How Historical Thinking Skills Can Transform Social Studies Education
Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a two-part column. The first installment can be found here.
Detailing the changes made to social studies education as a consequence of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was a simple task: as a social studies teacher, I live those changes every day. Social studies educators across the country would likely offer similar observations about how the prioritization of reading, math, and more recently, STEM initiatives, coupled with the increasing importance of standardized test scores, has decimated quality social studies education. Proposing a solution to the crisis in social studies education is considerably less simple, as it requires that we not only counter the outside pressures listed above, but confront internal gaps in professional development and provide educators with training that underscores the content-area and thinking skills crucial to the academic discipline in which they teach.
My own journey of pursuing a master’s degree in history while teaching eighth grade social studies strengthened my belief that effective graduate education and teacher training should be informed by an aspiring educator’s strengths and areas for improvement. Handled thoughtfully, targeted graduate education can benefit social studies educators across the country.
I entered graduate school in 2016 as an educator with eight years of teaching experience, a nomination for an Outstanding Young Educator award, and as a member of a knowledgeable staff at an Illinois Blue Ribbon and Apple Distinguished School. Years of district-provided professional development—limited largely to lectures by education consultants—made clear to me that improving my craft would require taking ownership of my own professional development. With that in mind, I attended social studies conferences, educational technology seminars, and individual training sessions offered by Chicago museums. Still, I did not regard graduate school as a form of professional development that would impact my teaching beyond the obvious: building content knowledge. Thanks to an excellent faculty and graduate history program, I began learning and applying the skills used by professional historians through my master’s program, which fundamentally shifted my philosophy and pedagogy as a social studies educator while markedly improving my students’ ability to apply content knowledge in meaningful ways.
Learning and applying the skills used by professional historians fundamentally shifted my philosophy and pedagogy as a social studies educator while markedly improving my students’ ability to apply content knowledge in meaningful ways.
Like many social studies teachers, I double-majored in secondary education and history during my undergraduate years at a liberal arts university, building content knowledge in history while also taking methods courses in the college of education. Although rigorous and effectively taught, my undergraduate work suffered from the tradeoff that social studies educators often lament: a focus on breadth over depth. Until graduate school, I had not engaged in a critical discussion of different methodologies and schools of historical thought; had not critiqued any historian’s scholarship; and had not conducted extensive original research. Engaging in these activities alongside the other requirements of my program brought me to two conclusions. First, that for all of my existing content knowledge, built by passion for the subject, I was sorely undereducated on the critical methods of studying history. And second, I was doing a disservice to my students by covering content without the proper emphasis on historical thinking skills. To study history is not merely to memorize a series of names and dates, but to recognize continuity as well as change over time; to read creatively, establish credibility, and identify points of view; to understand data presented in different forms—from an accountant’s ledger to a map or a musical score; to distinguish a primary from a secondary source and construct a careful argument.
Juggling graduate school with teaching was difficult, but I was reinvigorated. Many late nights followed: crafting new curriculum plans and lessons, adding hundreds of notes to the “ideas” folder of items I planned to work on over the summer, and generally renewing my sense of purpose for teaching social studies. The impact on my students’ learning was even larger.
Prior to this experience, I relied on historical thinking resources from organizations such as the Stanford History Education Group or the DBQ Project to supplement my own curriculum. But these resources can feel all-or-nothing in scope: difficult to modify to fit my students’ needs and connect them to my existing curriculum, which was strong on content and activities but lacking in authentic opportunities for students to apply historical thinking skills.
By the end of their eighth grade year, my students have not only been exposed to historical content; they have practiced—and in most cases demonstrated mastery of—applying historical thinking skills to their learning.
Through my graduate classes and working directly with faculty, I engaged in methodological discussions, had academic conversations with professional historians and other colleagues, and conducted original historical research. I then found ways to build these same activities into my own curriculum, not only showing my students what historians do, but also giving them the opportunity to apply the same skills themselves. My students now routinely engage in historical thinking. They develop research questions that guide and limit the scope of their research; evaluate evidence; analyze primary source documents; draw conclusions to form narratives about events and people; identify gaps in existing scholarship and determine if and how these gaps can be closed; craft arguments that can be supported with evidence; and critique the work of their peers as a method of providing feedback. By the end of their eighth grade year, my students have not only been exposed to historical content; they have practiced—and in most cases demonstrated mastery of—applying historical thinking skills to their learning.
Beyond seeing the growth in my students, the greatest benefit of broadening my teaching methods has been learning to explain the hows and whys of doing social studies. In an era of math and science first and social studies last, educators like me are asked to justify our content with more frequency and precision. My master’s program prepared me to answer questions about the necessity of studying history and to explain how these skills transfer to other content areas. It is unfortunate that social studies education has been decimated in this way; and yet, an emphasis on historical thinking skills offers a way for social studies educators to empower themselves in their own classrooms, regardless of fads in education or changes in state mandates. Pursuing an advanced degree is not the only way for social studies educators to improve their craft, but building partnerships between school districts and universities could improve the current status of social studies education for both students and teachers, furnishing them with the skills to become not only budding historians but better citizens too.
Samantha Stearns is an eighth-grade social studies teacher and chair of the social studies department at Roosevelt Middle School in River Forest, Illinois. She can be reached at StearnsS@district90.org or @MsStearns54 on Twitter.
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