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What Does the Common Core Look Like in Social Studies Classrooms?

By Dave Stuart Jr.

For too many social studies teachers, the Common Core State Standards still mean the exaltation of Skill at the diminishment of Knowledge. When we parrot tweetables like “It’s not what you know, it’s what you can do,” we throw out more than bathwater. If our aim is to create social studies classrooms where the reading, writing, speaking, and listening standards are being met, we’re defeating ourselves if we cast aspersion on the idea of student as knowledge builder. When skill development replaces knowledge-building, we’re in trouble because

  1. the CCSS themselves emphasize the importance of knowledge-building in college and career readiness in their introductory matter;
  2. higher-order skill development can’t happen apart from a rich body of foundational knowledge;
  3. you need to know stuff to be able to read stuff — an idea I develop further here.

And so the CCSS-achieving social studies classroom seeks to maximize success through an intense focus on two questions.

What are the key pieces of knowledge that my students need to know for a given unit?

In history classes, we need students to develop mental knowledge networks that can be accessed chronologically (think timelines) and geographically (think maps). This is the first step to successful knowledge building in social studies.

And then, in all social studies classes, we need our students to build conceptual knowledge. We begin by asking, “What is the key conceptual vocabulary for this unit?” and we create a list of these words. We teach them to our students using something like Marzano’s academic vocabulary procedure, and we reinforce them with something simple, like posting a word wall or requiring students to use a conceptual vocabulary word in this week’s pop-up debate.

How much will my students read, write, and speak in this unit?

Every social studies teacher should be able to give a parent or an administrator or a colleague a simple set of numbers:

  • How many texts will students read during a given unit? It’s useful to organize this quantity by text type, such as 10 pages from the textbook (contrary to popular opinion, the CCSS don’t seem to have banned these, and most colleges certainly haven’t), 4 articles, 9 primary source documents, and 2 political cartoons.
  • How many pages (or paragraphs, or words) of writing will students produce during a given unit? Of this work, how much will be quickwrites (at the start or end of class), how much will be readable, and how much will be polished?
  • How many times will students speak at an appropriate academic level with their peers during a given unit? I would simply organize this by small group or peer-to-peer speaking (using something simple like Think-Pair-Share) and whole class speaking (again, using the same, simple structure all year long, something like Socratic Seminar or, in my social studies classroom, Pop-Up Debate).

Only after we’ve established simple measures of quantity should we then go in and microanalyze for genre, complexity, and such. American social studies classrooms first have a literacy quantity problem, and then they have a literacy quality/complexity problem. The CCSS have a chance of improving things, but only if they’re implemented with a sane grasp on common sense.

5 Responses to What Does the Common Core Look Like in Social Studies Classrooms?

  1. Christina Gray September 4, 2016 at 8:42 am #

    Thanks for this perspective, Dave. One big take-away I get from this is the importance of planning. Teachers who look at big picture and plan backwards would consider all of the elements you list. When I work with Social Studies departments as a Literacy support person, I am always looking for authentic ways teachers can integrate lit strategies, but always with one eye toward common sense implementation.

    • davestuartjr September 5, 2016 at 3:42 pm #

      Keep that one eye on that prize, Christina!

  2. Frank September 5, 2016 at 2:26 pm #

    “Only after we’ve established simple measures of quantity should we then go in and microanalyze for genre, complexity, and such.” This is helpful to me. For a while I’ve been telling myself I need to improve the language/literacy aspect of my courses (STEM, not typically thought of as language-laden). There’s so many aspects to consider, but it helps me actually *implement* this change by focusing on one simple thing to start: quantity. For now, I know I definitely don’t have *enough* reading/writing/speaking. I’ll worry about other aspects later (such as how to go over new vocab, what strategies to use, what structures, variety, reading level, etc.).

    • davestuartjr September 5, 2016 at 3:43 pm #

      Frank, I’m like you — it empowers me when I have just one thing to worry about at a time.

  3. Carol Catoe Hinson September 20, 2016 at 6:56 am #

    Considering the literacy elements with a quantity first/checklist approach first is the best way to be sure I’m building learning opportunities for my kids. I appreciate this perspective-the idea of differentiating for each of my learners factors in once I consider where the components and their quantity fit.

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