What is Social Studies?, pp. 3 of 11

The National Council for the Social Studies, an international association based in the United States and devoted to social studies teaching and learning, defines social studies as:

… the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence…. The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world. (NCSS, 2010)

Many educators agree that the purpose of social studies is the promotion of civic competence, the knowledge, intellectual processes, and values required of students to be active and engaged participants in public life.  But this definition raises an important question: what does it mean to be “an effective citizen”?  This question is, in fact, hotly debated.  Some would argue, for example, that a good citizen is one who obeys the laws, gets along with and is considerate of others, and generally contributes to the stability of social life.  Others might argue that these are important characteristics of a good citizen, but that even more is required of good citizens in a democracy.  What, after all, is the difference between a good citizen in a totalitarian state and a good citizen in a more open and democratic state?  In democratic societies, many would argue, a good citizen raises questions, engages in deliberation and decision-making around issues affecting members of the group or society, wonders about existing social practices, and contributes to helping society to be more just and equitable.  Over the years, social studies educators have suggested that in practice, teachers hold a variety of ideas about the goals or purposes of social studies.  These various ideas impact their thinking about the content that should be included, the skills that ought to be developed, and the teaching strategies that might be used.  Even when the content to be covered is clearly indicated by a national syllabus, a state or school district curriculum guide, or a school’s plan of work, teachers still make decisions about what they will emphasize and how they will teach.  These various ideas about the goals of social studies, and the perspectives toward knowledge, skills and teaching that each suggests are often referred to as orientations towards social studies.

Orientations toward Social Studies

Consider, for example, the three traditions of social studies that Barr, Barth and Shermis (1977) described.  They argued that the dominant approaches to the teaching of social studies in the United States in the mid-twentieth century could be described as falling into one of three orientations.  Each orientation, or tradition, reflected different goals for social studies.  These different goals, in turn, suggested different teaching methods, and different ideas about the content and skills which would be emphasized.  These orientations were: social studies as citizenship transmission, social studies as social science, and social studies as reflective inquiry.  As you read more about each of these orientations, ask yourself which of these, in part or as a whole, might apply to your thinking about teaching primary social studies in Singapore?

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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