Meaningful Social Studies for Elementary Students

Jun. 30, 2009

Source: Teachers and Teaching, Volume 15, Issue 3 June 2009 , pages 357 - 376.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This article begins with an overview of elementary social studies, considering its purposes and goals, historical and contemporary controversies about learner readiness and curriculum content, and commonly reported problems with textbooks and time pressures.

It then considers proposed reforms, first considering approaches recommended by others and then focusing on the approach recommended by the authors.

Recommendations for practice

The authors recommend an elementary social studies curriculum that is rich in content drawn from the foundational disciplines (history, geography, and the social sciences), but organized and represented with primary emphasis on preparation for life in general and citizenship in particular, not socialization into the separate disciplines. Furthermore, the authors recommend limiting breadth in order to focus on developing powerful ideas in depth and with emphasis on their connections and life applications. To better connect with students' prior knowledge and experiences, it is usually most effective to draw content from multiple disciplines and synthesize it with content drawn from the arts, the humanities, the physical sciences, current events, and other sources, organized within topical units.

This approach features units on cultural universals, organized around powerful ideas developed with emphasis on their connections and applications. Common features of the units are described and then illustrated as they play out in a unit on government.

The final section describes how an exemplary elementary teacher implements these units in her classroom in ways that personalize them to her students' home backgrounds. Furthermore, the teacher uses a narrative style for establishing a common content base, and in other ways addresses the challenges of teaching content-rich subjects to young learners with limited background knowledge and literacy skills.


The authors conclude that it is important to include social studies as a basic curriculum strand right from the beginning of schooling. To insure that its important aims and purposes are fulfilled, however, we need to restore appropriate time allocations and revitalize curriculum content and learning activities to provide an introduction to the social world that is organized around powerful ideas developed with emphasis on their connections and applications to life outside of school.

Updated: Dec. 01, 2009