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Social Studies Education

Preparation Of Teachers

The development of the education of social studies teachers mirrors, in large part, the history and changes of teacher education generally. Social studies teacher preparation has moved from teachers' institutes and normal schools begun in the nineteenth century to teacher colleges and university-based teacher preparation in the twentieth century. But the education of social studies teachers has also had to take into account the unique definitions and issues connected to the teaching of social studies.

Defining Social Studies

Social studies is remembered by many who have gone through schools in the United States as a series of names, dates, and state capitals. In fact, both the definition and content of the field have been a matter of controversy since the early twentieth century. Social studies can be seen both as an umbrella term for a broad field of studies encompassing history and the social sciences and as an integrated field of study in its own right. But whatever the definition, the objectives of social studies education are highly contested. Values such as patriotism, an appreciation of free enterprise, respect for diverse cultures and nations, and knowledge of the structures and functions of American government are each seen by some group as the major goal of social studies teaching. The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) defines the field as "the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence" (NCSS webiste). Because the NCSS standards for the education of social studies teachers (1997) are widely accepted by teacher preparation programs, the goal of enabling learners to acquire knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to citizen participation helps to provide a focus for both the social studies curriculum and the preparation of social studies teachers.

Structure and Organization

What most distinguishes the preparation of social studies teachers from the preparation of other secondary and middle school teachers are the course requirements in their teaching content field and the special methods course. There is a good deal of variation of requirements across the fifty states. Since social studies is an interdisciplinary field, a major concern regarding content requirements is that of depth versus breadth across the various disciplines. How much content knowledge in each of the disciplines making up social studies is enough? How can prospective social studies teachers be prepared both broadly and deeply in all the areas they are expected to teach? In some programs, pre-service teachers major in social studies and take a broad array of courses across history and the social sciences. In other programs, they major in one field and take one or more courses in each of the other social studies disciplines. In some states teachers are certified in "social studies," while in others they may receive certification in a particular discipline such as history or geography.

The social studies methods class is the cornerstone of the professional course work taken by prospective social studies teachers. In this course teachers are expected to learn how to transform content into curriculum and to select and implement appropriate teaching strategies. Through the social studies methods course, combined with related field experiences, pre-service social studies teachers must learn ways to bridge the gap between the experiences of learners and content knowledge. However, although the methods course is a key component of the pre-service education of social studies teachers, there is not general agreement on a number of issues concerning this course: What should be the depth versus breadth of methods taught? How much emphasis should be given in this class to the needs of diverse learners? How much time should be spent preparing pre-service teachers to work with statemandated assessments? What emphasis should be placed in the methods course on developing a sufficient background in the social science disciplines?

The question of subject field content is complemented by the related ontological question, often dealt with in the social studies methods class: What is the nature of knowledge? How teachers conceive of knowledge determines, to a large extent, how they will teach. Is knowledge transmitted by experts or is it constructed by each learner? In teaching methods classes, pre-service teachers may be asked to consider whether history, for example, is largely basic facts of what happened, a method of inquiry, or broad concepts and ideas that enable learners to understand today's world. Generally, the answers teachers develop to these questions are based on the beliefs and expectations pre-service teachers bring to the teacher education program. They bring their already developed conceptions of the content as well as what it means to teach and they make sense of their teacher education experience through the screen of these preconceived ideas. For this reason, the study of pre-service teachers' perspectives and the influences on forming and changing these perspectives has been an important focus for research.

The issues raised by a consideration of the social studies methods class are confounded by the fact that in some programs the instructor of that course may not be a specialist in social studies; indeed, that individual may not be well acquainted with the field itself. Thus questions about the nature and goals of the field may be dealt with only superficially or not at all.

In-Service and Staff Development

Professional development occurs in both formal and informal ways. Informally, students, the school culture, collegial interactions, administrative interaction, and support all work in powerful ways to shape the development of teachers. Formal mechanisms explicitly aimed at guiding teacher development are in place as well. Increasingly, schools and school districts have begun to create and implement teacher induction programs. These programs are intended to provide support for beginning teachers as they deal with day-to-day challenges. Often, a beginning teacher is paired with an experienced teacher who serves as an advisor, guide, and sounding board. The goal of teacher induction programs is to both assist and retain novice teachers and revitalize mentor teachers. But little is known about the making of effective mentors and mentor programs.

Another professional development opportunity routinely provided by school districts is the schoolor district-developed in-service program. Once again, there is no common program model. Such programs may be one-day presentations or yearlong sustained efforts. They may be built around the idea of teachers working together to improve their teaching or they may rely on outside experts who make an occasional appearance. Teachers may see these programs as meeting their needs or as completely irrelevant.

There is the expectation, in many states and school districts, that teachers will continue to do graduate work in their teaching field or in professional education. While teachers in such programs are expected to find useful ways to apply what they learn to their teaching practice, there is generally little support in the classroom for these efforts. Some teachers find that membership in professional associations, such as the National Council for the Social Studies, is a meaningful form of professional development. Reading journals, attending conferences and workshops, and working with other teachers in one's own field are important benefits of getting involved with professional associations. However, not all schools and school districts are supportive of teacher involvement in professional associations. Districts often expect membership in professional associations to be at the teacher's own cost and on the teacher's own time. Some districts will discourage teachers from taking time from their teaching to attend professional association meetings and conferences, while others support such efforts as a form of professional renewal.

Certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is a challenging form of professional development voluntarily undertaken by experienced teachers. National board certification in social studies, as in other fields, is based on a demonstration of a teacher's practice as measured against high and rigorous standards. Yet, states and school districts differ in the support they give to teachers seeking board certification and in the ways in which they recognize those who achieve certification through this rigorous process.

Major Trends and Issues

Important trends in the education of social studies teachers are similar to those in teacher education as a whole, but they are often manifest in distinct ways. The growing interest in accountability for both teachers and students, for example, is a major issue in the early twenty-first century. The work of teaching and teacher education has come to focus increasingly on helping students to meet state standards. In addition, many states require teachers to pass some form of content knowledge test to receive certification. In social studies, both student content standards and teacher testing may be highly political rather than professional. Decisions about what knowledge should be taught are often very controversial. Decision-making often involves politicians, content experts with divergent points of view, and the general public, as well as professional educators. Consensus among and within various groups may be difficult to attain; those with the most powerful voices often become the decision-makers.

Another challenge for teaching and teacher education is the appropriate use of technology both in teacher education programs and in K–12 classrooms. Research suggests that social studies pre-service teacher motivation is increased by online dialogue, facilitated (but not controlled) by the instructor. Additional research suggests great potential for improved learning of social studies through the use of technology, such as using the Library of Congress website to bring primary sources into the classroom. However, at the start of the twenty-first century, teacher educators are only beginning to use technology in sophisticated ways in their own teaching and only just developing ways to prepare teachers for high-power uses of technology.

Teacher education faces the challenge of preparing teachers to effectively teach culturally and linguistically diverse students. In social studies, issues of diversity go to the heart of the field. The concept of citizenship on which social studies is based must be a dynamic one that considers the many different cultural and national identities of learners. It must also take into account that citizenship in an interdependent world must have a global, as well as a national, component. Making the social studies curriculum meaningful and significant for learners and for society remains the greatest challenge of social studies teaching and teacher education.


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