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Social Studies for the 21st Century

Changing business as usual with a new map for K12 social studies.

What would happen if social studies classes—from the elementary grades through high school—focused on goals such as collaboration, creativity and innovation, and initiative and self-direction at almost every turn? Or if students in those classes regularly published their work in spreadsheets, online wikis, and multimedia presentations, and made full use of digital tools, from Google Earth and the online databases in to collaborative listservs and online discussion forums? Or if students transcended the usual fare of names, dates and sometimes-dry facts and focused instead on real-world topics such as recent natural disasters, per-pupil funding in surrounding school districts, and service learning projects—and on more creative views of history, from the use of forests in the Industrial Revolution to the impact of the Vietnam War on the local community?

Plenty would happen, say the advocates of a new social studies map designed to place students and their social studies teachers on a firm footing for the century ahead. By relating to what they study, students would be able to find more meaning in—and absorb more content from—the curriculum. And the emphasis on skills that sometimes gets overlooked in the classroom will help them thrive in an ever-evolving workforce and an increasingly challenging global economy.

"They were asking for skills that targeted global, entrepreneurial and civic literacy. I remember saying at the board meeting two years ago, 'That's us. This is what we want our mission to be.' " -Gayle Thieman, assistant education professor, Portland (Ore.) State College

The ambitious 21st Century Skills and Social Studies Map, published jointly last summer by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and the advocacy group Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), culminated a two-year collaboration by educators and business leaders that identified a dozen skills—as well as goals and examples for achieving them—to drive future careers and fuller civic engagement for today’s students.


Those abilities include critical thinking and problem solving, initiative and self-direction, and media literacy—not necessarily business as usual in the typical social studies classroom, notes Steve Armstrong, the social studies department supervisor for the West Hartford (Conn.) Public Schools. “This document outlines skills that are often not even seen as skills. Who would think that these skills could be measurable and identifiable in their own right?” he says. “But they will create a better student.”

“The business community has been crying out for employees with these kinds of skills, from working with others to dealing with differing points of view,” adds Ted McConnell, executive director of the Civic Mission of Schools, founded earlier this decade in Silver Spring, Md., to promote civic learning in schools. Much of that impetus came from the P21 board, which consists largely of representatives from educational foundations and corporations, including Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco and Microsoft.


Getting Down to Business

Gayle Thieman, an assistant education professor at Portland State College in Oregon and past NCSS president, says the call by future employers for changes in the standard social studies curriculum resonated with the NCSS board. “They were asking for skills that targeted global, entrepreneurial and civic literacy. I remember saying at the board meeting two years ago, ‘That’s us. This is what we want our mission to be.’”

The idea for a more detailed map, in turn, helped P21 advance its mission as well, says John Box, former chairman of P21 and senior vice president of education for Junior Achievement Worldwide.

P21 will also publish maps for math, English, science and geography by the end of this year. Box notes that the structure and examples contained in those maps make a big difference. “The main difficulty of translating our framework into classrooms is that you’ve got to give teachers something concrete that they can touch and feel,” he says.

Thieman says the backing of the business community should go far in getting the new map noticed during an era when the mandates in math, reading and writing by the No Child Left Behind law have dominated the educational landscape. “It’s not just educators who are saying these things,” she observes. “Business leaders have a powerful influence over policy leaders. That nexus is very important.” NCSS president Mike Yell, who highlighted the map at the organization’s national conference in Houston last November, agrees.

“It makes a difference when major businesses are saying, ‘We need educated workers who can change and adapt,’” says Yell, who is also a seventh-grade social studies teacher at House of Avalon Hudson Middle School in the Hudson (Wis.) Public Schools.

He adds that a growing number of states have signed on to the P21 program—among them Arizona, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Dakota, Wisconsin and West Virginia. Participating states commit to changing standards and assessments to incorporate the skills P21 is promoting, and to adjust professional development and teacher preparation.


Mapping the Way

The 21st Century Skills Map for social studies—downloadable from the P21 Web site and the first of five in various subject areas slated for release this year—lays out each of its 12 desired skills and related activities on four-column pages colored in green, pink and blue. While the first column on the far left breaks down the definition of that skill, the remaining three are tabbed respectively for fourth, eighth, and 12th grades and present several intended goals or outcomes, followed by creative examples for getting there, with each marked as promoting civic, financial or global literacy.

For example, in the Critical Thinking and Problem Solving section, one goal or outcome for fourth-graders involves finding data about a community or state public issue, then asking questions and developing possible solutions. The example provided steers classes toward available information on per-pupil expenditures at schools around the state, as well as math and reading test scores. Students enter the data on a spreadsheet and then analyze the correlation between spending and test results.

In the same section, eighth-graders are asked to analyze political or social issues in the past. One example has them brainstorm recent and historical natural disasters—such as Hurricane Katrina’s effect on Louisiana and the Gulf Coast—conduct research online, analyze the government’s response, disseminate the results in a school-approved podcast, and then debate alternative responses in a schoolapproved blog.

Seniors are expected to analyze the historical evolution of a contemporary public policy issue, placing it in a historical context and using a digital publishing tool, such as a wiki, to report the findings. For example, they could explore how past societies of people used natural resources—say, how England used forests during the Industrial Revolution. The Critical Thinking and Problem Solving section provides other goals and examples, mostly emphasizing group work and reinforcing students’ digital experience.

In the Creativity and Innovation section, fourth-graders develop solutions to a class or school problem, such as bullying on the playground, interview students and teachers on the subject, and present a play about it.

Meanwhile, each eighth-grader creates a story, play, poem or artwork highlighting a historical figure. Seniors choose a current or historical event or issue, work in teams to create a simulation, role play or Webquest, an inquiry-oriented learning activity used by educators, and then publish the final product online.

The Early Reviews

So far the educator reviews for the map and its modus operandi have been positive and encouraging, reports Beth Ratway, a social studies consultant for Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction. “Teachers really like it because social studies can be so overwhelming,” Ratway says. “If you focus on these skill areas, it hones the discussion, and they appreciate the focus. And there are real examples to which teachers can connect.”

Teachers who prefer the activities that they are currently using need only to adjust them in order to reinforce the appropriate skill, such as problem solving or collaboration, she adds.

P21 board member Matt Williams stresses that using the map effectively is more an exercise in refocusing than starting from scratch. “You can apply it to what you already have to do,” he says. “It won’t take an exceptional amount of time on the teacher’s part.”

“It’s student centered,” adds Steve Goldberg, social studies department chair at New Rochelle (N.Y.) High School, where he supervises 22 teachers. “We want kids to be able to construct their own knowledge and move beyond studying facts.”

Goldberg also points to the continuity between grade levels contained in the new document. “What we’ve been looking at in our district is how to work with vertical articulation,” he says. “How do you ensure that kids coming from elementary schools have skills that transfer to middle school and beyond? It’s comforting to have a common starting ground.”

Don’t underestimate the civics components, says McConnell of the Civic Mission of Schools. “Our schools have two equally vital missions: Prepare students for the workplace and prepare them for active, informed citizenship,” McConnell says. “We’ve lost sight of the latter. It’s more likely that today’s students know five members of TV’s Simpson family than the five freedoms contained in the First Amendment.”

McConnell is hoping that the new map helps those students make a U-turn. “Civic learning used to be woven throughout elementary school,” he explains, noting that its loss in recent decades has been “exacerbated by state and federal accountability standards, which largely ignored social studies in favor of other subjects.”

The Challenges Ahead

For all of its promise, the new skills map faces a host of obstacles in public schools, not the least of which are the NCLB and state requirements to which McConnell refers. “NCLB is a challenge,” Yell admits. “One of the problems, unfortunately, is that it exclusively looks at writing, math and reading. Social studies as well as other subjects are less emphasized.”

"It's more likely that today's students know five members of TV's Simpson family than the five freedoms contained in the First Amendment." -Ted McConnell, executive director, Civic Mission of Schools

Yell also says that even when social studies does hold a prominent place in the curriculum, it may be hard for some schools to incorporate the practices prescribed in the map. “The requirement to cover so much content is a problem. I know some districts where teachers have to be on a certain page by a given day,” he cautions. “They don’t have the time to go in depth with different ideas.”

“How do you feed it into everything else you’re doing?” adds Goldberg, who suggests squaring the map’s skills and activities, if possible, with state requirements. “It may actually be easier to deliver the required content by looking at the skills and suggested activities in the map. People need to look at it in relationship to their own state standards and ask, ‘Can this provide us with an organizational vehicle to do our jobs better?’”

Thieman worries that some circumstances may foil the digital ambitions of the social studies program. “There are some schools that have such strict filters that students can’t do the research, especially at the elementary level,” Thieman warns. “And lots of classrooms have just one computer.”

School computer labs, she worries, may be tied up with students preparing for NCLB testing and other mandates and not available for social studies.

But the biggest task ahead, most of the map’s advocates agree, is getting all or most teachers to use its unaccustomed approaches. “This would take getting used to,” Armstrong says. “A lot of curriculum documents are still largely content-based. I would predict that for some, using it would be a gradual process.”

“There will be some teachers who will pick up the map and that’s all they need,” says Box, who is a former school superintendent. “Other teachers will need examples of what it looks like in a classroom, and they’ll need some training. You’ve got to get everybody together and go through the process of teaching them and letting them express their own creativity.”

Ratway recommends working with the document districtwide so K12 teachers can see how the curriculum progresses and how classes in the grades not covered by the map can fit into that progression. At the departmental level, Goldberg in New Rochelle suggests taking small steps. “You never can use anything in its entirety,” he says. “You need to say, ‘There’s something good here. How can we implement part of it?’ And [you need] to ask individual teachers, ‘What can you adopt from the map and adapt from your curriculum so it works for you?’”

It’s all worth the effort for Box. “What this approach is going to yield are kids who come out of our school with the skills to be successful wherever they go instead of just having a lot of factoids in their heads, half of which will be forgotten,” he says.

“You’ll have students who have the ability to learn,” Yell adds, “and then relearn when necessary, and who have the adaptability and flexibility to succeed at jobs that haven’t been invented yet.”

Ron Schachter is a contributing writer for District Administration.