Society and Culture, Education

A content-free framework for K-12 social studies standards

Image Credit: shutterstock

Image Credit: shutterstock

Yesterday, on Constitution Day, a coalition of social studies organizations issued their “College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework for State Social Studies Standards.”  One of the partner organizations was the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools co-chaired by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and former Congressman Lee Hamilton.  Now, the exercise had more than a little irony, given that the organizations went out of their way to ensure that these “social studies standards” make no mention of the U.S. Constitution—or other historical events, dates, or persons.

Susan Griffin, executive director of the National Council of Social Studies (NCSS), explained, “Many state standards in social studies are overwhelmed with lists of dates, places and names to memorize – information students quickly forget.” Instead, she said, the new framework would help states establish “fewer, higher, and clearer standards for instruction in civics, economics, geography, and history,” the standards emphasize “critical thinking, collaboration, and inquiry.”  Without delving into what students should actually know, the new C3 framework, explains an accompanying fact sheet, “Intentionally envisions social studies instruction as an inquiry arc of interlocking and mutually reinforcing elements that speak to the intersection of ideas and learners.”

This social studies framework is not explicitly part of the Common Core state standards, but it is a distant cousin.  As the NCSS delicately explains, its “framework makes important, explicit connections to the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies” but it “was developed independent of the Common Core State Standards Initiative.”

While critical thinking and inquiry are good things, keep in mind that the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress exam in civics found that more than half of students scored “below basic.”  Most college graduates can’t identify famous phrases from the Gettysburg Address or cite the protections of the Bill of Rights.  If our “national experts” can’t bring themselves to come out and just say “Kids should know when the Civil War was” it’s not clear that “an inquiry arc of interlocking and mutually reinforcing elements” will help kids find out.

Would-be reformers all agree that “critical thinking” is important. The question that always seems to be forgotten is just what it is that students are going to think critically about.

5 thoughts on “A content-free framework for K-12 social studies standards

  1. For understanding, there is a need for methods of thinking and analysis and a need for facts. These people are somehow suggesting that a young American can understand American history and government without reference to the facts? It’s actually much more important for most people to be able to recall the facts correctly during a debate at lunch than to get the analytic techniques down correctly. So I say: go back to memorizing names and dates. Then, when you’re older, you find choose to learn WHY we fought the War of 1812, etc. But to do that you have to know we DID fight the War of 1812.

    • Vinnie, I couldn’t agree more. I really am quite skeptical regarding the whole “critical thinking” mantra we keep hearing about. The “critical thinking” push seems to start in several subjects as early as 3rd or 4th grade in some of the common core standards material I’ve seen. IMHO, this is yet another education fad like so many before, promulgated by people who themselves don’t understand critical thinking.
      For instance, one cannot engage in critical thinking regarding fiscal policy without a sufficient knowledge of economics. A basic understanding of economics requires at least a working knowledge of basic math, etc. etc. Before any “critical thinking” is done on almost any subject, some familiarity with the subject matter is required, as you state, you have to know some facts.
      I could understand a course in perhaps 11th and 12th grade which might use case studies of significant issues which would focus on the questions of, what data would one need to analyze, where might you find such data, understanding of correlation versus causation, etc. Attempting to teach elementary school age children “critical thinking skills” is silly and likely to fail.

  2. There is nothing wrong with asking a 5th or 6th grader to connect the govts of Greece and Rome to the US. There is nothing wrong with asking a 4th grader to see which natural resources would be beneficial for a country to have. There is nothing silly about presenting kids with facts and then asking them to go the next step and create their own thoughts about it and find evidence to back up their ideas. And its not failing because we already do it in our classes

    • Emily, three points.
      1) I don’t disagree with your examples since they are merely ways to teach facts and in my lexicon do not connote “critical thinking”. After all, one cannot “connect the dots” of Greece and Rome without some knowledge of Greek and Roman thinking, government, philosophy, etc.
      2) I know it’s improper to suggest in today’s educational environment, but unless the teachers are prepared to demonstrate why many of the students “thoughts about facts” are incorrect and much of the “evidence” is not evidence at all, but just someone else’s unsubstantiated opinion, then you are not really teaching “critical thinking”. This is why I suggested a class or classes in high school where students will have gained some degree of factual knowledge and some appreciation for what constitutes evidence and what does not.
      3) You’ve presented a small example of what I’m talking about. In my previous comment, I stated an opinion, “it’s likely to fail.” You however made a statement of fact, “it’s not failing” supported by your evidence, “because we already do it in our classes.
      What would constitute evidence that it’s not failing? Since the goal is to teach a skill (critical thinking) which someone in authority feels is not now being adequately done, some type of testing would have to be devised to measure the critical thinking skills of today’s students. That same test would then need to be administered to future students at the same grade levels. A statistically significant improvement would need to be shown in the students’ ability to “think critically” after the introduction of the new & improved teaching method. I’ll go out on a limb and bet that no such research has been done.
      Thus, I submit you have no idea whether it’s failing or not and will never know without some empirical data to support your assertion. That, Emily is critical thinking.

  3. “Intentionally envisions social studies instruction as an inquiry arc of interlocking and mutually reinforcing elements that speak to the intersection of ideas and learners.”

    This statement is just clear enough to be ominous. It makes me wonder what the ideas are going to be that these learners will be inquiring into with their interlocking arc of mutually reinforcing elements (especially since they will be cutting back on those pesky dates, places, and names, which might turn out to be the dates, places, and names of societies that have tried some of those ideas). Whatever it is, it will be intentional. It reminds me of “Brave New World,” but who knows if those learners will ever intersect with that potent piece of literature, since it doesn’t fit into the manuals and informational texts that will make up 70 percent of the reading by 12th grade.

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