What is Social Studies?


This paper explores the question of the nature and purpose of social studies with the aim of showing the relevance and importance of teaching the subject well. The authors argue that social studies is about citizenship education and as such, is an important subject in the school curriculum. Teachers’ orientations towards the subject, that is, the beliefs about the goals of the subject and perspectives that teachers may hold about what constitute critical knowledge, skills and values to be taught are also discussed. Some key knowledge, skills and values essential to developing young people to become informed, concerned and participative citizens are highlighted with some examples of what lessons may look like.


The start of a new school year is approaching and Ms Tan, who teaches Primary 4 is busy preparing for the new students with whom she will be working.  Although she is starting her fifth year in the classroom, she is still excited, and a little apprehensive, when the school year begins.  Today she is rethinking some of the social studies activities she and her Primary 4 colleagues had developed in the past.  Tomorrow they will all be at the meeting, and she wants to be ready with some new ideas.  She wants the teachers, and most importantly the children, to understand how meaningful social studies can be.  Ms Tan worries that too often the other teachers will put aside social studies lessons in order to concentrate on the “more important” subjects such as Maths and English Language. “What could be more important than the study of people, how they live together and how we got to where we are today?” Ms Tan wonders.  Ms Tan believes that if our children do not understand themselves and the social and physical world in which they live, it will not really matter, in the long run, that they excel in Maths, understand scientific method or can write good essays.  She knows all these things are important, but if children do not learn how to knowledgeably participate in their communities, their nation and the world, all the rest will have no meaning.

Ms Tan is facing a dilemma familiar to many teachers - making sure there is time in the primary school curriculum to teach social studies and to teach it well.  Ms Tan’s students are very lucky.  Not only does she believe that social studies is important, but she has a clear sense of why it is important and what students ought to learn from their social studies classes in primary school.  Think back to your own experience as a student in social studies.  Do you remember the class as dull?  Did it seem to be a lot of information that really never held together or did it seem interesting?  Did your teachers sometimes drop social studies altogether in order to teach subjects considered by some to be “more important”?  Or was it exciting and engaging?  Whether social studies is exciting, interesting and challenging or dull and boring, or even ignored, depends greatly on the teacher.  Teachers who understand and appreciate the purposes and goals of social studies are more likely to find ways to make its teaching meaningful to the learners.  Understanding the goals of social studies will help you to ensure that the knowledge, skills and values that are so vital to social studies will be a part of the actual curriculum you teach, not just words in the syllabus and the textbook.  This paper will explore various ideas about the goals and purposes of teaching social studies. As you read through this paper, consider where you stand and what you believe should be the reasons for children to learn social studies.


An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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