History’s boring. It’s just a bunch of irrelevant facts about dead people, an annoyed student letting off steam said during my student teaching at a Minneapolis high school. This wasn’t a discouraged, barely-passing student but one of the class’s highest achievers.
Minnesota social studies educators and the state department of education (MDE) debated this type of complaint, along with many others issues, vigorously in rewriting the state’s social studies standards, which go into effect next school year—barring any unforeseen objections.
Unlike states that have garnered uproar with controversial changes, Minnesota’s newest social studies requirements contain relatively few major content alterations. That might be why, unless you’re involved in education, this is the first you’re hearing this news. Legislation requires MDE examine and revise standards in all subjects every several years. The current social studies basic requirements are from 2004.
While the changes aren’t controversial, they are critically important upgrades that address frustrations from the students mentioned above.
The three biggest changes involve reducing standards and benchmarks to allow teachers to go deeper into each area and better overlap skill development, grade-specific standards for K-8, and an emphasis on more Native American history.
The MDE report detailing the procedures and reasoning for the new standards highlights the tension between focusing on social studies content (facts and figures) versus developing more robust historical, geo-spatial, and analytical skills necessary for post high school success.
In a globalized and diverse workforce, the social studies, especially when interdisciplinary themes are integrated into lessons—global awareness; financial, economic, business and entrepreneurial literacy; and civic literacy—ensure students are well prepared to succeed in college or technical school and their careers.
MDE’s report also highlights how social studies improve critical thinking, decision-making, issue analysis, problem-based learning, and service learning, all factors employers consider important.
The new standards aim to accomplish these goals in a number of ways. First they do a much better job overlaying skill development with content, gradually re-enforcing and continually building on those skills. The old standards introduced a concept, but might not return to the next step of the concept until far later in the year or several years later, hence K-8 grade specific standards. This also eliminates the need to re-teach what students might have forgotten.
Grade-specific standards, especially in elementary schools, also help combat the sad reality of No Child Left Behind (NLCB). “In the struggle to meet state and federal accountability requirements related to NCLB, some schools are reducing the amount of time allotted to social studies in order to provide additional instructional time for reading and mathematics,” according to the MDE report. It goes on to say, for a number of factors, “increasing numbers of schools are reducing social studies instructional time to as little as 15 minutes per day or 45-60 minutes per week.”
A quality social studies educator explains to students from day one these are life skills that will help them far beyond the classroom, and not just a set of facts and dates to memorize for a test. Education policymakers need to also highlight the value of well-informed, well-rounded students in a democracy. One needs to look no further than our current state of political campaigning to know how candidates rate the population at-large’s civic understanding.