What is Social Studies About Anyhow?

As an elementary school student I recall Social Studies being one of my favourite subjects! I loved learning about world history, geography, and different cultures. I would spend my free time reading books about quirky historical stories about Medieval England, explorers who got lost, or fun geographical facts. As a twelve year old kid I actually asked for a world almanac for Christmas, and on Christmas morning curled up on the couch and proceeded to read the almanac that I received, marvelling over facts about different countries, memorizing their capitals and flags, and hoping to one day visit countries like Iceland (Side note: I did get to visit Iceland this past summer and it was awesome!). Yup, I was kind of a nerdy kid, but the style in which my middle years social studies classes were taught catered to just that kind of student. We did reports on ancient civilizations, posters about historical monuments, and memorized important dates in Canadian history, and I thought that it was great! I knew so much about social studies!

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Now, as I look back on my experiences it causes me to question that while I enjoyed social studies, what was I actually learning about citizenship? Quite honestly, aside from learning small tid-bits about confederation or the Canadian political system, or maybe examining some news articles about things happening in our country or internationally, I do not recall learning much that could categorized as citizenship education. While I learned how to be a respectful and responsible student and was taught things about being a good person, not only through my schooling, but also from my home life, I cannot say that my middle school or even high school social studies education really showed much consideration for what it meant to be a good citizen. The question now is, are schools doing a better job of this today than they did fifteen or twenty years ago when I was a middle school student?

In his article, “Political Education and Citizenship: Teaching for Civic Engagement,” Ken Osborne states, “Schools have largely succeeded in educating children to be good people but have been much less successful in turning them into good citizens”. Based on my own education, I would definitely agree with this statement. I completed my public education feeling that I was certainly a good person, who achieved high marks, and knew many things about the world (or at least its history!), but I really didn’t know much about what it meant to be a good citizen. I did not know what it meant to vote, or how current local, national and international events could affect my little life, and these are things that I feel should be included in citizenship education. I feel that schools and teachers through all grade levels continue this trend, often putting a lot of emphasis on ensuring that students learn how to be cooperative, respectful, responsible, and self-reliant, but neglect putting much attention on true citizenship or civic education. To be quite honest, these values are things that I hope to be able to encourage and develop with my students also, but I can also now see the other side of the story too. Memorizing facts and historical information about our country and others while learning good social values does not make up a social studies class that will aid in creating good citizens.

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So what will citizenship education look like in my future classroom? Well, first and foremost, it will be engaging! People will learn what they feel is important or interesting, and especially what they feel will have an impact on their own lives. Yes, I think students should learn about the history of our country (the whole, honest history mind you, not the one-sided view that I was taught), about our political systems, and about those of other countries, but I will teach them in such a way that students can truly understand them, not just learn about them. I want to be a culturally and socially responsive educator, making myself and my students aware of cultural biases and influences that may exist in our own belief systems, and exposing everyone to other world views. I want to conduct group and individual investigations of current and historical issues and how they may impact our communities. I feel like all of this is completely possible, and that I can help students become more engaged citizens. I believe that it all begins with the type of lens that you allow your students to examine the world through. If you only show them the world from one point of view, like many textbooks or older teaching methods often tend to portray, then you are limiting the students’ ability to think critically, to assess what is really just or unjust, and you limit their engagement with the possible solutions to larger issues. My goal will be to show students many different sides of the issues that exist, and help them to analyze what the real heart of the issues are. I will ask how can they, as students, connect the issues to their lives, and how can they become engaged with the issues?

I think that this kid in the video below has a really great message to share, which could help a lot of students and even teachers realize the potential of a socially responsible and engaged citizenship-focused classroom.

This young boy gets it! He realizes that it’s not all about power or money or anything grand, but that it’s about people. To me, that’s really what teaching citizenship is all about. It’s about learning about the people in our world; understanding their struggles, understanding the inequalities that exist, and working towards finding a better balanced system. In my classroom, my hope is that students can build upon their current knowledge, and be open to new perspectives. As a teacher, and even just as a citizen of the world, this is now my goal too; to learn as much as I can about the issues, and share my knowledge and passion with others.

One thought on “What is Social Studies About Anyhow?

  1. Sean Atkins says:

    A powerful piece Kendra. So much of what you believe is required to be a good citizen, and teach it, is intrinsic in its value and less instrumental (i.e. quantifiable like memorizing facts). You have the passion and imagination! On another note, I remember receiving a complete collection of World Book Encyclopedias that my parents purchased from a travelling salesman (yes, you read that right). They accompanied me through the middle years, along with my Hardy Boys mystery books.

    Sean

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