State promotes major changes in the teaching of social studies [New London Day]

December 2, 2014

By STEPHEN SINGER Associated Press
Publication: The Day

Hartford – Connecticut education officials are considering the biggest change in social studies lessons in more than 15 years as teachers try to navigate for their students a vast and growing sea of cultural information and current events on social media, websites and other sources.

Social studies teachers want students to not only know the answers to key questions in history, economics, geography and civics but to also understand what questions to ask. The intent is to separate information that’s valuable from what’s useless or just plain wrong.

“Students will have their own questions. They’re not memorizing,” said Alan S. Marcus, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Connecticut who helped draft the new curriculum.

Called the Connecticut Elementary and Secondary Social Studies Frameworks, the curriculum proposal cannot be imposed on local districts as a state curriculum but is instead a model that districts may use or choose not to.

The framework, as spelled out by the state Department of Education, said social studies instruction should be more than a teacher telling students what they need to know. Teachers must guide students through questioning, “but true inquiry allows students to build their own questions” and conduct their own inquiry with the help of teachers, state education officials said.

“The best social studies questions are the ones there’s not one answer to,” said Stephen Armstrong, a former social studies teacher who is a social studies consultant at the state Department of Education.

The changes are associated with contentious Common Core standards, so critics of those standards are wary of revisions that may be more subjective than changes to math and science.

Common Core is a set of English and math standards that spell out what students should know and when. The standards have been adopted by most states and are intended to provide students with the critical thinking, problem solving and writing skills needed for college and the workforce.

Nick Coppola, an opponent of Common Core, said local education activists have not taken a position on the new social studies curriculum but are “cautiously looking at this.”

Science and math are easier to standardize, but social studies curriculum that includes history, economics and disciplines that may include a political perspective are not so easily standardized, said Coppola, a father of two students in the North Haven schools.

“What’s behind this? What are we marketing here?” he asked.

Republican state Sen. Toni Boucher, the ranking senator on the legislature’s Education Committee, said high school students may be “mature and ready” for courses requiring self-direction. But she doubts elementary or middle school students are ready for independent action because they are “much more susceptible” to being led, she said.

Developing the new curriculum helps it catch up on broad changes in education, Armstrong said.

“I think what’s happened in the last five, six years is that social studies teachers are not just conveyers of content but also teachers of literacy skills as well,” he said. “That’s a fundamental change.”

Marcus said the new curriculum, which the state Board of Education will likely consider for adoption in February, will present social studies as themes such as freedom and inequality. Under that broad category, students can study a range of subjects, such as the U.S. civil rights movement and the Cold War, he said.

The Connecticut proposal asks students to work outside the classroom. For example, students investigating fair trade policies may attend a meeting of local businesses to advocate their position on fair trade or interview local veterans and establish an archive of the interviews as part of their studies of a modern American war.

“We’re thinking of our students becoming citizens,” Marcus said.