What’s at stake in social studies education?
The content of modern social studies curricula is highly contested, and evolving rapidly and sometimes radically. Digital resources abound, with various content advocating strong positions on gun rights, immigration, gender equality, and other hot-button issues. There’s a long history of political disagreement about what social studies classes should study – and even whether to use the term “social studies” at all – as well as what knowledge and skills constitute a high-quality social studies education.
Multiple-choice assessments still drive a great deal of what schools teach in social studies, and unfortunately many students become disillusioned with a subject in which accumulating knowledge and memorizing information is emphasized because that’s what counts on standardized tests. Even when more complex resources are involved – as in Document Based Questions (DBQs) on AP US or European History exams – the emphasis is on the content of those documents and the speed with which students can decipher them.
How do we select and vet resources that foster engagement and deeper learning?
What resources say and how they are connected to content knowledge tends to be emphasized over deeper considerations like the perspective, context, and accuracy of the resource. But it’s these latter, deeper reading skills that make social studies meaningful and engaging, and which best prepare students for the modern world. How, then, can we support students in building these skills and ways of thinking? How do we select and vet resources that foster engagement and deeper learning?
Where Things Go Wrong: Content over Context
Sam Wineburg, in "Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone)," shows the difference between how even the most advanced, critical readers in history and social studies classes approach resources in a way that fundamentally differs from how historians encounter those same resources. He shares an example: a New York Times article from 1892, about the official creation of Discovery Day (later, Columbus Day) as a national holiday. Surely this is a high quality, interesting resource, something students can dig into to understand both the past and the present.
How do AP US History students use this resource? What do they see? Wineburg shares the story of Jacob, a student who sees through the bias in the article, which celebrates Columbus’s piety. Jacob notes that Columbus “captured and tortured Indians,” and was perhaps not so much the noble hero that the article makes him out to be. The student’s critique of the article earns praise from social studies teachers; while there is room for more nuance in his interpretation, the critical lens he brings to the document is exactly what we hope to see. Right?
. . . even the most advanced, critical readers in history and social studies classes approach resources in a way that fundamentally differs from how historians encounter those same resources.
What happens when Wineburg shows the same document to actual historians? They all approach the article in the same way as each other, and in a wildly different way from students and teachers. What do they notice?
First, that it’s from the New York Times, a major publication even in the 1890s. But then, before they even read the content of the article, they ask questions and think about context. The article is written in 1892, 400 years after 1492, during a wave of US immigration.
- What’s going on then?
- Who is responsible for this proclamation?
- Why was the proclamation made?
- What page of the New York Times was this on? Not page one, so how important was this really to people at the time?
When historians encounter this resource, their first move is to source it and put it in context, not to engage with the content. This article, to them, isn’t really about Columbus at all. It’s about President Harrison, who was responsible for the proclamation, and the immigration politics in the 1890s.
Sourcing, Contextualization, and Corroboration
The specialized skills that Wineburg’s historians brought to bear on a 120-plus-year-old New York Times article are at the heart of social studies education:
- Assessing the perspective of an author and source.
- Placing arguments in context.
- Validating the veracity of a claim.
. . . the ability to ask questions about sources, bias, and context are at the heart of social studies education and are essential skills for thriving in the modern world.
These are the very skills that teachers should employ in vetting resources. But this can be doubly challenging when navigating the Internet, where materials are often intentionally misleading or untrue, and sometimes quite skillful at hiding their intentions and sources.
Wineburg finds that, unfortunately, even historians struggle when confronting digital resources. However, there are other expert readers of digital content. Professional fact checkers engage in lateral reading of web resources – checking who owns a website, finding out who made (or sponsored) a YouTube video, and determining what, if any, research supports a claim. This process – a mirror of what historians do with primary sources from the past – is the how of good vetting of social studies resources.
Approaches to Vetting: Use Reliable Providers, DIY, or Model for Students
Vetting social studies resources is important not just because we want to ensure students are learning from accurate, verifiable materials. It’s important also because the ability to ask questions about sources, bias, and context are at the heart of social studies education and are essential skills for thriving in the modern world.
One approach is to rely on reputable companies and organizations like Newsela, Newseum, The National Archives, and the Stanford History Education Group. These each provide well-vetted resources for social studies teachers that provide ample opportunity to delve into deeper considerations. In some cases, there are even explicit lesson plans and units built to teach good social studies and historical thinking skills.
It is empowering for students to learn to vet resources for themselves.
Another approach is to vet resources for yourself, using a rigorous process that relies on sourcing, contextualizing, and corroborating. This can be challenging, but opens up opportunities to model the process for students, and perhaps even to scaffold their own learning of the same skills. It is empowering for students to learn to vet resources for themselves. Not only does it give them more control over telling their own stories, it helps them learn to learn about the modern information ecosystem.
When diving into a new content area, think about how to support students in seeking out knowledge and ideas, then ascertaining the reliability of those resources. More than any one piece of content knowledge, that is the core skill of social studies education.
Further Reading and Resources