Nature of Social Studies and the Idea of Powerful Teaching

As described by the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS), social studies education has the vital task of preparing students to become citizen. The NCSS acknowledges that this is a complex task, but they believe that social studies is more than ready for the challenge because it includes diverse disciplines which span a huge range of the human experience. The NCSS argues that students who complete a diverse social studies education will be ready to become civically engaged and participate in our democracy because social studies curriculum asks students to think critically and creatively about issues in the past, present, and, possibly, future.

Both the NCSS and the C3 standards make powerful teaching and learning a priority. An example provided by C3, the compelling question of “Was the American Revolution revolutionary?,” stuck out to me as a good example of the possibilities of powerful teaching and learning in the social studies classroom. First, as C3 said, the question is intriguing to students and it can be answered by combining other disciplines (history, government, geography, etc). Second, the inquiry will also lead students to apply the historical tools they will learn or already know to answering the question. Students will also evaluate sources and use them as evidence to communicate their conclusions.

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George Washington as a Farmer, oil, painted in 1851 by Junius B. Stearns (Source)

Imagine for a moment that I use the painting above as one of the sources my students use to investigate the question of whether the American Revolution was revolutionary or not. Using a scaffold like the SCIM-C model they’ll thoroughly investigate the source to answer the guiding question. Working in groups to investigate the source requires them to cooperate with others and requires them to understand the viewpoints of others who may have observed something in the source others might not have. The source will also challenge them with difficult history. Even though George Washington was one of our most important founding fathers, he was also one of the early nation’s wealthiest slaveholders. A practice he continued well after the Revolution though to his death. Students will probably wonder how a revolution for a nation’s freedom could be that revolutionary when half of the nation’s population remained enslaved. Inquiries like this make students question our history, discuss that history with others in the class who come from diverse backgrounds, and to think about the implications of this history upon their lives today.

All of this resonates deeply with my own goals for my future classroom. Far from being static, history changes. Different interpretations, different viewpoints, and new evidence constantly shifts how we view past historical events. The American Revolution is one of those ever changing events. Certainly there is much to be admired and celebrated about the Revolutionary generation, but I also want my students to see the faults of that generation. Particularly the founding generation’s greatest failure, allowing the continuation of slavery, and the reasons why they decided to let it continue. The idea of powerful teaching and powerful learning is something that I want to bring to my class. Like the NCSS I believe that social studies does prepare students to become civically engaged citizens in our democracy, but more importantly, I believe social studies prepares us to be citizens of the world. A world that is marked by diversity and the need for all of us to be more understanding of each other and of our past.

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