How Literature Can Make Social Studies Relevant Again
By Lauren Levy, Alumna, American Military University
Social studies are an important part of a K-12 curriculum. Social studies help students develop into actively participating citizens. It also provides them with the problem-solving skills to effectively address social, economic, ethical and personal concerns they will face.
However, traditional methods of instruction do not provide students with enough knowledge or skills to effectively develop their civic competence. Teachers must pursue an alternative method, so that students receive purposeful, powerful social studies instruction.
Current Social Studies Textbooks Failing to Catch Student Interest
The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), a Maryland-based professional association, was created to educate social studies teachers on standards NCSS created that emphasized social studies content and performance-based assessments. A more literature-based approach to social studies instruction is extremely consistent with the goals and standards of NCSS.
Social studies textbooks have been critiqued for containing information that is “dull, disjointed, and so sanitized that they lack message or meaning.” Social studies have become a subject area that fails to catch the interest of and educate students.
On the other hand, literature-based approaches to teaching social studies have created a better alternative for promoting citizenship learning. Literature allows for “detailed descriptions, complex characters and melodic passages [that] allow young readers to construct understandings in powerful ways.” To fascinate and better educate the young learners in U.S. elementary schools, NCSS must highlight the importance of literature to the social studies teachers it educates.
Literature Shows How Social Studies Is Relevant to Students’ Lives
Literature that is powerful and purposeful provides social studies students with a better understanding of how the world functions today. Social studies educate students about the knowledge, skills and attitudes essential to civic competence.
According to NCSS, social studies curriculum standards must provide students with the information and skills to construct deeper meaning of their local, state, national and global communities. Civic competence is the ability of students to understand not just “the facts, concepts and ideas necessary to participate in civic affairs, but that they understand the processes through which they came to know these things and why a citizen should know them.” Social studies also provide a sense of existence in the past, as well as the present, [an] understanding of the multiplicity of cultures within society, [a knowledge of] the institutions within the society and to learn their roles within groups, says NCSS.
More importantly, social studies provide students with critical thinking skills crucial for an economic and civic understanding of the world. Even in elementary school, students develop political feelings, so they must learn the relevant supporting political information to be informed citizens.
Literature Provides More Complex Picture of History, Current World
Literature supports the acquisition of knowledge for students. It paints a more complex picture of history and the current world than traditional textbooks.
Studies have found that students identify with the characters that they “meet” in historical literature. Forming a connection with historical figures motivates students to learn more information and introduces them to more than one perspective.
Other research has found that literature “fills in the gaps,” unlike textbooks. Historical literature shows a better sequence of events and how ideas and actions led to other events. When classes use literature in social studies, students have a better retention of the knowledge they learned and a more positive attitude towards social studies.
Social studies also helps students learn how to make decisions, be self-competent and develop into self-directed citizens. The skills required for civic competence include communication, research, thinking, decision-making and interpersonal skills.
Literature Fosters Imagination, Understanding, Discussions and Analytical Skills
Compared to traditional textbooks, literature is more engaging to students. It paints a vivid picture of how fascinating and complex history is and how the world functions, as compared to the dull rote memorization used with traditional textbooks. Students are better able to develop their interpersonal skills, because they witness how different actors involved in a historical or current event perceive that event from multiple perspectives.
Literature also nurtures students’ imagination, which is important for critical thinking and decision-making skills. Literature shows how communication is vital in how an event ended and teaches students the written or verbal skills they need to become successful in their personal lives.
Studies, concerning the acquisition of civic competency skills and the use of literature over traditional textbooks, show that literature teaches students how events happened and important historical figures. Without a thorough understanding of social studies topics or concepts, students are not able to critically think about what they just learned. In classroom discussions where students collaborate with their peers, literature provides students with more material that they are able to discuss and analyze.
Students must understand the democratic norms and values on which their country was founded and continues to exist. By learning about the similarities and differences of people and how the present day came to be, elementary students develop a positive self-concept.
Integrating Literature into Social Studies Helps Students Understand Cultural Universals
Cultural universals are the domains of human experience that exist in all cultures, past and present. They are important for students to learn because they show the common features, values and norms that exist within different groups that make up a society, other societies and their differences. Textbooks do not provide students with an understanding of the nuances that exist within different groups’ values and norms or an appreciation for the differences of other groups.
Further Studies Needed to Determine Literature’s Impact on Social Studies Instruction
A more literature-based approach to social studies instruction must be further analyzed and implemented into the standards for which NCSS advocates. Over the years, less time has been spent on social studies instruction.
The knowledge, skills and attitudes required for civic competence have been replaced with rote memorization of historical facts. The use of literature can show students how social studies are still relevant today.
About the Author
Lauren Levy is a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. Lauren holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and government with a minor in early childhood development from the University of California at Berkeley. In 2016, she received a master’s degree in education from American Military University.