Why scholarly work should be the social studies teacher's BFF, and how

By Michael Yell posted 11 days ago


When we say “I’m a practical sort of person who does not put much stock in theories,” we mean that we’re not thinking about what we’re doing, which of course isn’t true. Actually, we are, all of us, loaded up with theories and experience. Everyone inhabits both planets. They are, in fact, the same planet. Together, “Research and Practice” equals learning.

                                           ~Walter C. Parker

In 2001, Professor Walter C. Parker of the University of Washington initiated the column “Research and Practice” in Social Education (now edited by Patricia G. Avery of the University of Minnesota). The purpose of the column was to feature brief essays on scholarly work, by the scholars, that was directly applicable to the classroom. Professor Parker also assembled many of the column’s essays for the book Social Studies Today: Research and Practice, now in its second edition. The column, and the book, developed from the concern that there was a gap between scholars and practitioners. Although understanding that concern, Parker did not agree with that. Nor, as a classroom teacher, do I.

As a young teacher in the mid-eighties, one of the course in my Master’s program introduced me to two sources that would have an enduring effect on me as a teacher. One was a book, referenced in the course syllabus, entitled “Models of Teaching” by Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers, and the other an article by the late Michigan professor Jere Brophy (in later years I was honored to present him with an NCSS research award and took some time during the presentation to explain how important his work had been to me in the classroom). I continued following the work of Joyce, and subscribed to Brophy's "Institute on Teaching" publications through the University of Michigan. A few years later, in the early nineties, I came across an article by Fred Newman regarding his research on Authentic Instruction.  Due to the influence of these scholars, early in my career I understood the importance of their work to what I did in my classroom. Far from being, in the words of some, "ivory tower stuff," scholarly work could be something to inform my practice and help me grow in my craft. Now, in my final years in the classroom as a middle school teacher, scholarly work has always been and continues to be important to my teaching. (BFF = Best Friends Forever)

In social studies, we are fortunate that as many of our numbers have furthered their education as scholars; in addition to their work with preservice teachers their reach continues to impact the k-12 classroom.  A number have, as Sam Wineburg wrote, moved beyond a focus on writing articles for other scholars in refereed journals, to also doing work that has that direct classroom impact.  For example, Wineburg and Abby Reisman developed the curriculum Reading like an Historian, and Reisman tested it in five San Francisco schools. As Sam Wineburg discussed in blog for The Chronicle of Higher Education, they were asked by San Francisco to make their material available to every history teacher in the district. A simple website was created, and the rest, as they say, is history; from a small site with 75 PDF’s the Stanford History Education Group, SHEG, now has US history, World History, and Civic Reasoning lessons and “Beyond the Bubble” assessments. At this point SHEG materials have been downloaded over five million times. It is truly a superb example of scholarship reaching into the classroom.

Although an exemplary one, SHEG is not the only example of scholarship reaching into the classroom. For the social studies teacher interested in putting scholarship to work in their classrooms, I would highly recommend the following sources:


* In this blog, I write about the website of the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) developed by Professor Sam Wineburg; if you teach US History, World History, or Civics, SHEG is a MUST.

* Chauncey Monte-Sano, Susan De La Paz, Mark Felton, Reading, Thinking, and Writing about History: Teaching Argument Writing to Diverse Learners in the Common Core Classroom, Grades 6-12, Teacher College Press 2014. Monte-Sano, a founding member of SHEG, was a part of a team that developed the Website Historical Thinking Matters  and also co-wrote, with Wineburg and Daisy Martin, Reading Like a Historian: Teaching Literacy in Middle and High School History Classrooms. I teach world history rather the U.S., but the ideas and techniques discussed in Reading, Thinking… about disciplinary literacy and writing are generalizable, in my opinion, to any social studies content area.

*Dixie Massey and Tina Heafner (current Vice President for NCSS), Seeds of Inquiry-World History and Seeds for Inquiry-US History, both from Social Studies School Service, 2016. I have recently purchased the world history version and have put its ideas to work in my classroom. The book examines 10 reading comprehension strategies and puts them to work with short historical readings.

* I would also recommend the works of Bruce VanSledright (particularly Assessing Historical Thinking & Understanding), Keith Barton and Linda Levstik. For a pleasingly complex work on the importance of inquiry in history, I commend Keith and Linda’s book Teaching History for the Common Good (Routledge, 2004). Levstik and Barton excellent book Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle Schools is in its fifth edition.

Discussion and Civics

* Diana Hess is the major scholarly figure involved with discussion and democratic education in the social studies classroom. If you are a member of ASCD, read Diana and Paula McAvoy’s excellent article in Educational Leadership entitled Debates and Conversation: From the Ground Up (Educational Leadership, November 2014, volume 72, number 3). I would also recommend her book Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion (Critical Social Thought), (Routledge, 2009). This book received the Exemplary Research Award from NCSS.

*Abby Reisman most recent work is on facilitating classroom discussion. If you are a member of ASCD I recommend last year's article in Educational Leadership, "How to Facilitate Discussion in History," February 2017, volume 74, number 5.

I have not taught civics for years, and so I emailed Walter Parker , professor at the University of Washington, and Ted McConnell, Executive Director of the Civic Mission of Schools, for their recommendations as to sources that teachers of civics and government interested in scholarship and civic teaching might examine. They gave me the following sources and names:  CIRCLE, Democracy and Education: Reinventing the High School Course, Peter Levine, Joseph Kahne, Meira Levinson, Danielle Allen, and John Wilkerson.


*Walter Parker has been instrumental in helping bring scholarship into the social studies classroom. Parker initiated and for years edited the Research and Practice section of NCSS’ Social Education; he later brought together many of those articles for the anthology Social Studies Today: Research and Practice (Routledge 2015) now in its second printing (the quote that opened this blog comes from the introduction to his book). It is excellent! For those teaching senior high government, sign into the NCSS site and read Parker’s article Projects as the Spine of the Course: Design for Deeper Learning (Social Education, January/February 2018).

*As far as scholarship on multicultural education, diversity, and citizenship education; James A. Banks. Need I say more?

*Many of the scholars mentioned above worked collaboratively with 15 professional social studies organization to develop the College, Career and Civic Life (C3): Framework for Social Studies Standards… Project Director and lead writer Kathy Swan, and senior advisers and contributing writers John Lee, and S.E. Grant worked with a committee of scholars, the work of many of them is discussed in this blog, to develop the C3 Framework. They also maintain the C3 Teacher Website. Most recently Grant, Lee, and Swan wrote the book Inquiry-Based Practices in the Social Studies: Understanding the Inquiry Design Model  (published by NCSS, and C3 Teacher, 2018) on using the inquiry arc of the C3 Framework in the social studies classroom (Walter Parker wrote the forward and in it noted that "Learning to make and evaluate evidence-based arguments is the singular, unifying, intellectual goal of all social studies courses; a wonderful statement that speaks to every social studies discipline). 

All the people and sources listed above are excellent examples of scholars whose work  continues to inform classroom practice. Undoubtedly there are more sources and people I could list; perhaps other teachers can add names and sources to this list. Early in my career I first found the importance of bringing what I’ve learned from scholarship into my instruction. Time has only convinced more of the importance of research and practice in the classroom.

P.S. *BFF (the text acronym for “Best Friends Forever”) may be too "middle school" for some, but I am, after all, a middle school teacher

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