The Failures of Elementary Social Studies
Since the inception of NCLB and standardized testing in math and language arts, teachers of all disciplines (specifically the creative arts) have been voicing distaste in how their subject is being treated as a distant thought. In this article, Dr. Paula A. Mathis (U. of Hawaii) and Dr. Nichelle C. Boyd (U. of Mississippi) discuss the effect that this is having on pre-service teachers in grades K-6 with the emphasis placed on answering the following:
- To examine what undergraduate education students observed about social studies instruction in K-6th grade classrooms; and
- To explore practicing teachers’ reflections on social studies instruction
It is important to note that the researchers acknowledge a deficiency in social studies instruction for elementary grades prior to NCLB (76), but this situation has only been compounded with the increased emphasis on federal testing as well as the sanctions that come with poor performance (78). They also pose a substantial question at the beginning of their research: how can the United States of America morally, ethically, and intellectually, appear not to defend students needing the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values that social studies brings (77)? The study consisted of representation of all grade levels and, following pre-service teachers noted an absence of real world relevance, peer interaction, and hands-on approaches as well as a lack of student-centered activities.
Here is a sampling of some of the activities these pre-service teachers observed:
“…a major emphasis on coloring U.S. symbols such as state flags, birds, and flowers. There was heavy memorization of the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Pledge of Allegiance, or state capitals with no explanation of the meaning of documents or purpose of symbols.”
“…purpose of worksheets was to look up definitions or to locate points on a map to record.”
And a comment by an “honest” teacher on the reasons for not using engaging activities:
…a classroom teacher honestly admitted to using the textbook, suggesting uncertainty with how to teach social studies, “it was too difficult for me to teach social studies any other way.”
Researchers noted several important conclusions about the study:
- The gap between university preparation for teaching social studies and the current elementary classroom needs to be bridged.
- In-service teachers need more pedagogical content knowledge of social studies.
- Pre-service teachers should make a personal commitment not to allow their “action lab” experience to alter how they were taught to teach social studies.
The bigger picture shows a lack of emphasis on developing young Americans into active citizens who participate in the democratic process, but we must also be cognizant of the constraints and stress that elementary teachers are experiencing in finding appropriate allocation of time for each content area. Mathis and Boyd complete their article by offering a glimpse of how districts should be dealing with these inconsistencies through a hybrid model of social studies and literature. Elementary teachers should work with curriculum coordinators to find core values in the social studies that are represented in literature so that they may cover both content areas simultaneously. Districts must also work with experienced teachers to emphasize the importance of the social sciences and avoid developing a generation of ill-informed students that are unprepared to be active members in our democracy.
Mathis, P.B., & Boyd, N.C. (2009). Who is teaching social studies? Pre-service teachers’ reactions. Social Science Research & Practice, 4(3), 76-85. Retrieved from http://www.socstrp.org/issues/PDF/4.3.7.pdf on 5 April 2010.