Social studies is poised for a comeback in U.S. schools. While ELA and math priorities have long enjoyed top billing on many district agendas, the importance of investing more in social studies instruction is now coming to the forefront, especially in an era when students are having to decode increasingly complex political and social issues.
More than any other subject, social studies has the potential to ignite a fire; there’s the very real chance that something students read will inspire them toward civic participation.
A key part of this conversation centers around correcting gaps left by legacy content providers—and highlighting previously unheard perspectives—when teaching history. But we must also remember that history is just one piece of social studies: we need to provide students with insights into contemporary society through guided discussion of current events, pairing this with other social studies content to provide broader historical context and perspective. Take digital citizenship, an area that is evolving before our eyes, and one that by definition cannot possibly be taught from print materials. It’s a critical topic as we approach another election season, where many citizens will get their information from ever-morphing new media and sources.
As EdSurge’s State of Edtech 2019 report puts it, “Given today’s divisive political environment, foundations and nonprofit organizations are driving awareness to the importance of civics and media literacy.” The same report cites that venture capital devoted to social studies over the past three years has been too small to measure—possibly a reflection of overall underinvestment in the subject. So how can schools use their investments in social studies instruction to best support student knowledge and understanding?
At Newsela, we’ve put our content to the test in three crucial ways, and we think the lessons we’ve learned can be helpful for schools and educators as well.
1. Focus on student engagement above all.
All the new initiatives to bolster social studies curricula could be for naught if the actual content doesn’t strike a chord with students. We’ve learned to take a step back and approach every piece of content by asking: “Will this spark passion? Or will a student be bored to tears?”
More than any other subject, social studies has the potential to ignite a fire; there’s the very real chance that something students read will inspire them toward civic participation. And this is important for teachers too, as their intellectual investment in the content they’re teaching can shine through in powerful ways.
2. Ensure a diversity of voices.
New mandates around ethnic studies, LGBTQ history, and other social studies-adjacent topics often lead to widening gaps in what traditional instructional content can deliver—but it doesn’t have to be this way.
Awareness of the importance of source and voice diversity has been growing for years, and for a variety of very good reasons. Providing students with different perspectives expands their empathy and worldview. Similarly, making sure that all students see themselves in content helps them feel recognized and heard—and consequently more engaged in their own learning.
At Newsela, we ensure a diversity of voices by working closely with a wide variety of different partners. Rather than limit ourselves to a select group of in-house authors, we partner with sources from around the country and world—and in doing so, we pass along that diversity to teachers and students.
3. Listen, build, learn, repeat.
When we release new social studies instructional content, we want school districts to react to what we’re building. This type of collaboration is critical to being a nimble and responsive partner to schools, and it allows us to get the absolute best resources to students by incorporating near real-time feedback.
New mandates around ethnic studies, LGBTQ history, and other social studies-adjacent topics often lead to widening gaps in what traditional instructional content can deliver—but it doesn’t have to be this way. The challenge has given us the opportunity to sit down with school districts to think through what their content selection—and the instructional component we layer in—should look like. Iterating is essential to providing students with the social studies resources they need to inform and prepare them to engage with complex political and social issues.
From Our Partners
As these issues permeate the classroom, we remember the goals we put first and foremost when developing our content library. Students should see themselves represented in what they’re reading, and at the same time it should expand their horizons; in other words, content should consistently provide them with “mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors.”
It’s also essential that content doesn’t make any student feel unsafe or singled out. There’s never a “both sides” to someone’s identity, and anything that suggests so damages the motivation to go to school and learn. At Newsela, we hold sacred that content should help students feel affirmed in their identities, at the same time sparking a joyous curiosity in learning about other places, people, and ways of being.
Social studies content in particular has the opportunity to achieve this. It also helps students to develop an internal radar that, when paired with advanced reading skills, can detect when content isn’t dependable. When it comes to shaping young people who are informed, aware, and engaged, the potential for social studies investments to pay off is enormous—and more important today than ever before.