can one reach the goal of becoming an effective problem solver, for example, or the even broader goal of being a good citizen? The essence of goals is that they describe the person we are constantly in the process of becoming (Moore, 1989).

Objectives, on the other hand, are short term, attainable, often measurable, and very specific. We can know when we achieve them, so they become for us milestones and markers of our progress. Goals determine the directions we want to go, but the accomplishment of objectives lets us know that we are getting there.

In education, we generally begin planning by defining our goals. Once goals are set, we try to describe the specific teaching and learning outcomes for short periods of instruction that will move students toward the goals. Goals without objectives remain as only dreams. Objectives without relationship to goals are purposeless. Objectives for the social studies tend to be decided on the basis of the specific content being taught and the group to which it is being taught.  The broadest goals for the field have been centrally determined and defined in the United States by various groups, given authority by still larger organizations. Regardless of the group, throughout this century social studies has invariably been linked to goals of citizenship education (Jarolimek 1990). The frameworks developed in the reports of the various commissions, task forces, and committees have served as models for textbook curricula and for those developed for state and local school districts.

Among the most recent of these reports, three will probably influence the direction of elementary school social studies in the 1990s and on into the twenty-first century. These are the National Council for the Social Studies Task Force on Scope and Sequence (1984), the National Council for the Social Studies Task Force on Early Childhood/Elementary Social Studies (1989), and the Curriculum Task Force of the National Commission on the Social Studies in the School (1989).

The introductory, summarizing statement of the goals section of the report of the NCSS Task Force on Scope and Sequence set a problem-solving focus for the social studies and emphasized thinking skills. The Task Force said, "Social studies programs have a responsibility to prepare young people to identify, understand, and work to solve problems that face our increasingly diverse nation and interdependent world" (NCSS Task Force, 1984, 25l). The report went on to say that the social studies derive goals from the nature of citizenship and then organizes those goals into the broad categories of knowledge, democratic values, and beliefs and skills.

The NCSS Task Force on Early Childhood/Elementary Social Studies (1989) echoed much of the same tone and similar organization in its report. The goals focused on cooperative problem solving, claiming that basic skills in reading, writing, and computing were necessary but not sufficient if children are to survive in today's world. Critical thinking and the development of positive attitudes toward self and others were given priority in this report.

The Task Force of the National Commission on the Social Studies was funded by the Carnegie Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the National Geographic Society. It enjoyed the sponsorship of the National Council for the Social Studies and the American Historical Association. Over two years in preparation, the Task Force's report, titled Charting a Course: Social Studies for the 21st Century (1989), formulated the following goals that the social studies curriculum should enable students to develop:

  1. Civic responsibility and active civic participation
  2. Perspectives on their own life experiences so they see themselves as part of the larger human adventure in time and place
  3. A critical understanding of the history, geography, economic, political, and social institutions, traditions, and values of the United States as expressed in both their unity and diversity
  4. An understanding of other peoples and of the unity and diversity of world history, geography institutions, traditions, and values
  5. Critical attitudes and analytical perspectives appropriate to analysis of the human condition