What is Powerful Social Studies (page 2)
The view that students construct their own knowledge has great implications for social studies education. Students must have information to act on: evidence developed through their own experience that can be related to the ideas and skills being taught. Students collect this evidence by making observations of, and interacting with, people, educational materials, and objects. Students think about information, relating it to their prior experiences and knowledge. They consider the information they acquire using familiar ways of thinking. They make predictions and encounter challenges. It is through such challenges to our present way of thinking that we come to understand new ideas (Sunal, Sunal, & Haas, 1996).
Students need to classify and describe the materials, experiences, and information they observe. Performing such tasks comes naturally, but often students are uncertain about doing these tasks or are not particularly good at doing them. It is only after encountering activities that challenge them and make them think that students discover regular patterns in the world and make conclusions about them. A pattern is a regular activity that has occurred in the past and is expected to occur again in the future. The world is full of patterns, as the following examples demonstrate:
- People wear fewer and lighter clothes in summer.
- Groups have social relationships that tell members who should lead and who should follow.
- Past events influence current events.
Students’ inferences and conclusions about their observations of the world are drawn from and interpreted in terms of the values they, their families, and their communities have. These values are often challenged, reconsidered, and clarified during social studies activities. Throughout social studies instruction, students integrate information from a variety of sources that represent differing perspectives. They make decisions and solve problems about what they need and what is important to them. Thus, social studies is a powerful construction process that goes on in students’ minds.
Many teachers view social studies teaching in ways that support the NCSS description of powerful social studies. They understand that classroom instruction takes place along a continuum of instructional activities: Greater Student Control to Greater Teacher Control.
At one end of the continuum are instructional activities with greater teacher control that allow students little opportunity for input. An example is when the teacher presents a lecture or a video without offering students the opportunity to ask questions and to discuss the topic. At the other end of the continuum are instructional activities with greater student control that involve students as active participants who decide what issues they will study and how they will collect data on questions they have regarding those issues. An example is when students decide to investigate a problem such as heavy traffic outside the school and several instances when students were nearly hit by a car. The students decide to study traffic patterns and find that traffic is heaviest when school is starting and ending. Students conclude that a traffic signal is needed and go to the city council to advocate for placement of a traffic signal in front of the school. The more that we, as teachers of social studies, are able to use instructional activities that give students greater control of their learning activities, the more active their learning becomes.
As we strive to provide students with experiences in which they have control of lesson activities, we work to deepen our pedagogical content knowledge. As teachers, we need
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