Friday, October 21, 2011

Friday's Five - What Every Social Studies Student Should Be Learning

Friday's Five is a feature every week where I pick a new topic and list five items that I think fit best.  Then I ask you to share your thoughts in the comment section.  For an archive of past topics, check the Friday's Five Page
Flickr/Topeka and Shawnee Public Library

This week I switched things up by placing a poll on the A Teacher's Life for Me Facebook Page to ask you what you'd like to see me write about.  The four choices were:

  • "Great Ways to Use Voicethread in Your Classroom" 
  • "Hidden Educational Gems in Walt Disney World"
  • "Important Things Every Social Studies Student Should be Learning"
  • "Why the 'Traditional Way' is Holding Our Math Students Back"
While every one of the topics were chosen by some, the majority of those chiming in wanted to discuss important skills our social studies students need to learn.  With federal and state focus on standardized testing our students are getting less opportunity to learn vital lessons that are best taught in our social studies classes.  Here are five vital skills and ideas that our social studies students should be learning from early elementary school straight through high school.
  1. Identifying Bias - Now that we are in the internet age, we are constantly barraged with information.  Students need to understand that all of that information is being given to them with an agenda.  The same news story on Fox News is being presented differently than it is on MSNBC, and kids (and their parents) need to know how to sift through the opinions to get to the fact.  We often teach Social Studies out of a textbook, but the process in which textbooks are developed leads to books that are so biased that they often do more harm than good for our students.  To combat this, schools are increasingly looking to use on-line content.  Obviously, with the number of people putting information on the internet, identifying the agenda within content is vital in order for our students to understand history.  
  2. There are very few absolutes.  The United States (or any other place) is not a perfect country.  We've done a lot of great things, and quite a few things that aren't so great.  Eliminating the controversy and blemishes makes history dreadfully boring, and robs students the opportunity to learn from past mistakes.  Who would watch a movie where the main character went through life without problems or mistakes?  There's no plot.  At the same time, teaching kids that some countries, or groups of people are all bad is harmful.  There are very few absolutes in life.  Teaching kids to look at all sides of an issue is much more important than any nugget of information we could give them.
  3. "Why" and "How" are much more important than "Where, When, and Who." - Often social studies class consists of a bunch of dates, people, and places that kids have to know about and spit back on a test.  The real lessons in social studies are within the "Why" and "How."  Instead of teaching students only that the Bill of Rights was added to the U.S. Constitution in 1791 and what each bill says, ask them to find out why some colonists thought those protections were needed, how some colonists fought against them, and why two of the proposed amendments weren't ratified. (Although one of them did eventually pass and become an amendment in 1992.)  Facts are great for winning Jeopardy, but the real thinking comes from debating the reasons those facts came to be.
  4. Identifying Sources and their Validity - Our students should be taught to question everything that is told to them.  This is something that is greatly lacking in today's society.  How many times have you received forwarded e-mails, seen Facebook posts, or heard someone talking about something as fact that is clearly fabricated?  Students should be encouraged to ask teachers "Why?" and "How do you know?"  They should learn to find who is responsible for the website they are reading, the source of the information in the Wikipedia article to which they are directed, and the motivations of the cleverly named organization behind the political campaign ad they just watched.
  5. It's OK to disagree, but you better bring strong facts to the debate.  Students are usually taken aback when I ask them their opinions for the first time.  When they do answer, it's usually by parroting what their parents have told them, or what they think I want to hear.  They need to start thinking for themselves.  We should be asking them whether they agree or disagree all the time in our social studies classes.  We also should be demanding that they back their opinion with fact.  Students need to understand that to truly debate a position, they should be able to argue the opposite side of the argument as well.  Only then can they be sure that it is not their emotional bias that is blinding them.  The more we demand that students take a position and back it up, the better they will be able to cope with the bombardment of opinions they face outside our classrooms.  
Now it's your turn.  What skills do you think we should be teaching our students in our social studies classes?  How do you teach the skills and ideas listed above?  Are there any that you disagree with?  Please share your ideas in the comment section, and pass the post along on Twitter, Google+, Plurk, and Facebook so that we can hear their opinions as well.  Also, if you aren't a fan on Facebook yet, stop by the Facebook page and click the "like" button so that you can chime in on future Friday's Five topics, discuss ways to improve education, and receive new posts in your news feed.