Compelling Stories

The Iowa Department of Education released draft Social Studies standards last month. Written by the Social Studies Standards Writing Team between January and June 2016, the draft standards are in the process of being reviewed by the Social Studies Standards Review Team, which met for the first time on November 8th.

The draft standards are self-described as “a bold step toward a vision of social studies for all of Iowa’s students.” Bold or not, the draft standards offer an impoverished vision of social studies, driven by skills rather than content knowledge in the disciplines of history, geography, economics, and government.

Skills driven standards can’t go out of fashion fast enough, in my opinion. Content knowledge is power. The power to think, to create, to apply, to evaluate, to understand, and the power to acquire more knowledge within a particular discipline. [See David Didau, for example, on the impossibility of separating skills from knowledge.]

These standards fail to effectively outline much in the way of content knowledge students should acquire (more on this in a bit), but, also, having turned away from content driven standards, the Social Studies Studies Writing Team has apparently determined that the purpose of social studies education in Iowa is to develop the “civic competence” of students instead of building their content knowledge.

From the introduction of the draft standards:

Preparing students for the 21st century cannot be accomplished without a strong emphasis on the social studies. The founders of our country emphasized that the vitality and security of a democracy depends upon the education and willingness of its citizens to participate actively in society. This level of participation requires civic competence. In other words, it is imperative that our future generations gain an understanding of the core concepts of social studies. Life in the United States within our democratic system is constantly changing which creates varying social circumstances. As a result, citizens need to adapt to such changes in order to sustain vital democratic traditions. Meeting this need is the mission of the social studies.

As we work to carry on the ideals of the founders, we are compelled to revisit our fundamental beliefs and institutions and to construct new social contexts and relationships. The Iowa Core in Social Studies reflects the belief that the informed social studies student comprehends and applies to personal and public experiences the core content perspectives of the many academic fields of the social studies. Our entire social experiences, as well as our republic, are established upon the principles of individual citizenship. Therefore, it is necessary to pay attention to the education of those future citizens.

The Iowa Core for Social Studies is premised upon a rigorous and relevant K – 12 social studies program. Engaging students in the pursuit of active informed citizenship will require a broad range of understandings and skills. It will also require an articulated district curriculum which connects students to the social world through informed instructional experiences led by teachers who are committed to active civic participation. This represents a bold step toward a vision of social studies for all of Iowa’s students.

If the problem isn’t immediately apparent, let’s take a look at the inquiry anchor standard taking informed action. Under the draft standards, Kindergarten students are expected to “[t]ake group or individual action to help address local, regional, and/or global problems (e.g., letters to the editor, public service announcement, community service projects, and posters).”

While I agree with the writing team that education is important to prepare students for whatever civic engagement they choose to pursue, there is an important distinction to be made between teaching the relevant content of history, geography, economics, and government that could form the foundation of civic participation and directing that actual civic participation under the guise of developing civic competence.

Setting aside that Kindergarteners seem unlikely to possess the skills and knowledge to craft effective letters to the editor, we’re talking about state actors directing students to make political speech and take other political action. I can’t see any way for this to be done in a content and viewpoint neutral way. It seems like this should have been an obvious problem for a group purporting to carry on the work of the Founders, but apparently it wasn’t.

As an alternative, I’d like to see Iowa develop history-driven (chronological order, please) content standards (see, as an example, South Carolina’s 2005 social studies standards). Through the study of history, students have the opportunity to learn about the structure of our government institutions and the reasons why our government institutions are structured the way they are. In addition, our history is full of compelling stories of political action and movements that have shaped our nation–the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, the abolitionist movement, the temperance movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and more. These stories can help students build the foundational knowledge of civic competence while leaving them to make their own choices about their own political activity.

Unfortunately, the draft standards are weak on any specific historical content knowledge.  Compare Iowa’s draft 4th grade standards with South Carolina’s 2005 4th grade standards. Or Iowa’s draft 8th grade standards (US history) with South Carolina’s 2005 4th and 5th grade standards (US history). I’ll leave it to you to determine which standards are more likely to result in students prepared “to bring to bear the complex and sophisticated ways of thinking utilized by historians when thinking historically.”

Another mistake, I think, is the decision of the writing team to try to embed Iowa history throughout the K-12 standards. If Iowa history were assigned to a particular grade level, then the University of Iowa Press and IPTV have us covered for teaching materials.

All in all, I’d like to see the review team to recommend a substantial, content-driven rewrite of the draft standards but have no expectation that will happen.

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One thought on “Compelling Stories

  1. Mary M

    I just read through Iowa’s draft social studies standards–they lack clarity among other problems. I agree a complete content driven rewrite is essential.

    These standards won’t help make Iowa students among the top in the nation.

    I cringe when I read this kind of stuff: “Explain points of agreement experts have about interpretations and applications of disciplinary concepts and ideas associated with a compelling question.” See page 31.

    Here’s a link for anyone reading this comment. https://www.educateiowa.gov/sites/files/ed/documents/K-12SocialStudiesDraftStandards.pdf

    Reply

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