On Education: The Case for Social Studies in Elementary Classrooms

Social studies is important to student's civic and literacy educationTechnology and globalization connect the world more today than in any era of history, but our children may not be prepared to be responsible citizens within it.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, elementary teachers increased English and mathematics instruction time over the past two decades in response to assessment pressures. Conversely, social studies instruction decreased, and is taught less in elementary schools today than at any time over the past 30 years.

Many feel there already is, and will be, a potent impact on society if social studies instruction continues to shrink.

Social Studies creates better citizens

“Without social studies, we lose the civic mission of public schools,” said Stephanie Serriere, a former teacher and associate professor of social studies education at Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus, in a July 12, 2018 article by Sarah Gonser for The Hechinger Report. “Ultimately, we can’t prepare children for living in a rich, diverse democracy if we don’t expose them to the controversial topics inherent in our democracy.”

Many, like Serriere, stump for more social studies time within the classroom. They feel similar to Nelson Mandela, who said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

These educators believe social studies teaches us how to live — how to be that change in a free society. But they are fighting an uphill battle as U.S. educational organizations concentrate instructional time to standardized tests and assessments.

“Our global community owes children opportunities to explore the variety and complexity of human experience through a dynamic and meaningful education,” said the National Council for the Social Studies in a 2017 statement. “When children are grounded in democratic principles, immersed in age-appropriate democratic strategies, and engaged in meaningful inquiry, they construct the foundational skills that prepare them to participate respectfully and intelligently in a nation and world marked by globalization, interdependence, human diversity, and societal change.”

The NCSS went further to explain that the purpose of elementary school social studies is to enable students to understand, participate in, and make informed decisions about their world. This is not necessarily a skill students learn in English or math class, but in a space that fosters questioning, problem-solving and making thoughtful value judgments.

“The teaching and learning processes within social studies are uniquely organized to develop these capacities, beginning with the youngest learners in our schools,” the NCSS statement concluded.

Social Studies creates better readers and learners
“We need to understand, social studies is the plate in education.” – Cathy Marston
Cathy Marston, a veteran elementary teacher and 2016 California educator of the year, makes the case that in addition to helping her students make sense of the world around them, social studies also promotes literacy, even among the most struggling readers. Social studies content integration, she explained, lets students practice and apply reading comprehension strategies in content area texts.

“These are not two separate content areas, they actually have synergy in their relationship,” she said in a recent presentation about Studies Weekly. “They are both better because of each other. They are much better when working in unison.”

Additionally, though it goes against current educational trends, the case can be made that social studies works synergistically with other subjects in teaching the whole child, not just the future mathematicians or writers of the world. Marston explained that the all-encompassing nature of social studies can be the plate in the feast of daily learning. Social studies carries and connects all other subjects in the elementary school day.

“We need to understand, social studies is the plate in education,” she said. “Everything revolves around social studies. In a world that demands independent and cooperative problem solving to address complex social, economic, ethical and personal concerns, core social studies content is as basic for success as reading, writing and computing.”