“How do we ensure social studies is valued in 100 years?”
“Does social studies have a specific burden to teach democracy readiness?”
“What is the relationship between democracy and education today?”
Those are some questions educators asked to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), which held its national conference in February.
The theme of the conference was “democracy ready,” and the Right Question Institute led a session where educators generated questions about the future of social studies education.
‘Lifelong inquiry and informed civic action’
Stefanie Wager, conference co-chair and former president of NCSS, introduced the session, saying, “We could not be at a more pivotal time in social studies. Teachers throughout our nation are being challenged on the front lines as we navigate the brewing issue of divisive concepts, academic freedom, and state bans regularly being issued on what is and is not allowed to be taught in the social studies classroom.”
She continued: “Today, NCSS continues to be the beacon of light for social studies professionals by continually working toward our vision: A world in which all students are educated and inspired for lifelong inquiry and informed civic action.”
During the session, a small group of educators used the Question Formulation Technique with the QFocus “Democracy Ready: the next 100 years of social studies education.” They generated more than 50 questions such as,“How much will the pandemic change the trajectory of education?” “Will children have more of a say in the democratic process?” and, “How do we ensure social studies is valued in 100 years?”Conference participants, students, and colleagues were then invited to contribute their own questions to this Padlet.
The Padlet will be open until the end of March and we encourage you to add a few of your own questions.
Questions to guide the next 100 years of social studies
Educators generated wide-ranging questions that looked at the topic from a variety of angles.
Some questions probed the very nature and definition of “social studies” and its relationship to other disciplines:
- “What is social studies? What is social studies not?”
- “How will social studies integrate with other disciplines in a multidisciplinary way after 100 years?”
- “How will readiness for democracy shape other subjects?”
For RQI’s education program associate, Imaan Yousuf, a recent college graduate, this line of questioning forced her to reevaluate her experience as a student. “Whereas math and science often seemed like objective truths outside of myself, social studies classes gave me an entry point into agency,” she said. “I now understand that other disciplines did not appear out of nowhere. Rather, they too are shaped by human choices. We can trace the development of these other bodies of knowledge through social studies.”
Other questions dug into the role of education in a democracy:
- “In what way have educators from 100 years ago influenced our teaching about democracy today, and what lessons can we learn from that?”
- “What is the relationship between democracy and education today?”
- “Does social studies have a specific burden to teach democracy readiness?”
Johnny Walker, a high school world history teacher in Los Angeles, reflected that the questions had him “thinking of what my role is as a citizen of the U.S. and as an educator.”
“I was just teaching this week about social darwinism and assimilation, which seemed to be the purpose of education in our early system,” Walker noted, “and so the idea that the purpose of [education] was for democracy is, I think, a fairly radical idea.”
Educators also generated questions about legacy and our role in shaping it:
- “If art reflects life, how will people in 100 years assess, judge or evaluate life in 2022 based on the creative works we leave behind?
- “How will perspectives on the present change in retrospect in 100 years?”
- “What responsibility do those of us alive today have in connection to social studies education and democracy 100 years from now, when we won’t be alive?”
RQI’s education program coordinator, Katy Connolly, noted, “Many teachers encouraged students to participate in the making of history. Institutions like the Library of Congress and state historical societies solicited diary entries and photographs from ordinary people to build collections for future students and historians. In this way the past two years have been a good reminder that students and youth don’t have to wait until they are old enough to be important participants in democracy. They also don’t have to wait for someone else to write history for them, and in fact the youngest of us may be the best poised to carry on our collective memory.”
‘We are in a seminal moment’
All these questions led to some reflections and insights from social studies educators around the United States:
Kim Sergent, social studies lead at the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, started thinking about the unique nature of this particular time in education. She shared, “I think that we are in a seminal moment, that what we are doing right now, what we are experiencing, will, I think, greatly impact who we are in 100 years.”
For Melissa Lawson, a middle school teacher and National History Day Master Teacher, the experience was uplifting. “It’s affirming to hear that colleagues in places far from where I happen to be — that there are hopes and fears that are along similar themes relative to social studies education and democracy,” she said.
Dan Fouts, a high school social studies teacher and co-founder of Teach Different, took a practical approach. He added the priority question, “What is one thing YOU can do to preserve democracy moving forward?” He shared, “I am of the belief that we as a society have forgotten the importance of small contributions making a real difference in the larger effort to preserve our system. An honest discussion of the specific actions citizens can take is really important to empower everybody to know they can make a difference.”
Walker similarly remarked that “history is not deterministic … we do have the agency to make choices and so part of what our burden or also our responsibility is, is to make a choice of what we want our legacies to be as social studies teachers.”
Add your own questions about the next 100 years of social studies
You can join the conversation and add your voice to the record through the end of March. Log on to this Padlet and add a few of your priority questions. You can even share it with colleagues and students. Their questions may inspire a very interesting conversation! RQI’s goal is to capture and preserve this conversation for future generations of students and educators who may one day be leading the 200th anniversary conference.
Photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston, photographer. Circa 1899. Available at the Library of Congress: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/95500443/