Skip to content

The Failures of Elementary Social Studies

April 12, 2010

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:

  1. To examine what undergraduate education students observed about social studies instruction in K-6th grade classrooms; and
  2. To explore practicing teachers’ reflections on social studies instruction

Research Summary:

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:

  1. The gap between university preparation for teaching social studies and the current elementary classroom needs to be bridged.
  2. In-service teachers need more pedagogical content knowledge of social studies.
  3. 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.

Classroom Implications:

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 on 5 April 2010.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 12, 2010 7:32 am

    I’m surprised that the teacher felt like there was no “easy” way to teach social studies without using a textbook and meaningless worksheets. I will admit that I haven’t been in a social studies methods class yet, but I’ve always assumed that social studies would be one of the easier subjects to integrate into the rest of your classroom instruction. I suppose it depends on how much power the teacher wishes to give up, but classrooms are perfect for creating a democratic environment; supplement that with elements of “activism and advocacy” by making students feel 100% capable of bringing their concerns and suggestions up to their peers, teacher, and principal, or write to their local politicians.

    Looking at Ohio’s content standards for SS, I’m seeing lots of opportunities, even for younger children. The entire “Skills and Methods” standard could be met with frequent chances to work on an authentic, meaningful inquiry-based project. Certainly certain aspects of the curriculum that focus on geography and pure history might require a textbook to introduce, but I’m thinking a teacher could easily do more than just require students to define a word or pick out its location on a map.

    Do you think the hesitation is a result of some of these skills and applications being difficult to test and measure, and therefore teachers feel like they aren’t properly preparing their students for the tests?

    • Aaron Eyler permalink
      April 12, 2010 9:02 am


      Truthfully, I think the hesitation has more to do with laziness and disengagement from the social studies curriculum than anything else. I’ll even give you an example.

      The teacher who commented on the worksheet situation could have picked up a peer-reviewed journal and searched for research-proven methods of how to teach social studies.

      Here’s an example:

      Now granted, this article came out after the study I discussed above, but what are the chances of that teacher coming across the information even now? Not very good given the lack of diligence by most to investigate serious research journals. That’s the whole reason Jerrid started this blog. To provide a connection between research and practical implementation.

      It baffles me that teachers today can ever say “there is no other way” given the amount of reliance they have on technology and web resources. Surely, she could have found a way to develop better instructional methods for social studies. In her mind, she simply didn’t need to.

      I applaud you for going through the standards. It is people like you that the education profession needs in the classroom right now to ensure that logic and practicality supercede utopian idealism.

      You’re right. Integrating social studies and literature isn’t difficult, but where there is a will…

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. April 12, 2010 8:20 am

    I am glad to see direct evidence of what we all know to be going on in schools. Sometimes we want to “play nice” with all teachers, but I would wager the majority of teachers are not really engaging students in meaningful ways and view school as students do: a hoop to jump through. This is sad.

    I know that science education research would likely say much of the same (perhaps I’ll conduct a mirror study) :). Instead of students wrestling with synthesizing what is known about the planet, kids spend their time coloring diagrams of Earth’s interior.

    I don’t know that having students make posters is much better. Instead of having students color in pre-made diagrams, we have them create their own. We have to consistently ask ourselves what value a given activity has for student learning.

  3. April 12, 2010 6:38 pm

    I’ve seen similar studies about elementary school teachers and mathematics. It seems to me that the elementary school teachers are in a difficult spot, because they have so many topics to cover. To really teach math or social science or science well, even at an elementary level, requires a depth of knowledge of that field. Since the same elementary school teacher has to teach all of those, chances are good that there is some subject they don’t know as well. Moreover, they don’t have time to prepare 5 different excellent lesson from scratch in 5 different subjects everyday. It’s unsurprising that they rely the textbooks for the subjects that aren’t their specialty. Making better textbooks, with clear instructions for the teacher on how to use the lesson plans interactively, would go a long way to fixing these issues.

    (Note: I’ve considered becoming an elementary school teacher, but didn’t because I don’t have a clue how I would teach reading.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: