Breaking the “Content Trap” in Social Studies

I return to this topic at the start of every school year; the constant struggle between content and skill. Every discipline has their version of this tension, though I feel like history teachers are particularly susceptible to this trap. You would be hard pressed to find a great teacher who is not passionate about their content; it’s why we do what we do. Good history teachers are often good story tellers, they help the narrative come alive for students, and find energy and passion in all of history’s uniqueness. Although students can gain tremendous lessons from having passion modeled and from having content delivered in an exciting way, they deserve even more.

Ask any history teacher their favorite (or most hated) topic and you will get a range of eccentric and unorthodox answers. Planning curriculum from these answers is impossible. In any history class, something will get forgotten, glossed over, or ignored. Some of these make up the “courageous deletions” that teachers are forced to make in order to maintain required pacing. These choices are often based in teacher preference and are not necessarily a bad thing. When a teacher is extra passionate about a topic, students are likely to be more engaged and get more out of the lesson. Teacher preference can and should shape content selected as illustrative examples. For myself, I’ll never be able to make the “Era of Good Feelings” feel exciting in a US history course.

Interesting and well-selected content also embeds historical curriculum with more subtle lessons for students. History gives students a clear place of themselves and offers insights into life, morality, ethics, and personal struggles. The past exposes students to one of the best sources of diversity, humanizes people and cultures different from their own, and helps them build historical empathy. The full weight of the human experience exists within a student’s grasp and all they need is a experienced guide. These “non-academic” ways of adding value to the classroom should not be overlooked given the direction society feels to be going sometimes. I want my students to gain all of this and leave class with an appreciation that history can enrich their lives and be fun and interesting. But…as important as all this is, I want it to be more…

Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts

My favorite educational research and author, Sam Wineburg, references a 1917 study in his book Historical Thinking and other Unnatural Acts that tested students’ knowledge of foundational facts of American history. The test revealed an average score of 33% for high school students and 49% for college students, scores so low no school would be proud of them. The test was repeated in later years by other researchers who demonstrated similar results. This both lays bare the contemporary armchair educator’s claims that schools no longer teach proper history and helps prove that when schools try to simply teach facts, they fail. If schools have been failing to teach historical facts for the last century, then maybe teachers should take it on themselves to try another strategy.

I am increasingly convinced that the primary selling point of historical curriculum should be teaching historical thinking skills. This does not sound as fun or compelling as content, but I would argue it is just as important. It has taken many years, but I have broken the “content trap.” I will never give up my intrinsic love of and passion for content, but it needs to be tempered with the recognition that students need more. Content is merely the roadmap to a skill set that will help every student think more deeply about and engage more critically with the world around them.

At the end of the day, there is too much historical content to teach. Instead, skills like contextualization, causation, or source analysis give learning a clear purpose, can be applied to other classes, and are more easily defended as to their real world application. The skill of contextualization has value in business, politics, and leadership. The ability to understand causation and historical decision making makes better managers, leaders, and workers. Analyzing multiple perspectives builds cultural competence and can help students interact with others in any aspect of life. Questioning and research skills have application to broader problem-solving skills. Most obvious are the benefits that historical argumentation brings to communication and writing skills across any topic or discipline. The foundation of all these applications is the purposeful integration of skill and content. I want more teachers to recognize this possibility and see that choosing skill does not mean abandoning content.

Integrating skill-based activities makes class more hands on and, in my anecdotal experience, increases how much knowledge students retain. It helps students and parents see the value and purpose of the class, and god forbid, makes class more fun. Putting skills at the center of the lesson does not mean content gets shoved aside. Skill must be surrounded and supported by content. Breaking the content trap just means recognizing that a particular piece of content is not the be-all end-all of a lesson. Historical thinking skills are the skeleton and the content is what makes it look presentable. I am sure someone else can think of a better analogy…I’ll ask an English teacher who I suspect has mastered that particular skill.

As I continue this blog this school year, I look forward to writing more about how I am working to develop this in my own practice with specific lesson ideas, activities, and classroom supports. Teaching is not a science, its an art. We hone our skills through practice, experimentation, and reflection, not robotic mimicry of what we used to do.

2 thoughts on “Breaking the “Content Trap” in Social Studies

  1. I agree with you about the content trap. As a teacher who was often introducing new content, I always made sure to prune some older content as well as linking content to skills. I would add that one of the important historical thinking skills for teachers is being able to let go of the stories we grew up with.

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