Goals of the Social Studies (page 2)
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.
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