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History in the Elementary School: Content

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

The expanding environments approach to social studies defined a curriculum with little historical content until students reached the fourth grade. Kindergarten and first- and second-grade social studies curricula have focused on social development, the school, the family, and the neighborhood. Third graders studied their community, with a small amount of local history. Not until fourth grade, when students learn about their state, was any significant historical content presented. Fifth-grade social studies, following the expanded environments framework, has always been historical, as students learned about the history of the United States. Sixth grade covered foreign regions or nations—typically Canada, Mexico, Central America, and South America. So, in the traditional scheme, global content has been covered in grade 6 but virtually not before that grade level.

Although they have generated considerable controversy, the national history standards represent the combined effort of many dedicated historians and educators. Let’s take a look at the proposed topics for grades K–4 included in the National Standards for History (National Center for History in the Schools, 1996). The eight content standards listed will help us understand what students in grades K–4 should know:

  1. Students should understand family life now and in the recent past and family life in various places long ago. This standard represents a shift in several states and school districts. Rather than learn only political and economic history, students should learn about their personal histories and the everyday lives of people in the past.
  2. Students should understand the history of their own local community and how communities in North America varied long ago. Community history has traditionally been a part of elementary social studies. Students should use a variety of resources to learn about their community, including field trips, old photographs, newspapers, and interviews with senior citizens.
  3. Students should understand the people, events, problems, and ideas that were significant in creating the history of their state. State history, long the focus of fourth-grade social studies, should cover the Natives who first lived in the state, the early non-Native explorers of their state, and the people who have moved to their state throughout its history.
  4. Students should understand how democratic values came to be and how they have been exemplified by people, events, and symbols. Many state and local social studies curricula delay this topic until fifth grade. This national standard bridges history and citizenship and calls for students to understand how the United States was formed through a revolution with England and to identify the basic principles in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Other parts of this standard are familiar topics for the early grades: national holidays, American symbols, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the national anthem.
  5. Students should understand the causes and nature of various movements of large groups of people into the United States now and long ago. This standard combines history and geography. Included here would be the forced relocation of Native Americans; the stories of immigrant groups who have come to the United States throughout our history; the internal migrations of African Americans, Mexican and Puerto Rican workers, and Dust Bowl families; and the 20th-century migration of Americans from farms to cities.
  6. Students should understand folklore and other cultural contributions from various regions of the United States and how they help form a national heritage. Students should be able to describe regional folk heroes, stories, and songs; use folk literature to describe the way people lived in various sections of the United States; and describe the national influence of regional art, crafts, music, and language.
  7. Students should understand selected attributes and historical developments of societies in such places as Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe. This standard represents an attempt to internationalize the social studies curriculum and is an important addition to the typical K–3 fare of family, classroom, neighborhood, and city. Students would compare and contrast different structures of family life, retell folktales and legends, describe significant historical achievements of many cultural groups, and analyze the art produced by various cultural groups.
  8. Students should understand discoveries in science and technology, some of their social and economic effects, and the major scientists and inventors responsible for them. The content in this standard seems like a worthwhile addition to the elementary curriculum, especially as students face technological change at an unprecedented pace. Students would examine changes in transportation and communication and learn about the technological achievements of many cultural groups, such as Chinese paper, Mayan calendars, Egyptian mummies, and English steam engines.
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