On Education: Social Studies is a Powerful Tool to Teach Empathy

Studies Weekly Social Studies CurriculumFor better or worse, students in classrooms today — even down to the elementary level — are firmly part of the selfie generation. Many, in just a few years’ time, have more pictures on a smartphone of their own faces than older generations have from their entire lifetimes.

Teachers, principals and districts have a unique challenge to expand children’s learning beyond the classroom and connect them to others’ experiences across the world. Social studies instruction, when done correctly, is a potent tool to get students outside of selfness, and teach them empathy — or the ability to imagine what others are feeling outside of their own experience.

Social economist and author Jeremy Rifkin, in his August 2010 RSA Animate talk, explained that scientifically speaking, “we are actually soft-wired to experience another’s plight as if we are experiencing it ourselves.” Rifkin went further to assert that, contrary to what we see in the world around us today, humans are not soft-wired for aggression and violence, but for connection.

Social Studies teaches empathy

Of all the elementary school subjects, social studies has the power to tap into children’s natural empathy and need for connection. Social studies is full of stories — from both leaders and common people, all who valiantly or violently constructed change within their own sphere. Many of these narratives come from different lands and diverse viewpoints.

“When we encounter a multiplicity of voices and human experiences, we are humbled by the vast sea of events, information and ideas, and how little we know,” said Matt Doran and his team in February 2016 at the teacher resource site, Social Studies for the 21st Century.

That humility helps students of social studies empathetically experience and understand another’s condition from that person’s perspective.

Social Studies expands our view

At its very basic level, social studies teaches us about ourselves by teaching us about “the other.” Thus, through its stories, conflicts, compromises and resolutions, social studies teaches empathy with authenticity. Teachers have no need of crafting character lessons because their students discover the true character of historical figures through questioning, pondering and debating sources and views.

Lauren Owen, in a November 2015 Edutopia article, explained that modeling, teaching and using empathy in the classroom not only benefits that room, but beyond.

Empathy instruction leads to:

• A more positive classroom culture and helps students build friendships outside of themselves.

Strengthening the community. “As children learn empathy skills by communicating cross-culturally with their classmates, those skills will transfer to their lives in their community. The deeper relationships that result from strong empathy skills have the potential to strengthen a community and build trust,” Owen said.

Preparing students to be better leaders in their world as they learn to understand the perspectives of those they lead.

“We have more in common than that which divides us,” said HRH Princess Lamia Al Saud, secretary general and member of the Board of Trustees at Alwaleed Philanthropies, in a 2017 Huffington Post article. 

“More connects us than separates us.”   T’Challa, King of Wakanda

T’Challa, king of Wakanda, echoed this sentiment in the 2018 movie, “Black Panther.” But in today’s politically charged and consistently contentious society, it is hard for students to believe this.

Studying the stories of history is a proven way to get students outside themselves, and find the hope and bravery needed to reach out to others.

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.”