Recently, I have been visiting social studies classrooms all across Northeast Ohio. These visits range from interviewing teachers, students, and principals about their views towards the social studies to actually observing social studies teachers. I must say that the greatest part of my job as Assistant Professor of Education is that I have the opportunity to make such visits and have these substantive conversations. All too often the theories we advocate for in teacher education are seen as disconnected and irrelevant to the ‘realities’ of the needs of today’s schools and students.
I’m reminded of an interaction I had with a pre-service social studies student at the conclusion of a college course. He asked me if I really believed that it was possible to “…hold all students to high expectations”, and to “… use the social studies to foster informed and active democratic citizens despite the challenges families, schools, and the field face.” My answer was short and to the point, “… I do believe we as teachers can never give up on any student… I believe a strong education to be the last best hope for a better and brighter future.” This sort of questioning the value and relevance of educational theory is all too common amongst both pre-service education students and actual social studies teachers. This really bothers me as it is my passion and profession to help prepare the knowledgeable, caring, and devoted social studies teachers; the kind we need to fulfill the goals enlisted by the social studies.
Harry and Rosemary Wong, in The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher (2009), describes how teacher education programs often fail to teach pre-service teachers what they really need to know in order to become good teachers. Being bothered and agitated by what is seen as the irrelevance of traditional teacher education programs, I have opted to spend as much time as possible during the past 4 months ‘living in the realities of social studies teachers and students.’ My goal was to better understand teacher practice, and student engagement in the social studies. Also, to better understand how schools, teachers, and students have changed since I last taught five years ago as a high school social studies teacher. I was amazed at what I found, especially, in regards to the value of a good social studies education.
The first question I asked myself as I conducted my observation was “Based upon students’ experiences in the social studies, what’s its relationship to their learning the skills, understanding, and attitudes necessary for democratic citizenship? What I found was that the majority of students either had their heads buried in social studies textbooks (being asked to jot down every important ‘fact’ on a worksheet) or they were bored out of their minds taking notes from uneventful lectures. I must say that at times I found it difficult to stay attentive. I can’t even tell how many times I heard the teacher disciplining students as they drifted off-task to remind them, “You’re going to need to know this for college.” Like it or not, students in the social studies are predominantly being asked to learn from textbooks and lecture. There was nothing social about these social studies classes. Students were being inundated with what textbooks and their teachers perceived as facts and universal truths. In these classrooms, the social studies was being used to teach a disdain for all things social. Students learned the importance of obedience, obeying authority, and writing down what others told them (i.e. textbook or teacher) without thinking critically about it. I now ask, given the rhetoric of the social studies (“fostering informed and active democratic citizens”), how close are we to fulfilling that purpose in America’s schools?
On the brighter side, I found many instances where students were actually being taught essential skills for good citizenship. What’s interesting is that many of these instances occurred OUTISDE of social studies instruction. One such instance included a group of students standing up against a bully. Before entering their social studies classroom, a group of students were waiting for their teacher to open the door. Upon waiting to enter, one of the male students in the class began to make fun of and ridicule a special needs student for her physical appearance. Which I thought was horrible on many levels, ESPCIALLY, since all the students just completed a section in their social studies text on discrimination and the Holocaust. Just as I was walking over to confront the student on his comments, I witnessed something amazing. Two girls at their locker close to the incident, who were non-participants in the class, confronted the bully. The two girls told the male student that words hurt, and they found his comments to be completely inappropriate. While their initiative to confront this bullying was inspiring, I found that the many students that witnessed this incident learning from the courage of these ladies. These bystanders had learned something very valuable about good citizenship from these two girls, something missing in many traditional social studies classrooms. These students, through their experience, came to understand how being a good citizen often means making the right and sometimes difficult decision.
As we consider the future of the social studies, we have to contemplate the type of future we say we want versus the one we’re actually creating. The rhetoric of using the social studies to inspire, to engage, and to better our Planet is quite strong. However, we should always measure this against reality (teacher practice). With growing teacher, student, and school accountability for increases in standardized tests scores, and with a growing gap between the schools that have and the have nots, we have to reflect upon how these challenges influence our overall mission. We as a profession have to demand more out of ourselves and one another. We have to understand, much like those students that witnessed the courageous civic acts by those female students, we all have to be the change we wish to see in this world. The time is now for the social studies and its teachers to reach for praxis and a higher ground. This includes embracing methods and approaches that align to our stated civic purpose.