What is Social Studies?, pp. 7 of 11

At this point, let us revisit the NCSS statement of the purpose of social studies introduced earlier: 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).  This is a more robust view of citizenship than the citizenship transmission view described earlier.  This view of citizenship requires that young people learn to behave responsibly, respect others and develop a strong subject matter base in order to “make informed and reasoned decisions for the common good.”  Thus, in addition, young people should learn, for example, to take and defend positions on social issues which are based on evidence.  They should be able to consider alternative solutions to problems, weighing possible consequences.  At the same time, they should recognize that not everyone will see issues in the same way and should learn such skills as listening to diverse view points as they deliberate on social issues.  They should engage in community service and civic action in which they care for and about people who are not friends or family.  And they should seek to understand why some people and groups need care and what society’s role is in providing that care.  The following discussion of the knowledge, skills and values that social studies should teach is based on this view of the purpose of social studies.


If social studies has at its core the education of citizens who are informed, responsible decision-makers, what knowledge then would be most important?  Effective citizens must have the knowledge to understand and be engaged in their communities and towns, as well as in the nation and the world. Often, when we think about the content to be taught, we tend to think about covering what we find in the syllabus.  While this is a reasonable goal, it still leaves a lot of questions unanswered and can result in teaching without real understanding. 

When we think of knowledge to be taught in schools, we tend to think about the disciplines or fields of knowledge from which school subjects are developed.  Social studies is an interdisciplinary field which draws on the disciplines of history, geography, economics, political science and sociology.  However, the goal of social studies is greater than simply teaching some of the content from these disciplines.  As an interdisciplinary field, the subject is generally organized around themes or big ideas.  As children learn about such themes as living together or economic development, they will draw upon the content and skills of the various disciplines.  As a teacher, it is important that you understand the big ideas embedded within the themes you teach in order to enable your students to develop their understanding related to the various themes and issues presented in the curriculum. In other words, it is not sufficient to simply present a lot of information; rather, it is important for you to understand how the information is, or can be, organized in ways that will help learners create the mental schema necessary for understanding.

The first step in organizing knowledge in the curriculum is the development of themes. Themes create the super-structure around which the content is organized.  Within each theme are the sub-themes or important ideas that relate to the over-arching theme.

By building the curriculum around a theme and sub-themes, students can begin to see a big picture and the main ideas which support it.  The basic facts, or information, then become the details which contribute to the big picture.  They are not ends in themselves but ways to help build understanding. Figure 4 above illustrates the mental scheme of themes, sub-themes and details.

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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