So What? My Driving Question in the Social Studies

I’ve been itching to write this post for quite some time.  After 25 years in the classroom, I have seen major changes in the approach to teaching social studies, particularly in the area of American history and civics. It took me a while, but I have embraced the change, fight for the change, preach the change, and question those who refuse the change.  We don’t all like the change, and some parent have issues with the change … as do most textbook and curriculum software companies. I don’t want to go back to my first years of teaching.  As Mr. Kotter said, teaching to memorize is the pits.



What is this change that I cryptically elude to here? It revolves around a simple question …

So what?

I  was always a pretty big content guy when it came to the social studies, especially American history. Maybe it was the trivia guy in me, or the lover of stories, or the fact that I learned about history through heavy content. When I got into “the business”, I transferred that content load into my classroom, making sure that I hit all of the major topics in America’s story and giving students a very broad (yet not so deep) dig into our country’s past. The textbook and timeline was my guide, and if I missed a small sector of content, I felt that I was doing my students a disservice. I did the same when I taught world cultures, making sure that we hit every part of the globe superficially and followed the lead of my text (since I knew very little about the world outside of the Midwest).

However, I’ve changed drastically since my first days in the classroom. I now approach the content and skills for my students with one simple question. Why are we doing this? There can be offshoot questions from that, like why does this matter, how is this relevant, why do the need to learn/do this? Or, simply, so what? Any one of these powerful queries works in my frame of thinking.

I don’t want any student to sit back in my class (or any class) and say “I’m never gonna use this information” (which often is what happens when it comes to social studies) or “why are we doing this” (which is what a middle school student will say about practically anything). I know I preach to the choir, but the goal of the social studies classroom is for students to be able to develop the skills necessary for them to succeed in academic and civic life, along with grasping the content essential to truly understand our local, national, and global society as it is today. That’s not what I had in my social studies classes growing up, that’s not what the typical textbook curriculum offers, and (for the most part), that’s not what many of the past state and local standards expected. So, when I think of the content I am helping my students digest, the connections I want them to make, the skills I am helping them to develop, or the assignments and assessments I use to gauge their progress, I now ask “So what?” – and I challenge my students to do the same.

What is the “what” in the“So what?” Actually, I believe in a few interconnecting “whats” …

What should social studies students be able to DO (not just tell)? As I mentioned, I was always a content guy, but have really evolved to a skills guy when it comes to social studies – and thankfully the national and local social studies communities are doing the same. The C3 Framework is heavy on skills, including inquiry resource acquisition and analysis, literacy assigned to different disciplines, and the communication of a claim, and taking action. As a history teacher, I LOVE the five areas of historical thinking espoused by Bobbie Malone and Nikki Mandel, and I refer to them ad nauseum in and out of class.  My home of Wisconsin recently developed new state standards that focus on skill rather than content. More states have done the same, pushing to develop the ability and action of students instead of filling up their short term memory. Does this mean that I am opposed to a content driven course that focuses on tests to assess what students know? In short – YES. To me, it’s about thinking, arguing, claiming, collaborating, connecting, presenting … not spitting out facts. Don’t get me wrong, content is important … but not the driving factor. It’s all about the skills (or skillz, to be cool). Of course, these skills can be developed and practiced with any content.  So that really begs the question …

What is essential content? In my American history class, I have pushed myself to trim a lot of the traditional material covered in a typical textbook and try to focus on what students really need to know to make sense of the present, regionally, nationally, and somewhat globally.  Students have access to the full picture in a variety of other ways and will have future American history classes. I also recognize that we have a time crunch over the course of a school year, and we can’t hit every topic in America’s story from the Constitution to the Cold War. What falls out of the picture?  As hard as it is for me to do so, the first half of the 19th century gets little attention in class, except for the impact of slavery and growing divisions in antebellum US. We also hit westward expansion in a flyby, just to set the stage for the 20th century. My beloved War of 1812 gets little mention, early reform movements are light, and my former unit on the growth of the West is limited to a digital breakout.  However, I feel (as do my students) that our focus on specific content topics is more beneficial, especially considering the question …

What is relevant today?  I recently posted about a simple yet powerful phrase for all teachers, especially social studies educators – The world is handing us our curriculum – are we taking it? Over the past five years, this concept of current relevance has been the driving factor in determining what actually is essential content.  Since our class is required, shouldn’t students learn about content that is needed to understand and appreciate their world today? I don’t think any 8th grader (or student of any age) is busting at the seams to learn about the Gilded Age and Progressive Era – but if you open a newspaper in the past decade, you can identify countless connections to those critical years in America’s story. The growth of business, the rise of technological innovation, massive waves of immigration, urban populations soaring, challenges to democracy, and the reaction of the people and the government to all of the change all connects to our current society. This relevance makes the content come alive and also encourages student engagement and appreciation for the past.   Simply stated, if they can’t see a connection from the past to the present, then why are we studying it? Or, possibly more importantly, if they can’t see a connection to themselves, which leads to …

What personal lessons can students learn? Dave Burgess calls them LCL’s – Life Changing Lessons – and history is full of them.  These lessons aren’t just the George Santayana “doomed to repeat the past” lessons, but more the lessons that kids can apply to their lives and make a difference for themselves, their family, their friends, their community, and ideally, their world.  The Civil Rights Movement is certainly as relevant today as it ever was, and we can look at the major individuals, groups, and events of the movement to understand what happened and how it impacts the present. But what about how the stories of the past impact them as individuals?  Students have connected with the movement by posting their own lessons, and what they can do with these lessons to improve society. Their responses include the importance of perseverance to fight for what you believe in, how ordinary people can do extraordinary things, taking stand and being part of your community can effect change, get pushed out of your comfort zone and accept that challenge, and more.  If we can get students to use the past to inspire themselves to grow as people and take action to improve society, we have done our job (and then some).

These are the “whats” that drive my planning, my teaching, my inspirational push to students, and my own interaction with history, civics, geography, and economics. Hopefully these questions drive you as well, and not  also drive you. Our role has changed dramatically since they days when I (and you) were in the classroom, and we really need to make the social studies relevant to our kids, our schools, and our society. 


One thought on “So What? My Driving Question in the Social Studies

  1. Excellent post! I think this question of “So What?” is one that we should be asking of ourselves more and more and continually try to refine what we are doing based on this. If education does not impact the lives of our students in meaningful ways …what are we doing as educators?

    That’s part of why I believe building meaningful relationships with students is so important. Students must know that we care. If they know that, then I believe we have made an impact on their lives. We never know what seeds we are planting will bear fruit, but we must be faithful to plant seeds that later on will give a harvest of positive life change in the lives of our students.


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