Goals of the Social Studies
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.
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