Forget rote memorization. Bring on deep-level thinking!
Who was the second president of the United States? How many amendments does the Constitution have? What was the New Deal?
Flashback to a social studies class? For many, it is. Bits of facts stored in short-term memory to pass a test. After the test? Most of that memorized information was forgotten.
But social studies classrooms don’t have to replicate the classroom of yesteryear, educators attending the Social Studies Institute in Des Moines were told. In fact, today’s lessons should focus on deep-level thinking, teaching students to understand the why rather than just the what.
“Social studies is not just important, but it is crucial that it’s taught and taught well in our schools,” said Jenny Sinclair, a speaker at the institute and fourth-grade teacher out of Norwalk Community School District. “Good quality instruction begins with meaningful, compelling questions – questions that enable a student to think about an issue more deeply.
“An example would be teaching about immigration. Our compelling question is, ‘What does the American dream look like today?’ In the past, we may have had students read out of a textbook about Ellis Island or immigration from Europe. We now know that immigration is so complex. What compels people to leave their country and why do they immigrate to the United States? Where do they come from? What challenges do they face when they come to the country?”
Taking that teaching approach leads students to think more deeply about what they are seeing and hearing so that they become critical thinkers.
“We want them to be critical consumers of information,” Sinclair said. “’You ask questions like ‘Who said this?’ ‘Do they have a reason or bias?’ ‘Is there a purpose for what they are saying?’ ‘Who is the intended audience?’ ‘What is the opposing view?’ The idea is that students will become active participants in our democracy.”
And social studies doesn’t need to be taught in isolation.
“The focus has been on reading instruction at the expense of social studies instruction,” Sinclair said. “But they don’t have to be mutually exclusive – you can teach the literacy skills through social studies content.”
That proverbial a-ha moment was born out of necessity.
“We were pressed for time and trying to figure out how to get all of the subject matter in,” she said. “That’s when we were teaching Language Arts by itself and social studies by itself. We started thinking differently about this. Of course, we wanted to ensure everything was being taught, but it was also a desire to have more time for students to dig deeply into content rather than just scratching the surface.”
Sinclair said that very successful literacy and social studies plans can be developed to meet the academic standards.
“We worked on learning about how to think critically about information,” she said. “We then dove into Iowa’s rich agriculture history and our history with American Indians. Our students had to know where we came from in order to understand what came next. There is reading and writing every day.”
Sinclair also makes sure her students understand the context of social studies.
“You can find social studies all day long in everything we do,” she said. “It’s geography, history, economics, civics and behavioral science such as sociology and psychology. If you think through your day, you encounter each of these aspects.”
Ultimately, to understand social studies – and history, in particular – is to ensure we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.
“We need to ensure students become active and informed members of our democracy,” Sinclair said. “We need to understand how our government works, how our economy works. If we aren’t informed, then we allow things to be done to us rather than participating in the direction of the country.