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Putting the Squeeze on Social Studies: Managing Teaching Dilemmas in Subject Areas Excluded from State Testing

by John S. Wills - 2007

Background/Context: Recent research indicates that social studies is being "squeezed" from the elementary curriculum as instructional time is shifted to language arts and mathematics in response to state testing and the federal No Child Left Behind Act, especially in schools serving poor students and students of color. However, less is known about the specific curricular and instructional choices teachers make as they confront reduced instructional time for social studies, and the enacted curriculum resulting from these choices.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The purpose of this study is to analyze what happens to the enacted curriculum in social studies in elementary schools where instructional time for social studies was reduced in response to state testing in language arts and mathematics.

Setting: This research was conducted at a rural elementary school in Southern California serving poor Latino, African-American, and White students, a low performing yet improving school as measured by state testing in language arts and mathematics.

Research Design: A ten-month qualitative case study of social studies curriculum and instruction was conducted in one fourth-grade and two fifth-grade classrooms at one elementary school.

Data Collection and Analysis: Data collection consisted of observation and videotaping of classroom lessons and activities in social studies during the 20022003 school year in three teachers' classrooms, consisting of a total of 125 videotaped observations. Interviews with teachers, students, and the principal, and the collection and analysis of student work and curricular materials supplemented this data. For this article, data analysis was based on the coding of field notes, analysis of transcripts of lessons and activities, and teacher interviews, to understand the curricular and instructional choices teachers made in social studies and the effect of these choices on the enacted curriculum.

Findings/Results: Reduced instructional time in social studies has resulted in a reduction of the scope of the curriculum, the curtailment or elimination of opportunities to promote students' higher order thinking, and an increased emphasis at times on the simple reproduction of content knowledge.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The institution of a system of accountability meant to improve teaching and learning for all students is instead undermining the quality of students' education in social studies, especially at low performing elementary schools serving poor students and students of color. As instructional time is shifted to language arts and mathematics the scope of the social studies curriculum and opportunities for thoughtfulness that would deepen students' understanding of history are being squeezed from the enacted curriculum.

In 1999, California adopted the Public Schools Accountability Act, an act that instituted an accountability system based on student performance on a number of annual tests, including tests in English—language arts, mathematics, and a high school exit examination.  Taken together, these state-mandated tests were used to evaluate the performance of individual schools which were then assigned a number on the state's Academic Performance Index (API), an index available to the public and meant to inform parents about the quality of their child's school.  Schools were measured on a scale from 200 to 1000, with a state target of an API score of 800 for all schools.  The state set annual targets for academic improvement (equal to 5% of the difference between a school’s most recent API score and 800) for the entire school and for specific groups of students, identified by such characteristics as low income, minority, and English Language Learners (ELL).  To be successful, schools had to meet or exceed the annual targets for academic improvement set by the state, not only for the entire school but also for each specific subgroup of students.  Schools that demonstrated annual improvement were eligible for cash rewards, and in the beginning of the reform effort, individual teachers at schools whose students demonstrated dramatic improvement on state examinations were eligible for cash rewards ranging from $5000 to $25,000 (these were subsequently eliminated).  Schools that failed to meet their annual target number for improvement needed to demonstrate sufficient improvement in subsequent years or face sanctions from the state, including possible closure.  The state also provided a ranking of individual schools when compared to schools with similar characteristics, such as student race and ethnicity, parent education, percentage of students who are English Language Learners, percentage of teachers with credentials, and low-income families.

The Public Schools Accountability Act and the accountability system that arose from it were intended to improve teaching and learning in K-12 education by holding teachers and administrators accountable for the learning of their students, at least as measured by annual state examinations.  However, educational reforms do not always work out as planned.  One troubling consequence, especially in low-performing elementary schools populated by low-income students, students of color, and students whose first language is not English, was the apparent abandonment of social studies and science education (Manzo, 2005).  At many low-performing elementary schools, teachers and administrators focused exclusively on language arts and mathematics instruction as a strategy for raising their API score, since these were the subject areas tested on annual state-mandated examinations used to calculate a school's API score.  In the university courses I taught, masters and doctoral students, who were elementary teachers and administrators in local school districts, described the elimination of social studies and science from their classrooms and schools.  One student shared that she was teaching social studies to her students despite instructions from her principal to eliminate social studies from her curriculum.  A sixth-grade teacher told me how she was teaching US history to her fifth-grade son at home, because social studies was no longer taught at her son’s school.  School administrators in my courses admitted that they had eliminated social studies and science education at their schools in response to pressures to raise their students’ test scores on annual state examinations.

It is difficult to believe that supporters of the Public Schools Accountability Act intended, or even imagined, that low-performing schools might opt to eliminate social studies and science education in order to focus solely on mathematics and language arts instruction to better prepare their students for state testing.  However, as is often the case, educational reform efforts can produce unintended consequences (Sandholtz, Ogawa & Scribner, 2004), resulting in educational practices that inadvertently undermine rather than enhance the educational opportunities and experiences of students.  In an era of state-level test-based accountability, most often in language arts and mathematics, and the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), instruction in social studies appears to be getting “squeezed” from the elementary curriculum.  Concern has been raised about “withering social studies instruction in elementary schools” as instructional time is shifted to language arts and mathematics (Pascopella, 2004).  Raymond Bartlett, president of the Council for Basic Education, worries that this is creating a new opportunity gap between White and minority students.  As the curriculum is narrowed to focus on language arts and mathematics, a pattern especially prevalent in schools with large minority populations, students of color are denied a liberal arts education, including education in social studies (Music for All Foundation, 2004).  Jesus Garcia, president of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), is concerned that reduced instruction in social studies in the elementary grades will leave students unprepared for the courses they will encounter in middle and high school (Manzo, 2005).  While reduced instructional time for social studies appears to be one outcome of state testing in language arts and mathematics, we know little about the effects reduced instructional time is having on the quality of social studies education students do receive.

What happens to social studies in the elementary school curriculum when it gets “squeezed” as a result of state testing in language arts and mathematics?  What teaching dilemmas (Cuban, 1992; Jackson, 1986; Rosenholtz, 1987, 1989; VanSledright & Grant, 1994) does this pose for teachers, and what curricular and instructional decisions do teachers make in managing these dilemmas, and why?  What enacted curriculum results from teachers’ management of these dilemmas, and what is the value of that curriculum for students?  What, exactly, is getting squeezed from the enacted social studies curriculum in classrooms?  This paper presents a qualitative case study of social studies curriculum and instruction in two teachers’ classrooms at one elementary school in Southern California serving poor Latino, African-American, and White students where instructional time for social studies was reduced in response to state testing in language arts and mathematics.

In this paper, I examine two teachers' management of teaching dilemmas resulting from reduced instructional time for social studies, to understand their curricular and instructional choices and the enacted curriculum that resulted from these decisions.  In analyzing the enacted social studies curriculum I draw upon Newmann’s (1990) concept of classroom thoughtfulness.  Newmann developed the concept of classroom thoughtfulness to describe general qualities of classroom interaction that promoted higher order thinking in social studies, and although he had high school social studies in mind, Brophy (1990) has noted the relevance of Newmann’s ideas for elementary social studies.  The concept of classroom thoughtfulness matched the goals and purposes for social studies articulated by both teachers and evident in classroom practice, and I utilize the observational dimensions of teacher and student behavior identified by Newmann as indicators of classroom thoughtfulness in my analysis.  The purpose of this analysis is twofold: to demonstrate the value of social studies in these two classrooms in supporting and promoting student thinking, and to show how classroom thoughtfulness was curtailed, constrained, or abandoned as these teachers managed teaching dilemmas in social studies that resulted from state testing in language arts and mathematics.  I conclude this paper by arguing that high stakes state-level testing in language arts and mathematics is squeezing opportunities for classroom thoughtfulness from the social studies curriculum, particularly in schools serving poor students and students of color.


Dusty Valley Elementary is a Title I elementary school, located in a poor, rural community in the Inland Empire, an area in Southern California encompassing Riverside and San Bernardino counties.1Dusty Valley Elementary opened in the mid 1990s as a collection of portable classrooms serving approximately 750 students, squeezed onto a site of less than two acres.  By 2000, there was a permanent school, built next to the original site, although during this research project it was still an overcrowded school with approximately 1000 students.  Students were poor, with over 80% qualifying for free- or reduced-price lunches (Dusty Valley also provided a free breakfast to students each morning).  Almost 75% of the students were Latino, many recent arrivals to the United States or first-generation US citizens.  Just over 50% of students were English language learners.  The remaining students were split almost evenly between African-Americans (African-Americans had been part of the local community for many years) and White students.  The principal, Mr. Mendez, was Latino, as were approximately 20% of the teachers, almost all who taught in the primary grades, and virtually all of the staff at the school.  The assistant principal, Mr. Washington, was African-American, as were a handful of teachers, while the majority of teachers at Dusty Valley were White.

A low-performing school when state testing began, with an API in the low 400s, Dusty Valley’s students’ scores improved enough in the first year of state testing to earn their school additional funds and their teachers a cash reward from the state.  Students consistently improved their scores in each round of state testing, regularly exceeding the target for future improvement set by the state, and in 2002, Dusty Valley was rated 10 out of 10 when ranked with similar schools.  Students’ performance on state testing in spring 2003 again exceeded the state’s target for future improvement and resulted in an API in the high 600s.  While Dusty Valley's API had yet to reach the state target of 800, it was seen as a successful school by district and county administrators, as students continued to improve each year on state testing in language arts and mathematics.

The overall study involved the investigation of social studies curriculum and instruction in three teachers' classrooms.  Data collection consisted of observation and videotaping of classroom lessons and activities in social studies during the 2002–2003 school year in three teachers’ classrooms, interviews with teachers, students, and the principal of Dusty Valley, and the collection and analysis of student work and curricular materials.  The original study design included four teachers, two at fourth grade and two at fifth grade.  I sought out fourth- and fifth-grade teachers who were respected by their colleagues and recognized as good teachers by administrators and their fellow teachers.  This led to the identification of two fourth-grade teachers, Mrs. Thomas and Mrs. Shelly, and two fifth-grade teachers, Mrs. Matthews and Mrs. Knight.  Mrs. Thomas and Mrs. Matthews happened to teach the fourth-grade and fifth-grade Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) students, respectively, while Mrs. Shelly taught the fourth-grade ELL students and Mrs. Knight taught the "regular" fifth-grade students.2 Mrs. Thomas and Mrs. Shelly jointly developed their year plan for social studies, met regularly throughout the year to discuss and develop lessons and activities for social studies, and occasionally team-taught social studies to their students.  Mrs. Matthews and Mrs. Knight also jointly developed their year plan for social studies, but they did not meet to discuss or develop specific lessons or activities for social studies, nor did they ever team-teach social studies to their students.  As the research progressed I was forced to eliminate Mrs. Shelly from the study due to scheduling difficulties.3 Data collection, therefore, was conducted throughout the 2002–2003 school year in one fourth grade classroom, taught by Mrs. Thomas, and two fifth grade classrooms, taught by Mrs. Matthews and Mrs. Knight.

In this paper, I focus specifically on social studies curriculum and instruction in Mrs. Matthews and Mrs. Thomas’ classrooms only, and interviews with these two teachers.4 There are three reasons for this.  First, both teachers were concerned that their students, being the GATE students, "had better do well," as Mrs. Thomas put it, on the annual exams in language arts and mathematics, and that any drop in their students' scores, even by a few points, would reflect negatively on them.  This "pressure," as they described it, contributed to the privileging of language arts and mathematics over social studies and science in their classrooms.  It also provided a common situation and teaching dilemmas in response to which these teachers adopted very different strategies for preserving social studies instruction in their classrooms.

Secondly, both teachers wanted to convey a body of historical knowledge to their students, but they also wanted to develop their students' understanding of history and supported their students’ interpretation and analysis of U.S. and California history through class discussions, activities, and assignments.  For Mrs. Matthews and Mrs. Thomas, these goals reflected what they had learned in courses on GATE education at a local university.  They both felt it was necessary to provide GATE students with opportunities to "go beyond the concrete" facts of history to engage in "higher level thinking" or "critical thinking," a shared purpose which I characterize below as an interest in promoting classroom thoughtfulness in social studies.

Finally, I have chosen not to include data from Mrs. Knight's classroom because her situation in social studies was very different from Mrs. Thomas and Mrs. Matthews, and the other teachers at Dusty Valley.  In response to reduced instructional time for social studies, Mrs. Knight made time for social studies by eliminating another subject area required by the state, physical education, for the entire school year.  The other teachers were unwilling to do this, and Mrs. Knight recognized the cost of this decision for her students.  Nevertheless, she believed the benefits of social studies outweighed the cost of eliminating physical education, and her decision yielded over twice the instructional time for social studies as compared to Mrs. Matthews and Mrs. Thomas.  As such, Mrs. Knight was often able to avoid, although not entirely, the "squeeze" placed on social studies experienced by other teachers at Dusty Valley.

Mrs. Matthews, a White woman in her late fifties, taught the fifth-grade GATE students at Dusty Valley Elementary.  She had taught for over twenty years, in California and a few other states in the US, at both the elementary and middle school levels.  She held master’s degrees in education and in administration and a certificate in GATE from a local university.  Mrs. Thomas, a White woman in her early forties, taught the fourth-grade GATE students.  She had taught for over ten years at the elementary level, had pursued but not finished a master’s degree in education (interrupted when she moved to California from another state), and was completing coursework for her certificate in GATE during my research.  Like Mrs. Matthews, Mrs. Thomas had teaching experience outside California.  Neither Mrs. Matthews nor Mrs. Thomas were history or social studies content specialists, but taught all subject areas (at least those that were taught at Dusty Valley) to their students.

Over the ten-month school year, I observed virtually all the lessons on US history taught by Mrs. Matthews (32 lessons total) 5 and virtually all the lessons on California history in Mrs. Thomas’ classroom, except those during a unit on California geography (27 lessons total).6Field notes focused primarily on teacher-student interactions, classroom discourse, especially in regards to the representation and narration of people and events in California and US history, and the use of material cultural forms, for example, textbooks, historical fiction, documentary films, to represent historical figures and events.  Formal interviews with teachers focused on their goals and objectives in social studies, their development of curriculum and instructional choices, and their views of Dusty Valley, its students, and the surrounding community.  These interviews were supplemented by regular, informal conversations with teachers before and after class or during lunch or recess, about what I was observing and experiencing in their classrooms.  Comments concerning the pressures of state testing and the lack of time for social studies were brought up by teachers in both the formal interviews and our informal conversations.

My analysis is based on the coding of my field notes and analysis of transcripts of classroom lessons and activities, and teacher interviews.  For this paper, I was particularly interested in documenting typical and atypical practices in these classrooms, and then in understanding the various influences on these practices.  What emerged was a story of two teachers struggling to present their students with what they viewed as meaningful and valuable curriculum and instruction in social studies, but with very little time in which to do this due to the emphasis on language arts and mathematics instruction.  Despite each teacher’s best effort to consistently promote student thinking in social studies, classroom thoughtfulness was often constrained, curtailed, or abandoned due their management of teaching dilemmas in social studies.


There are few definitive answers regarding the effects of state-mandated standardized testing on teachers’ practice.  For every argument that state-level tests have little effect on curriculum and instruction (Cohen & Barnes, 1993; Firestone, Mayrowetz, & Fairman, 1998) there are others who argue that these examinations have definite effects on curriculum and instruction in classrooms (Heubert & Hauser, 1999; Popham, 1998; Shanker, 1995; Smith & O’Day, 1991).  Some recent observational studies argue that high stakes state-level testing has specific and significant effects on curriculum and instruction (Dorgan, 2004; McNeil, 2000), while other studies argue that the effects are neither deep nor direct (Grant, 2001; Grant, Gradwell, Lauricella, Derme-Insinna, Pullano, & Tzetzo, 2002).  However, a number of recent studies have shown that state testing in language arts and mathematics at the elementary level has resulted in reduced instructional time for subject areas not tested by the state.

Dorgan (2004) found that state testing in mathematics in Virginia lead to an increase in instructional time in mathematics and a decrease in instructional time in others areas of the curriculum. Diamond & Spillane (2004) found that teachers in high and low performing schools reduced science instruction at least partially in response to high stakes testing in language arts and mathematics. Sandholtz, Ogawa, and Scribner (2004) found a similar pattern of “curriculum restriction” in the school district they studied.  Surveying a random sample of 1000 Colorado teachers, Taylor, Shepard, Kinner, and Rosenthal (2003) found that state testing led to a reduction in the amount of instructional time spent on social studies as teachers spent more time on language arts and mathematics.  Similarly, a study conducted by the Council for Basic Education on the implementation of NCLB found that instructional time for reading, writing, and mathematics increased while at the same time instructional time for social studies, particularly at elementary schools serving minority students, decreased, often dramatically (Von Zastrow & Janc, 2004).  Finally, a study of social studies instruction in elementary classrooms in Indiana found that social studies was becoming increasingly marginalized in the curriculum as teachers devoted more time to subject areas tested by the state, math and language arts (VanFossen, 2005).

A similar pattern of curriculum restriction was evident at Dusty Valley Elementary.  In contrast to other low performing elementary schools serving poor students and students of color—and half the elementary schools in the district Dusty Valley belonged to—teachers and administrators unanimously agreed they could not eliminate social studies (or science) from the curriculum.  However, agreeing to preserve social studies in the curriculum did not address the problem of finding the time to teach social studies, especially as time and resources were directed towards supporting and improving student learning in language arts and mathematics.

Privileging language arts and mathematics at Dusty Valley

Teachers and administrators at Dusty Valley Elementary were preoccupied with state testing in language arts and mathematics, and the necessity that student scores continue to rise each year on state examinations.  This resulted in the privileging of language arts and mathematics over other subject areas in the curriculum, and the focusing of time, resources, and the attention of teachers and administrators on these two subject areas and away from subjects not tested by the state.7 Mr. Mendez characterized the situation Dusty Valley faced as a low-performing school in the state's new accountability system as akin to treating a trauma patient:

We saw right away there was so, there was so, it was like a trauma and the patient was bleeding in all kinds of ways.  We tried stopping every wound, we realized it was too much.  So part of the development of us was that we realized we were doing too much.  We were trying to uh, answer and respond to every situation when we realized okay, let's slow down.  We can't do it all, so let's try to affect the major wounds: reading, writing, mathematics (Interview, May 2003).

In response to the new accountability system, specifically, students' scores on annual examinations in language arts and mathematics used to compare and rank the performance of schools throughout California, administrators and teachers at Dusty Valley decided to focus their efforts on improving instruction in language arts and mathematics.  Although social studies and science instruction continued at Dusty Valley, they took a "back seat," as Mr. Mendez put it, to language arts and mathematics.  In terms of instructional time, it was decided that the first two hours of every day would be “sacred time” devoted specifically to language arts, when students were fresh, followed by at least one hour of math instruction.  Most teachers provided more than one hour of math instruction per day, and both Mrs. Thomas and Mrs. Matthews provided one hour and twenty minutes of math instruction per day.  In Mrs. Thomas' and Mrs. Matthews' classrooms this meant the entire morning was devoted to language arts and mathematics.  Accounting for the morning pledge, attendance, other business, and recess and lunch, this left at most one hour and forty minutes per day in which to teach social studies, science, physical education, music, art, and more language arts in the afternoon.8

While social studies and science were preserved in the curriculum, music and art did not fare as well. Music instruction continued, taught by a roving music teacher, but occurred for only one-half hour every other week, and focused on teaching students about rhythm, melody, harmony, tempo, and the like.  Art instruction occurred only as part of the after-school program, except in the third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade GATE classes, where it was taught for one to two hours each week from October through February by a visiting artist, the result of a county grant secured by Dusty Valley.  Mr. Mendez had hoped to support art instruction in the after-school program with this grant, but once it was awarded he discovered that this grant required that art be taught in at least a few classrooms during the school day.  In response, Mr. Mendez decided that if any students could afford to lose instructional time in language arts and mathematics to make room for art, it was the GATE students.  For the remainder of the students at Dusty Valley, art—and science enrichment—occurred during the second hour of the after-school program.  To attend the second hour, students were required to attend the first hour, which consisted of one-half hour of language arts and one-half hour of mathematics instruction.  The final one-half hour of the two-and-a-half hour after-school program involved helping students with their homework, typically in language arts and mathematics.

Disruptions to this schedule, whether due to field trips, school assemblies, or some other unforeseen occurrence, reduced or eliminated instructional time in social studies or science, never in language arts or mathematics.  Mrs. Thomas commented on this when I asked her why she was completing her unit on the California Gold Rush during the final week of instruction in May when she had planned to teach and finish the unit in April.

Mrs. Thomas: Because there are all kinds of things that interfere, you know?  There are things, suddenly we had to do, we went to we had a workshop in, you know February or March on a writing style, Step Up To Writing.  And suddenly we were required to use that in our classroom and teach it. . . . And then you have to take time from something and so, you know, social studies and science are the ones that get moved around.  And if we have an assembly or if there's a field trip or that you know, things just happen.  All of a sudden we're reminded that we have to teach the health unit.  Well, you know, when are you gonna do that?  Science and social studies.  So those things just get kind of moved around and,

Researcher: And that's because?

Mrs. Thomas: Because the math and reading are on the test.  And you wanna make sure you hit those and hit those strong.

That language arts and mathematics trumped other subject areas was made clear to me seven months into my research.  In March, returning after spring break, Mrs. Matthews informed me that she would no longer be teaching social studies until after state testing was completed in late April.  Teachers had received the results of two tests, one in mathematics (Standards-based Assessment in Mathematics, SAM) and one in language arts (Standards-based Assessment in Language Learning and Instruction, SALLI), and the fifth-grade students had not done nearly as well as expected.  These tests were used at Dusty Valley to judge how prepared students were for state testing, and Mrs. Matthews, as did most other teachers, immediately eliminated social studies and science instruction entirely to concentrate exclusively on mathematics and language arts until state and district testing was completed.

In addition to instructional time, other resources were directed towards supporting language arts and mathematics.  There was a seemingly constant barrage of workshops, programs, and other professional development opportunities for teachers throughout the year, all directed at improving teaching and learning in language arts and mathematics.  Teachers attended a workshop on Step Up To Writing, a program meant to improve student writing in language arts.  Representatives from the publishers of the language arts and mathematics textbook series used at Dusty Valley provided workshops for teachers on using these materials.  This is not unusual, and in fact the language arts series was brand new, and the math series had been introduced the previous year.  However, the science textbook series was also new the previous year, yet teachers were offered no workshops to assist them in using these materials to teach science to their students.  Due to the large population of ELL students at Dusty Valley, all teachers received training in Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English (SDAIE), an instructional approach used to make curricular content comprehensible to students whose first language is not English.  While SDAIE is useful in making the content of any subject area comprehensible to ELL students, the training teachers received focused specifically on using SDAIE strategies in language arts and mathematics.

In contrast to these and other professional development efforts directed towards language arts and mathematics, the situation in social studies might best be characterized as “benign neglect;” necessary, according to Mr. Mendez, until student deficiencies in language arts and mathematics had been addressed, a view apparently shared by district administrators.

Now social studies, we've not done a good job in our district.  We have still the same textbooks since ‘91, so we are way behind.  But again, I think their [district administrators’] thinking was like mine, we need to focus on the language arts and math and then, so that [social studies] did take a back seat.  There's no doubt about it (Interview, May 2003).

Finally, the attention of administrators and teachers was constantly focused on language arts and mathematics, due to the annual state examinations in these subject areas, which Mrs. Thomas viewed as a significant change from the past.

It [Dusty Valley's API score] didn't seem to be the focus of the whole year.  Not every staff meeting was around it and how we are going to improve it and this will help us and da ta da.  But subsequently it has been.  Beginning of the school year always starts with at least the first or second meeting the API things go up there.  You know the composite scores for the fourth grade will go up there and all the different levels.  We'll have discussions about did they go up did they go down, what are we doing different what should we be doing?  What's the problem?  He's (Mr. Mendez) had individual discussions with teachers in meetings and, it's become a big pressure that you better do well.

Throughout the year, staff meetings focused on analyzing data from state examinations and additional assessments in language arts and mathematics utilized at Dusty Valley, examining student performance at each grade level as well as comparisons of individual classrooms at each grade level.  In addition to staff meetings Mr. Mendez met regularly with individual teachers to discuss the performance of individual students on specific test items.  The examination of test data in both staff and individual meetings was used to try to figure out why students were having difficulties learning specific information or skills.  Based on these discussions, teachers and administrators generated curricular and instructional changes that they believed would improve student learning, including targeting instruction to specific students who lacked particular knowledge or skills necessary for success on state examinations.  As Mr. Mendez shared in an interview, he now spent much of his time analyzing the testing data to understand what they are and are not doing to help their students succeed on annual state examinations.  While he was concerned that the focus on testing not lead to focusing solely on test scores or teaching to the test, the bottom line was that students’ scores on annual examinations must continually rise to meet the annual targets for improvement set by the state.  Although improving yearly, Dusty Valley Elementary was still a low-performing school, more than 100 points below the target API of 800 for all California schools.

It was within this context that teachers faced a teaching dilemma in social studies, a subject area, like science, that was being squeezed from the elementary curriculum: there was little time within the school day or school year in which to teach social studies (and science and physical education).  Teachers were expected to continue teaching social studies, and in fact teachers had argued against eliminating social studies when discussing possible responses to the new accountability system.  Even Mr. Mendez, himself a secondary social studies teacher before becoming an administrator, supported the continuation of social studies in the curriculum.  However, he left it up to individual teachers to decide how often social studies would be taught and for how long, and to decide the content of their curriculum and the instructional methods they would employ.  While this decision respected and recognized the professional expertise and judgment of individual teachers, it did not address the dilemma of not having adequate time for social studies instruction, a situation that created teaching dilemmas for Mrs. Matthews and Mrs. Thomas in social studies.


One perennial problem with social studies instruction, and why many students seem to find social studies boring and irrelevant, is that it often demands only lower order thinking.  Students are asked to memorize names, dates, and facts from a textbook and to reproduce this information on worksheets and multiple choice, true/false, or short answer tests.  Instruction involves teacher delivery of information through lecture to relatively passive students who are expected to copy down this information to study in preparation for future tests.  Rarely are students asked to interpret or analyze the knowledge they are acquiring, or apply this information to a question or problem connected to their lives, important social or political issues, or contemporary events.  As Newmann has noted, the problem in social studies, and schooling in general, is “the profound absence of thoughtfulness in U.S. classrooms" (1990, p. 44).  Concerned with identifying the factors that influence the promotion of higher order thinking in classrooms, Newmann (1990) put forth a general conceptual framework for the empirical study of the teaching of thinking in social studies.  Resisting specialized taxonomies of types of thinking or specific intellectual skills, he proposed a broad conception of efforts to promote thinking in social studies, classroom thoughtfulness.  Examining patterns of discourse in classrooms allows for the identification of general qualities of classroom interaction, which indicate the presence or absence of classroom thoughtfulness.

Providing a thoughtful social studies curriculum was a central purpose for Mrs. Matthews and Mrs. Thomas, a purpose that reflected their aims in all subject areas.  Neither Mrs. Matthews nor Mrs. Thomas was a subject matter specialist in history or social studies, not uncommon among elementary teachers in California.  Mrs. Matthews saw her strengths in math—she was in fact a middle school math teacher for a time—while Mrs. Thomas' strengths were in science.  It may be because of their background that when discussing their goals and purposes in social studies neither teacher's talk reflected a deep connection to debates in the field over the nature and purpose of social studies (Brophy & VanSledright, 1997; Hursh & Ross, 2000; Marker & Mehlinger, 1992; Ross, 2001; Thornton, 1994).  Neither teacher mentioned citizenship education, for example, as an important purpose, the one aim for which there is widespread agreement in the field in spite of a lack of consensus regarding what this means or what curriculum and instruction for citizenship might look like (Hursh & Ross, 2000; Marker & Mehlinger, 1992; Ross, 2001).

Instead, both teachers approached social studies as GATE teachers.  They wanted to convey a specific body of knowledge to their students in social studies, but they also desired to deepen their students' understanding of history by providing regular opportunities for their students to analyze, manipulate, and apply the knowledge they were acquiring.  As Mrs. Matthews' noted, because she had the GATE class it was necessary to go beyond the "concrete" of historical names, dates, and facts in lessons to engage students in discussions and activities that promoted higher level thinking.  Similarly, Mrs. Thomas noted that she tried to incorporate regular opportunities for student thinking into her curriculum because simply learning facts and then "regurgitating" those facts on tests did not support student learning.

As such, there were two central purposes for teaching social studies for Mrs. Matthews and Mrs. Thomas. First, both teachers wanted to provide their students with a body of knowledge of US history and California history.  For Mrs. Matthews this was the “academics” of social studies, and imparting this knowledge to her students was important for their future academic success, since in California students repeat much of this history again in eighth grade.  Mrs. Matthews hoped that by covering the survey of US history in students’ textbooks, students would at least be “familiar” with this history when they encountered it again in middle school.  Providing her students with knowledge of California history was also a central purpose for Mrs. Thomas, not to support students’ future academic success, but to provide a history in which her students, many of Mexican descent, could see the role played by their ancestors in California’s past.

For Mrs. Matthews, content coverage involved questioning her students about the material they had read in their textbook, guided by study sheets students completed for each chapter that they would then study in preparation for chapter tests.  Not surprisingly, the structure of teacher-student talk in her classroom often took the form of the familiar IRE sequence, or recitation (Drew & Heritage, 1992; Mehan, 1979; see also Gutierrez, Larson & Kreuter, 1995, and Nystrand, 1997, on “monologic” instruction).  In Mrs. Thomas’ classroom, content coverage involved teacher-led discussions of classroom texts (which were always read in class, either aloud after Mrs. Thomas called on students to read or silently at their desks) and teacher lecture.  For some readers, these forms of instruction may represent anything but good teaching, as they can displace student knowledge and silence student voices as teachers and students become focused on arriving at the correct, i.e., the teacher’s or the textbook’s, account of history.  This in fact was at times an unintended consequence of Mrs. Matthews’ management of teaching dilemmas in social studies, discussed below, which contradicted her desire to help students know and understand the history of the United States, but was less evident in Mrs. Thomas’ classroom.

For Mrs. Matthews and Mrs. Thomas, however, the significance of conveying a body of knowledge to their students was that it provided the foundation for the real work of social studies.  For both teachers, the other purpose of social studies was in providing opportunities for students to think about and to think with the historical information they were learning.  Both teachers rejected what Mrs. Thomas defined as the simple regurgitation of facts on worksheets and tests, which did not promote the higher level thinking appropriate for GATE students nor, as Mrs. Matthews noted, did it help students to see how what they were learning was relevant to their lives.  Social studies practice in these classrooms included open-ended discussions in which students drew upon their knowledge and experiences to articulate a position on a specific topic or issue, or in applying their knowledge of history to various projects or other activities.

One purpose of Newmann's (1990) development of a conceptual framework for the empirical study of classroom thoughtfulness was to understand the factors that influence the promotion of higher order thinking in classrooms.  One factor that influenced the realization of a thoughtful social studies curriculum in Mrs. Matthews' and Mrs. Thomas' classrooms was their management of teaching dilemmas in social studies.  Teaching dilemmas are present in all teaching, regardless of subject matter.  Issues such as time management, curricular design, content coverage, classroom authority, and district or state policy can come into conflict in classrooms, requiring teachers to negotiate or manage competing demands as they develop curriculum and make instructional choices (Cuban, 1992; Jackson, 1986; Rosenholtz, 1987, 1989; VanSledright & Grant, 1994).

In their study of citizenship education in three elementary teachers’ classrooms, VanSledright & Grant (1994) argued that citizenship education opportunities encountered by students were shaped by the specific classroom teaching dilemmas that individual teachers had to negotiate or manage.  In their case study, teacher practice—specific approaches to citizenship education—varied according to how each teacher negotiated specific classroom teaching dilemmas in social studies.  For one teacher these teaching dilemmas manifested as a tension between content coverage, her desire to delve more deeply into the citizenship themes raised by their study of history, and time constraints.  In managing these dilemmas, this teacher was often forced to curtail interesting discussions with clear citizenship implications to make sure she covered the content mandated by district policy within the time she had available for teaching history.  VanSledright and Grant’s study demonstrated how individual teacher's varying strategies for managing similar teaching dilemmas could have very different results for the enacted curriculum.

In the analysis that follows, I am concerned with variations in classroom thoughtfulness, as evident in classroom discourse in excerpts of social studies lessons from each teacher’s classroom.  In analyzing these variations and drawing upon my interviews and informal conversations with both teachers, I argue that the presence or absence of classroom thoughtfulness in social studies was a product of each teacher’s management of teaching dilemmas. I draw upon Newmann's (1990) work on classroom thoughtfulness to analyze the quality and character of the enacted social studies curriculum in Mrs. Matthews' and Mrs. Thomas' classrooms.  According to Newmann, classroom thoughtfulness reflects an effort to "engage students in what we predict will be challenging problems, guide their manipulation of information to solve them, and support their efforts" (1990, p. 45, emphasis in original).  Newmann identified seventeen observational dimensions that refer to general characteristics of lessons and teacher and student behavior that indicate the presence or absence of classroom thoughtfulness:

1. There was sustained examination of a few topics rather than superficial coverage of many.

2. The lesson displayed substantive coherence and continuity.

3. Students were given an appropriate amount of time to think, that is, to prepare responses to questions.

4. The teacher asked challenging questions and/or structured challenging tasks.

5. The teacher carefully considered explanations and reasons for conclusions.

6. The teacher pressed individual students to justify or to clarify their assertions in a Socratic manner.

7. The teacher encouraged students to generate original and unconventional ideas, explanations, or solutions to problems.

8. The teacher showed an awareness that not all assertions emanating from authoritative sources are absolute or certain.

9. Students’ personal experiences (where relevant) were integrated into the lesson.

10. The teacher was a model of thoughtfulness.

11. Students offered explanations and reasons for their conclusions.

12. Students generated original and unconventional ideas, explanations, hypotheses, or solutions to problems.

13. Students assumed the roles of questioner and critic.

14. Student contributions were articulate, germane to the topic, and connected to prior discussion.

15. Many students participated verbally in the lesson.

16. Significant time was spent with students engaged in thoughtful discourse with one another.

17. Many students demonstrated genuine involvement and engagement in the topics discussed. (1990, pp. 50–53).

My purpose in the following analysis is not to evaluate each lesson excerpt against every possible dimension of classroom thoughtfulness, but to use Newmann's framework to analyze more generally the presence and absence of student thinking in lessons.  I then go on to explain these variations in light of each teacher's management of teaching dilemmas in social studies, teaching dilemmas that arose due to state testing in language arts and mathematics.


Well I think I definitely want them to uh, be able to read informational texts and determine what is important and what they should remember.  That's kind of like the academics of it.  Um, I really want them to see the relevance of social studies to their lives and that's the part that I really enjoy doing.  You know, so this happened in the past do we see any, anything today that relates or is similar to what happened in those times and what can we learn from that?  And I think um, I get that from some of the discussion that we're having here. I just wish that I could devote more time to that and less time on actual textual things. It's the social ramifications of what happens in history that I think, um, it is those things that are important to these kids.  Especially now that we're facing war in Iraq you know?  I just wish I had more time to do that kind of thing with these students, but again you know they need to know what happened in the battles of the Revolutionary War, some of the names certainly (Mrs. Matthews, Interview, February 2003).

In discussing her goals, purposes, and curriculum and instruction in social studies, Mrs. Matthews expressed her desire to provide a social studies curriculum that was relevant to students, in terms of its significance or connection to her students' lives or to current events.  She believed U.S. history held important lessons for her students and she tried to explore the relevance of history regularly in social studies.  At the same time, Mrs. Matthews also noted the importance of conveying a specific body of knowledge that she believed students needed to know, such as specific names, dates, and important events in U.S. history.  Her discussion of her goals and purposes in social studies were always framed by her lament regarding inadequate time, particularly in regards to having enough time for thoughtful, relevant discussions of history.  Finding the time to teach social studies, science, and physical education—and to do those subject areas justice—required a "balancing act" that left her feeling like she was "on a treadmill," always struggling to keep up.

I just feel that there isn't enough time allotted in the framework of a day or a week to do social studies and science justice.  If I had the time, I could see where you could really expand upon it.  But with all the time they're requiring us to do language arts, and the emphasis on reading and math, and the state tests, you know I just feel that I don't go into it as thoroughly as I would (Interview, February 2003).

The primary teaching dilemma in social studies for teachers at Dusty Valley was the dilemma of time; how will I find the time (or make the time) for social studies, and how much time am I willing to dedicate to social studies (and therefore not to other subject areas)? Mrs. Matthews scheduled social studies twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, for thirty to thirty-five minutes (and scheduled science on Tuesdays and Fridays at the same time for thirty to thirty-five minutes).  With at most seventy minutes per week for social studies (but often much less in practice),9 Mrs. Matthews struggled to balance covering the content of U.S. history she thought her students needed to know while providing regular opportunities for thoughtful, relevant discussions.

Mrs. Matthews believed strongly, as did the other fifth-grade teachers, that her students' future academic success depended upon them entering middle school not only able to read and write, but also with the requisite content knowledge of specific subjects.  To ensure the future success of her students in eighth-grade U.S. history, she felt an obligation to provide them with a complete history of the United States.  Based on these convictions, Mrs. Matthews, planning with Mrs. Knight, developed a year plan for social studies that presented the survey of U.S. history specified by state content standards and reflected in the content of students' textbooks, which began in 2000 BC and ended in 1865 and the Civil War.

Early in the school year, this seemed like a wise decision, as Mrs. Matthews was able to engage her students in thoughtful discussions of the knowledge they were acquiring while also having adequate time to cover sufficient content according to her year plan in social studies.  However, by October Mrs. Matthews discovered that she was an entire chapter behind Mrs. Knight in social studies.10 This was the beginning of a perpetual "race to catch up" in social studies for the remainder of the school year, as Mrs. Matthews managed competing demands of content coverage, the promotion of students' higher level thinking, and limited time for social studies, through curricular and instructional changes.  In spite of her management of these teaching dilemmas, opportunities for classroom thoughtfulness were increasingly squeezed from social studies as content coverage became privileged over thoughtful, relevant discussions.

Classroom thoughtfulness in social studies in Mrs. Matthews' classroom

Early on in the school year, Mrs. Matthews was able to enact a social studies curriculum that supported students' acquisition of a body of historical knowledge while also providing opportunities for students to think about and think with that body of historical knowledge, discussions that exhibited classroom thoughtfulness as conceptualized by Newmann (1990).

Beginning a lesson on geography early in the school year, Mrs. Matthews' asked students to consider if there might be some relationship between their list of physical features (rivers, lakes, landforms, and climate) and their list of cultural features (language, food, home, clothing) based on the material in their textbooks.

[1] Mrs. Matthews: We’ve listed all these features.  I want you to take a look at the list of the physical features [rivers, lakes, landforms, climate] and the list of the cultural features [language, food, home, clothing].  You should have them right beside each other on your study sheet right?  Do you see any relationship between the two lists?  Do you see how one might be dependent on another?  Or how one might affect the other?  Okay, who can give me one relationship they see?  Rosa?

[2] Rosa: Like with your clothing the climate like if it’s cold you’d put like, um a lot of warm clothes on.

[3] Mrs. Matthews: And vice versa if it was hot you wouldn’t want to wear a wool jacket would you?  Excellent.  Good connection between geography and culture.  She did the clothing, who can do another relationship?  Madison?

[4] Madison: Um food, and land forms.

[5] Mrs. Matthews: Food and land forms how do you see a connection there?

[6] Madison: ‘Cause food grows on the land?

[7] Mrs. Matthews: Alright and can you give me an example?  Remember we’re always looking for examples.  [5 second wait]  Think of our America the Beautiful song.  What did we learn that grows on the plains?

[8] Tyler: Grains.

[9] Mrs. Matthews: Grains.  We don’t see many grain fields in California at least in southern California do we?  We don’t have the soil that’s conducive to growing grain here.  So definitely our food source as far as geography is very dependent on geography.  Yes?

[10] Tyler: Um well I was thinking that homes and landforms would go together and food and lakes would go together, because if you lived by a lake then you’re gonna go fishing when you want food.

[11] Mrs. Matthews: Exactly.  And boys and girls if and when you travel be observant of the different kinds of homes and shelter that people live in.  And not only that, but different crops you see growing as you go through the countryside. It varies again depending on the landforms.  Any other relationships you see between the two?

[12] Kenny: Everything depends on everything [some students talking as Kenny says this]

[13] Mrs. Matthews: And Kenny what did you say I thought that was a very good observation, but let’s wait until we can all hear it.

[14] Kenny: Everything depends on everything.

[15] Mrs. Matthews: What about that boys and girls?  Are all of them interrelated?

[16] Hank: In some way.

[17] Mrs. Matthews: In some way.  Well let’s look at that.  Let’s just take time to look over the list to look at both lists.  Do you see any two things or items on those lists that aren’t related in some way?

For twelve minutes out of a thirty-five minute lesson, Mrs. Matthews and her students considered the relationship between geography and culture.  Rosa and Tyler identified specific relationships between climate and clothing [line 2] and lakes and food [line 10], and then Kenny proposed that "everything depends on everything" [lines 12 and 14], a "very good observation" according to Mrs. Matthews [line 13].  She rephrased Kenny's proposition by asking the students if "all of them are interrelated?" [line 15] and suggested they "take time" to look over their lists and pursue this question [line 17].

Consideration of this proposition led students to identify additional relationships between physical and cultural features, including how geography and landforms can affect the distribution of languages and cultures, and how differences in natural resources can influence the clothing people wear.  Mrs. Matthews noted that their textbook talked about the movement of people and changing the environment, and asked her students "Do people change the environment?" In response, students drew upon their knowledge of local environmental changes, such as the cutting down of local orange groves, and global environmental changes, such as the effects of logging in South America on the animals that live in the rainforest, to argue that people do change the environment.  Finally, Mrs. Matthews had students close their eyes and imagine how the county might have looked in 1780, then think about what they saw today, and then she asked "Have we affected geography?"  Students concluded the discussion by noting that the land had been cleared for farms and roads, that transportation in general had changed, and that there were stores and malls where once there was open land. Satisfied with their discussion, Mrs. Matthews turned to the next lesson in students' textbooks, on regions of the United States.  For the remainder of the lesson they read and discussed the material in the textbook, Mrs. Matthews asking questions based on the reading and discussing the maps and illustrations in the chapter lesson as students added information to their chapter study sheets.

This was typical social studies practice in Mrs. Matthews' classroom in the beginning of the school year.  One focus was on content coverage, reading and discussing the material in students' textbooks to help them fill in their chapter study sheets, which students studied in preparation for chapter tests.  The second focus was on promoting students' higher level thinking and deepening their understanding of what they were learning in thoughtful discussions.  Mrs. Matthews felt she had ample time to pursue both of these purposes, and so there was no rush to conclude this discussion.

The quality of teacher-student discourse in the discussion of physical and cultural features reflected many of the observational dimensions that Newmann (1990) identified as indicators of classroom thoughtfulness.  While one can argue over whether this was a sustained examination of this topic, this discussion was substantively coherent, pulling together students' knowledge of physical and cultural features to consider the relationship between geography and culture.  Mrs. Matthews' questions were challenging, in that they asked students to use their prior knowledge to generate new knowledge, rather than merely reproducing the knowledge from their textbooks on their charts of physical and cultural features.  Mrs. Matthews considered students' responses, pressed individual students to clarify their responses when necessary [Madison, line 6], and encouraged students to generate original ideas by pursuing important student insights, such as Kenny's hypothesis that "everything depends on everything."  In response to Mrs. Matthews' questions, students proposed and explained specific relationships between physical and cultural features, drew on their personal knowledge to indicate how people change the environment, and how people have affected the local geography over time.  Overall, student comments reflected students who were not simply repeating information gleaned from their textbooks, which would indicate lower order thinking, but using their prior knowledge to answer the challenging questions Mrs. Matthews put before them.

Managing the tension between classroom thoughtfulness, content coverage, and time constraints

A discussion of the Bill of Rights some months later demonstrated how the increasing tension between classroom thoughtfulness, content coverage, and time constraints led to the privileging of content coverage and the curtailment or, as evident in this lesson, the abandonment of attempts to promote student thinking.

Mrs. Matthews believed that the study of the Constitution was an important topic that held valuable lessons for her students, and she wanted to explore the relevance of the Bill of Rights in her students' lives and contemporary U.S. society.  She used a critical thinking question suggested in the teacher’s edition of the students’ textbook, America Will Be (Armento, Nash, Salter, & Wixso, 1991, p. 303), to explore the relevance of the Bill of Rights to her students' lives and current events in a thoughtful discussion of the first ten amendments.  Students had read the information on the Bill of Rights in their textbooks, discussed in small groups how the Bill of Rights affected their lives today, and had written down their observations in preparation for the day’s discussion.  After a brief introduction, Mrs. Matthews asked Allison to read the first amendment from her textbook, and after Allison had some difficulty with some of the words ("abridging," peaceably," "redress," "grievances") Mrs. Matthews noted that in the right margin, the textbook provided a translation of each amendment.  Mrs. Matthews then called upon Jenny to share her response to the day's question, “How does the Bill of Rights, or the first ten amendments, affect our lives today?” which students had already discussed in small groups and written about on their study sheets.

[1] Jenny: The first amendment affects ours lives today because—uh by (unintelligible) people and it protects our freedom.  Well I think because, they can do what they want.  And, they're not um like, they have to do this.

[2] Mrs. Matthews: So you're saying the first amendment gives us the freedom to do as we choose?

[3] Jenny: Ya.

[4] Mrs. Matthews: Everyone agree with that? [couple of students begin talking all at once; Mrs. Matthews calls on Gavin]. Gavin?

[5] Gavin: The first amendment allows us that we could speak out and we could live our own religion.

[6] Mrs. Matthews: Okay.  We could choose our own religion and we have the right to speak out.  Someone added—we need to think about this boys and girls.  Does the first amendment give us the right to do anything we choose?

[7] Students: No.

[8] Mrs. Matthews: What did you say Hank?

[9] Hank: I said as long as it's not against the law [bell goes off here, so Hank repeats his comment].  As long as it's not against the law.

[10] Mrs. Matthews: Exactly.  We need to stay within the confines of the law, and so that is important.  So, Gavin has said it gives us freedom of religion.  So how does that affect our lives today?

[11] Hank: It allows us to believe in different things.

[12] Mrs. Matthews: Alright.  We don’t all go to the same church, do we? [some "nos" from the students] We all have, does someone tell you, other than your parents, where you need to go to church if you go to church? [a few "nos" from the students] No.  When you get to be an adult will you be able to choose where you wanna go to church, what faith you want to be, et cetera?  Alright.  And, um, what was that other right you said?  Freedom of religion?

[13] Gavin: That we could also speak out against something.

[14] Mrs. Matthews: We could speak out.  Alright.  And why is that important?  Hank?

[15] Hank: It's uh, like right now, a lot of people are speaking out against the war, with Iraq, because—they're going on strike they're having petitions.  Um, because it says in, it says right here [pointing at the First Amendment in his textbook] you have the right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances.

[16] Mrs. Matthews: Okay and so, we see this right being exercised today don’t we?  Especially on the news when you see people protesting.  As long as those protestors are peaceable are they arrested?

[17] Few students: No.

[18] Mrs. Matthews: No.  You have people who can speak out against the president.  You can have people who speak out against the war, and they're not arrested.

Mrs. Matthews' desire to deepen her students’ understanding of the First Amendment was evident in her questioning and her probing of students’ comments.  When Jenny declared that the First Amendment "protects our freedom" and allows people to "do what they want" [line 1] Mrs. Matthews repeated Jenny's point—"So you're saying the First Amendment gives us the freedom to do as we choose?"—and then asked students if they agreed with Jenny's statement [lines 2 and 4].  This opened the floor to other students, who with Mrs. Matthews' continued probing clarified the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment mentioned by Jenny and noted additional rights.  Hank noted that we could do what we wanted "as long as it's not against the law," a more complex understanding of freedom [line 9].  Gavin added that the First Amendment allows us to "speak out" and "live our own religion" [line 5] two points that Mrs. Matthews built upon and developed in the ensuing discussion by continually questioning and probing her students.  Mrs. Matthews asked why the right to speak out was important [line 14].  Hank responded that "right now, a lot of people are speaking out against the war with Iraq"11 and added "it says right here [pointing at the First Amendment in his textbook] you have the right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances" [line 15].

The discussion continued, with students commenting on the possible coming war with Iraq and whether Saddam Hussein actually had weapons of mass destruction, information gleaned from television and radio news reports.

[22] Richard: Um, it said on the news yesterday that Iraq was preparing for war.

[23] Mrs. Matthews: Well, I think they’re trying to guard against war I mean, we’ve been talking about it long enough.  If they’re not expecting it they’ve had their head in the sand don’t you think?  And so we don’t know what’s going to happen but, but again, what’s great about our nation is that if we don’t agree with it we can speak out against it.  The First Amendment gives us that right.

[24] Melody: But uh, doesn’t that mean that, um, that, that like people who don’t want the war it doesn’t exactly mean that they’re not gonna do it.

[25] Mrs. Matthews: No, no.  It’s just saying we can voice our opinions. Yes?

[26] Tyler: My Mom heard this thing that she heard on the radio that, that the, someone they were saying that it’s just, it’s just like lying about him having all that weaponry to try and scare us.  But he doesn’t really have it.

[27] Mrs. Matthews: You don’t think he really has it?

[28] Tyler: We were just listening to the radio one morning and it said that. [Tyler is speaking very lowly, as he often does, but it is easy to hear him because the room is completely silent as students listen to what other students have to say]

[29] Mrs. Matthews: Well you know we hear all kinds of things on the radio again we have what we call the freedom of press.  So people as soon as they get some news they can uh publish what news they hear. So boys and girls when we are hearing about this war we need to realize that there are two sides. And this amendment gives us the right, we have those who think it’s the right thing to do and we have those who think it’s not the right thing to do.  And so we have the right to express how we feel without being arrested or punished for expressing our views. Which is very important. Okay does anyone have anything else to add to amendment number one?  Okay now remember that’s something that the government cannot take away from us.

In this exchange, students followed up on Hank’s comment on Iraq [line 15] by sharing information that they had recently heard on the television and radio [lines 22, 26, and 28].  These comments may not have been as germane to the topic at hand as Hank’s comment about people speaking out against the war in Iraq.  However, Mrs. Matthews did not dismiss their comments but used them to make an important point about our right to express our opinion and disagree with the opinions of others, without fear of being arrested or punished, guaranteed by the First Amendment [lines 23 and 29].  In addition, it also allowed Mrs. Matthews to clarify the power of the First Amendment to protect speech but not to regulate behavior [lines 24 and 25].

Discussion of the First Amendment lasted approximately six minutes, one-fifth of this thirty-minute lesson.  Consistent with Mrs. Matthews' desire to provide opportunities to promote higher level thinking among her students, her role was to ask clarifying questions and probe student responses, deepening her students' understanding of the First Amendment and its relevance in contemporary U.S. society and her students' lives.  Through uptake (Collins, 1992; Nystrand, 1997), Mrs. Matthews followed up on students' comments and built upon them, underscoring the importance of student comments in the joint production of knowledge and understanding in social studies.  Students had an authentic voice in the enacted curriculum, in that it was their knowledge, their experiences, their sharing of what they had seen and heard in the media about contemporary issues and events, facilitated by Mrs. Matthews, that shaped the knowledge that was produced.  This pattern continued in discussion of subsequent amendments.  Tyler told the class about his mother's use of a BB gun to scare off dogs that attack their horses (Second Amendment), other students made references to the film Double Jeopardy (Fifth Amendment), and Tyler recounted the controversy surrounding the use of a neighbor's private road (Fifth Amendment).

The quality of teacher-student discourse in this discussion of the Bill of Rights reflected many of the observational dimensions that Newmann (1990) identified as indicators of classroom thoughtfulness.  The influence of the Bill of Rights in our lives today was a challenging question, in that it required students to analyze and interpret the meaning of the first ten amendments in relation to their own lives and their knowledge of contemporary U.S. society.  Mrs. Matthews supported students' careful consideration of this question by considering students' comments and pressing individual students to clarify their assertions when she felt they did not adequately represent the meaning of individual amendments, forcing them to think more deeply about the topic at hand.  She integrated students' personal experiences into the discussion when relevant, including their knowledge of current events drawn from the media, and demonstrated her interest in students' ideas by responding to and often building on their observations.

Students were active and engaged in the discussion, either as speakers or as active listeners, quietly listening to and considering the comments of their fellow students.  Students explained how the First Amendment and other amendments were relevant to their lives today, often applying their knowledge of current events or drawing on personal experience, as when Tyler provided an account of the controversy surrounding his neighbor's use of another neighbor's private road.  These contributions were both articulate and in general germane to the topic at hand.  The value of this discussion was that it enabled students to see the relevance of the Bill of Rights in today's society, as well as clarifying individual students' misunderstanding or superficial understanding of specific amendments [lines 1-4, 24-25].

The amount of time spent discussing each of the first five amendments varied, from a high of approximately six minutes for the First Amendment to a little over one minute for the Third Amendment.  This variability was due to the perceived significance of the amendment, its relevance to contemporary society, and the interests and comments of the students.  So, for example, the discussion of the Third Amendment was quite brief, with Mrs. Matthews questioning students as to why this amendment would have come about in the first place, with Hank correctly articulating the issue of the British housing troops in private homes during the Revolutionary War.  Mrs. Matthews and her students agreed that this amendment was not relevant to their lives today, so they were able to quickly move on to the Fourth Amendment.  In comparison, the discussion of the First, Second, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments lasted anywhere from four to six minutes, as students drew upon their personal experiences, made connections to contemporary events, and referenced popular culture, to explain the significance of these amendments to their lives.

The discussion changed dramatically when they reached the Sixth Amendment, however, when Mrs. Matthews realized that they only had a few minutes left before lunch.  In contrast to the first five amendments, the total time spent discussing amendments six through ten was five minutes, as Mrs. Matthews hurried through the remaining material before breaking for lunch.  At this point there was a transformation in this lesson, a shift from discussing how each of the first ten amendments might affect our lives today to quickly checking that students knew the content of amendments six through ten.

The shift in purpose was evident in Mrs. Matthews' transition to the sixth amendment, when she suggested, "Let's just read instead of the exact words so that we can move along a little faster.  Kenny would you read right to a fair trial, the explanation in the margin instead of the actual Sixth Amendment?"  Instead of reading the actual amendment, Mrs. Matthews opted to have Kenny read the "translation" in the margin, which is somewhat shorter and less difficult to read (i.e., less time to read).  This continued for the remainder of the amendments, except for the Seventh Amendment, where neither the amendment nor the translation was read.

[130] Mrs. Matthews: Boys and girls I wanna move on to the Seventh Amendment has to do with, uh, in short what do you have Hank?

[131] Hank: Um, if the case is worth over twenty dollars you have the right to a trial by jury.

[132] Mrs. Matthews: But what is, uh, this isn't a criminal case what is this?

[133] Hank: Oh uh.

[134] Mrs. Matthews: How does this differ from the Sixth?

[135] Hank: Like uh domestic case um, when you're suing someone for something or you're, or you want something.  Or like if you think, people are suing over money, property, or personal injury [this is taken directly from the translation in the margin].

[136] Mrs. Matthews: Exactly.  This would be like what Tyler was saying, someone is using his neighbor's um property and she doesn't feel it's right.  She would perhaps take it to court.  Civil cases.  We have a right to charge someone, if, if they have, if you have if you feel you have a, legitimate reason.  You have a right to bring them to trial.  Okay what about the Eighth Amendment?

This discussion of the Seventh Amendment was different from the discussion of amendments one through five in important ways.  First, Mrs. Matthews' questioning was directed mainly at students' understanding of the amendment, and not at addressing the original critical question, how the first ten amendments affect our lives today (lines 130-135).  In Mrs. Matthews' final comment, she praised Hank, and then instead of opening the floor to students so they could address the critical question, she told students the meaning of this amendment, albeit with reference to Tyler's previous comments regarding the use of his neighbor's private road.  This reduced focus on the meaning of the amendment—and not on how this amendment may affect our lives today—was even more pronounced in the discussion of the Eighth Amendment, which lasted less than thirty seconds.

[136] Mrs. Matthews: Okay what about the Eighth Amendment?  Gavin read the one in the margin.  Bail and punishment.

[137] Gavin: Courts cannot treat people accused of crimes in ways that are unusually harsh.

[138] Mrs. Matthews: So that's just saying your punishment should fit the crime.  And again, we can't torture people et cetera.  [A few students blurted things out here, but Mrs. Matthews ignored them and called on Nancy, who had her hand up] Nancy?

[139] Nancy: Can I read the next one?

[140] Mrs. Matthews: Yes.  The Ninth Amendment.

By the Sixth Amendment, Mrs. Matthews was forced to abandon the original purpose of the lesson, transforming the lesson into a race to cover the content before dismissing her students for lunch.  Thirty seconds and ninety seconds were spent on the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, respectively, with Mrs. Matthews quickly telling her students the significance of each amendment before assigning the remainder of the chapter in their history textbook as homework and dismissing them for lunch.

For Newmann, one significance of classroom thoughtfulness is that it "strike[s] at the heart of an underlying malady" in classrooms, the failure to challenge students—and thereby engage students—by providing activities that demand more than lower order thinking and student passivity (1990, p. 44).  Although Mrs. Matthews felt it was necessary to abandon their discussion of the relevance of the Bill of Rights in students' lives and contemporary U.S. society as they ran out of time before lunch, student behavior demonstrated just how engrossing this discussion had been for students.  As students prepared to go to lunch (lunch had actually already begun), half a dozen students immediately surrounded Mrs. Matthews at the front of the room.  Tyler provided Mrs. Matthews with more information about the controversy surrounding the use of his neighbor's dirt road.  Hank, textbook in hand, open to the Constitution, enthusiastically pointed to the many amendments in addition to the first ten.  As Hank finally joined the end of the lunch line, he excitedly told me that the last amendment to the Constitution was not added until 1971.12

With more time, Mrs. Matthews and her students could have extended their discussion of the Bill of Rights to the following Thursday, providing an opportunity for sustained classroom thoughtfulness and the further exercise of students' higher level thinking skills.  But there was no more time in which to extend this discussion.  Mrs. Matthews was significantly behind where she wanted to be in social studies at this point in the year, and had been struggling to catch up, for the most part unsuccessfully, since October. On the day of the Bill of Rights lesson, she was two chapters behind Mrs. Knight in the social studies textbook, and was feeling some pressure to finish this lesson and move on.13 For Mrs. Matthews, conveying the survey of U.S. history took precedent over thoughtful discussion, because students' continued academic success in middle school necessitated outfitting them with the academic knowledge specified by state content standards in all subject areas.  In her mind, there was no more time for learning about the Bill of Rights, and no way for her to make more time in which to continue this discussion.

Managing teaching dilemmas and the curtailment of classroom thoughtfulness in social studies

I do not expect readers to be surprised by an example of a teacher running out of time to complete a lesson, as time is a ubiquitous teaching dilemma faced by all teachers.  However, the dilemma of time in social studies has been exacerbated as a result of state testing in language arts and mathematics and the consequent reduction in instructional time in other subject areas evident at Dusty Valley.  Time has become an incorrigible teaching dilemma in social studies, one that is actively managed by teachers but leaves them frustrated as the gap between their goals and purposes in social studies and the curriculum they are actually able to enact grows.  For Mrs. Matthews, her constant management of classroom teaching dilemmas in social studies resulted in the curtailment of classroom thoughtfulness, which was progressively squeezed from the curriculum over the course of the school year.

Between the discussion of physical and cultural features in September and the Bill of Rights in March, there was a transformation in social studies practice as Mrs. Matthews managed competing demands of content coverage and thoughtful discussion amidst time constraints, while she fell further behind in social studies.  Mrs. Matthews managed these teaching dilemmas by instituting a variety of instructional and curricular changes meant to make content coverage more efficient, thereby preserving some time for thoughtful discussion.

In October, after speaking to Mrs. Knight, Mrs. Matthews discovered that she was an entire chapter behind Mrs. Knight in the social studies textbook.  Because the scope of the U.S. history curriculum was fixed in Mrs. Matthews' mind, she responded by instituting instructional changes, searching for ways to manage teaching dilemmas in social studies by making coverage of the material in the textbook in class more efficient.  This included dividing students into small groups and jigsawing the textbook lesson to "get through it more quickly" and directing students to specific pages to "look for answers" to the questions on their chapter study sheets, extracting information from their textbooks rather than reading and discussing textbook lessons in class.  In spite of these instructional changes, Mrs. Matthews continued to fall further behind Mrs. Knight in social studies.  Her frustration became increasingly evident in comments to me, as when she explained her decision to use a short film rather than reading the material in the textbook as a way to help her students "catch up to Mrs. Knight's class," and to her students.

[1] Mrs. Matthews: Let's go, we're behind.  [Students are getting out their textbooks and chapter study sheets]

[2] Hank: Mrs. Matthews?  Aren't we where you want to be?

[3] Mrs. Matthews: No, we're behind.  But we're gonna catch up.

[4] Rosa: Mrs. Matthews why are we behind?

[5] Mrs. Matthews: Because, just because. We just spend too much time discussing.

Unable to mitigate the tension between content coverage, thoughtful discussion, and limited time through instructional changes and continuing to fall further behind Mrs. Knight in social studies, Mrs. Matthews eventually made reading the textbook and filling in the chapter study sheets homework.  Class time was used to discuss students' answers to the study sheet questions while discussing the history they had read in their textbooks.

In spite of these instructional changes, by November Mrs. Matthews was three chapters behind Mrs. Knight in the textbook, making completion of the survey of U.S. history prior to the end of the school year increasingly doubtful.  At this point, frustrated with the lack of progress she was making in social studies and hoping to catch up to Mrs. Knight, she instituted a significant curricular change.  Rather than reading chapters 7–9 in the students' textbook, which discussed life in the Southern, New England, and Middle colonies, she had students view a film that covered the same material.  As she told students, through the film they would "get a better sense of what life was like than reading the textbook."  As she told me, she hoped this would also help her students catch up to Mrs. Knight's class.  Students were instructed to take notes on the film, and class time was spent viewing the film, stopping the film periodically to make sure students had written down the important points from the film, and occasionally skimming the textbook to look at the maps and illustrations.  In four days, Mrs. Matthews was able to cover the material in chapters 7–9 of the students' textbooks, something that took Mrs. Knight four weeks to complete with her students.  Having caught up to Mrs. Knight, Mrs. Matthews returned to using the textbook as the primary resource for social studies, but by March, when they discussed the Bill of Rights, she was again two chapters behind Mrs. Knight in social studies.

These instructional and curricular changes were meant to manage classroom teaching dilemmas in social studies, allowing Mrs. Matthews to efficiently cover the content of U.S. history while also providing regular opportunities for classroom thoughtfulness.  This was successful to some degree, but rather than preserving thoughtful discussions it allowed for only brief moments of thoughtfulness, evident in an exchange regarding gender roles during a lesson on the Iroquois.

[47] Mrs. Matthews: Okay the Iroquois nation had very definite roles for women and for men.  Any correlation or, do you see that today in any way?

[48] Rosa: Um one of the women, one of the works that women had to do was make sure that everyone had clothing.

[49] Mrs. Matthews: Okay clothing.

[50] Rosa: And food.  Clothing, food and a place to live.

[51] Mrs. Matthews: So housekeeping right?

[52] Tyler: My mom cooks on the weekdays and my dad cooks on the weekends.

[53] Mrs. Matthews: Hey that’s great I like that.  Alright boys and girls I wanna think about this a little bit.  Definite roles for the men, definite roles for the women.  In colonial days how many of you have watched like Little House on the Prairie or any of those shows?  Were there definite roles for the men and the women?

[54] Few students: Yes.

[55] Mrs. Matthews: The women did what?

[56] Richard: Stayed home.

[57] Jenny: Cooked.

[58] Mrs. Matthews: Stayed home, washed the clothes, cooked, cleaned the house.  Right?  What about today, do we see a shift in that?

[59] Students: Yes.

[60] Mrs. Matthews: Alright so we see today the roles of women and men kind of just all melding together don’t we?  It used to be that we didn’t have women doctors and women scientists.  We just read today about a woman astronaut.  Remember how she was a pioneer because…[a few students begin talking about this].  There were certain jobs that were always thought to be women’s jobs and certain jobs that were always thought to be a man’s work.

[61] Tyler: Um if somebody’s watched Meet the Parents uh the one guy is a nurse.

[62] Eric: Ya [starts laughing]

[63] Mrs. Matthews: That’s funny?  Why do you think it’s funny?  [a couple of male students respond that usually women are nurses].  You usually think of women as nurses but we do have a lot of men.

[64] Tyler: But it’s funny because uh the woman that he’s marrying has a sister that’s married to a plastic surgeon.

[65] Mrs. Matthews: Boys and girls I’m not familiar with that show but what I’d like you to do as we,

[66] Tyler: It’s a movie.

[67] Mrs. Matthews: Oh well, so what do I know?  As we go from Native American society to colonial American society to today, I want you to be thinking about the roles that men and women played not only in history, but in their family lives, because we’re going to see a shift in that.

While this exchange is not lacking in thoughtfulness, it is quite limited, and purposely so.  Mrs. Matthews wanted her students to be thoughtful about what they are learning, and gender roles and gender equity were issues she felt strongly about, evident, for example, in discussions of Abigail Adams, Sybil Ludington, and Molly Pitcher during lessons on the Revolutionary War.  But there was little time for classroom thoughtfulness in this lesson, as Mrs. Matthews was nearly two chapters behind Mrs. Knight in social studies.  She was unwilling to abandon classroom thoughtfulness entirely, but often had little time to do more than instruct students to "be thinking" as they learned U.S. history or to mention important issues before continuing on with content coverage.

An unintended consequence of the continual race to catch up to Mrs. Knight in social studies was an enacted curriculum that became less thoughtful, and at times merely mindless.  Reading and discussing the textbook in class had been focused on developing students' knowledge and understanding of U.S. history.  Now the task had shifted towards extracting information from the textbook to answer the chapter study sheet questions, and using class time to question students to make sure they had the correct information on their study sheets.  Student answers to study sheet questions began to reflect this new task, often taken verbatim from the textbook and reproduced word for word, with some students simply reading from the textbook in response to Mrs. Matthews' questioning, evident in the same lesson on the Iroquois excerpted above.

[13] Mrs. Matthews: Okay the first three rows read about the people of the long house.  Who can tell me what the long house was?  So let’s share with the other groups so they learn.  That’s one of your vocabulary words I believe isn’t it?

[14] Students: Yes.

[15] Mrs. Matthews: Okay what was it?  Allison?

[16] Allison: The long house was a building where the Iroquois lived.

[17] Mrs. Matthews: Okay who can tell me more about the long house?  It was where they

lived.  Michelle?

[18] Michelle: Several family groups lived in a long house.

[19] Mrs. Matthews: Several family groups lived together. What else?

[20] Halle: Several important um, the women (worked).

[21] Mrs. Matthews: Alright important groups lived together. Alright what else?

[22] Melody: When they married um the man would go live with the uh, the family of the woman.

[23] Mrs. Matthews: Alright.

[24] Melody: In the long house.

[25] Mrs. Matthews: Alright in the long house that’s correct.

This exchange represents the absence of classroom thoughtfulness, in that Mrs. Matthews and her students are together simply reproducing the knowledge contained in students' textbooks:

The long house was the building where the Iroquois lived.  Several family groups lived in a long house.  Women were often the most important people in these groups.  When an Iroquois man and women married, for example, they lived in the long house of the woman's family (Armento et. al., 1991, p. 95).

There was no thinking, higher level or otherwise, evident in this exchange, either by Mrs. Matthews or her students.  In fact, it represents a very low order of lower order thinking, the direct reproduction of textbook knowledge, a merely mindless exercise and something not lost on students.  Later, in response to Mrs. Matthews' question about what the Iroquois did for work, Tyler simply read the appropriate sentence from the textbook: "The Iroquois who lived together in the long houses also worked together in the fields and forests outside the village" (Armento et al., 1991, p. 95).

This absence of thoughtfulness was magnified during Mrs. Matthews' use of a film on life in the English colonies to cover the material in chapters 7–9 of the textbook in four days.  During these four days, the reproduction of knowledge became the central purpose of lessons as Mrs. Matthews covered this period in history as quickly as possible, questioning students about specific facts from the film as students focused on correctly copying down these facts, evident in the following exchange.

[1] Mrs. Matthews: Alright boys and girls Puritan beliefs.  We already talked about they felt the Church of England was corrupted they wanted a more pure, root word for Puritan is pure, a more pure religion.  And they believed in discipline.  So everyone should have that in your notes.  They wanted a more pure religion.  They felt that the Church of England had become corrupt.  And they believed in discipline and strong morals.  [Students are copying this down on their study sheets]

[2] Eric: Meeting house?

[3] Mrs. Matthews: Meeting house is the most important building in the village [Eric writes this down].  Who could vote in the Puritan community?  [few students speaking all at once]

[4] Nancy: Only those sharing Puritan beliefs.

[5] Mrs. Matthews: Exactly.  Only those people who believed in the Puritan religion.  So did they have religious freedom?  [A "yes," a "no," then a "not really."]

[6] Mrs. Matthews: Not really did they?  Because if you did not believe the way they believed you could not vote.

[7] Eric: What did the Puritans believe in?

[8] Mrs. Matthews: Strong morals and discipline. I don't know what you have down.

[9] Eric: I have they wanted a more pure religion, they thought the Church of England was corrupt, and they had

[10] Mrs. Matthews: Strong morals and discipline [Eric adds this to his study sheet]

Except for the four days spent covering life in the English colonies, the privileging of content coverage in lessons did allow for moments of classroom thoughtfulness, like the brief exchange regarding changes in gender roles in history excerpted above.  Mrs. Matthews continued to manage the tension between content coverage, opportunities for classroom thoughtfulness, and time constraints through curricular and instructional decisions for the remainder of the school year, and she continued to trail Mrs. Knight's classroom in their survey of U.S. history.

In May, after state testing in language arts and mathematics was completed, Mrs. Matthews returned to social studies, beginning their study of the exploration and settlement of the West by Whites.  Wanting to complete this topic before the end of the year—she had already given up any hope of getting to the Civil War—she abandoned the textbook once again and instead provided students with a small packet of copied materials that provided more concise information on this period.  Two weeks later and halfway into this material she ended social studies for the year, having run out of time (a GATE meeting on Thursday, Memorial Day the following Monday, and then the final week of school).  Mrs. Knight ended social studies nearly three chapters ahead of Mrs. Matthews, having discussed Southern society and the industrial North prior to the beginning of the Civil War.


Like Mrs. Matthews, Mrs. Thomas was interested in imparting historical information to her students and engaging in discussions and providing activities and assignments that developed students' understanding of history by asking them to think about what they had learned.

Part of that is, because I have the GATE kids, but also because I have always taught that way, that I just feel like you have to have something where they're thinking.  Where they have to think about something not just more facts and spit them out on a worksheet to be done with that (Interview, May 2003).

One complaint of Mrs. Thomas was that there were insufficient opportunities for students to think throughout the day, so she purposely included opportunities for students to apply their newly acquired knowledge to challenging questions or problems in each unit of California history.  These opportunities occurred in whole class and small group discussions, activities, and writing assignments that sometimes raised moral or ethical issues.  She felt this was an effective means for helping her students gain a deeper understanding of the history they were learning, and provided opportunities to do some higher level thinking, something she believed was particularly important for the GATE students in her classroom.

That is one of the things that you're supposed to be doing with GATE kids.  That's one of Sandra Kaplan's icons of you know the gifted and talented thing, that you should have ethical questions…I think fourth graders are pretty good at that whole justice type of question.  They like those types of things and they have very specific feelings about justice.  And how and whether something is fair or not and who should be treated like what and, and so I think they do pretty well with those kinds of questions (Interview, May 2003).

Mrs. Thomas believed that you first provided students with information, and then followed with opportunities to think about and with that information—"How else can they think about anything if they don't have something to think about?"—and this was reflected in the structure of her units.  Each unit included the "delivery" of information through lecture, reading of textual materials, and the viewing of documentary films, followed by projects, activities, writing assignments, or discussions in which students had to analyze, interpret, or apply that knowledge to demonstrate understanding, generate new understandings, or solve problems.

Mrs. Thomas also expressed frustration at the lack of time for social studies, but due to her very different response to reduced instructional time for social studies, time did not become problematic until late in the school year.  She scheduled social studies for forty minutes per day, three to four times per week, but only taught social studies on alternate months (science was scheduled for the same amount of time on science months).  Whereas Mrs. Matthews viewed the survey of U.S. history specified by state content standards as inviolable, Mrs. Thomas did not feel the same way about the survey of California history specified by state content standards.  She reduced California history to four units that she believed could be completed given the time available for social studies: geography; California Native Americans; European Exploration, Settlement, and the Mission system; and the California Gold Rush.

Reducing the scope of California history did not eliminate the need to manage teaching dilemmas in social studies, but it did allow Mrs. Thomas to successfully balance content coverage and regular opportunities for student thinking in her curriculum.  However, as time constraints became more pressing later in the year, Mrs. Thomas revised her management of teaching dilemmas by choosing curricular materials and instructional methods for their brevity and efficiency and not what was necessarily best for student learning.  In addition, students finished fourth grade with large gaps in their knowledge of California history, something Mrs. Thomas lamented and sought to rectify in the future by finding some way to "go faster" through California history.

Classroom thoughtfulness in social studies in Mrs. Thomas' classroom

A discussion of whether or not California Native Americans were civilized illustrates the character of classroom thoughtfulness in social studies in Mrs. Thomas' classroom.  As Mrs. Thomas explained to me in an interview, while she hoped students would conclude that California Native Americans were civilized, it did not matter to her what position students took on this question.  Her purpose was to provide an opportunity for her students to think about what they had learned in their studies of five California Native American tribes, and to complicate their upcoming study of European exploration and settlement by making students "a little more sympathetic to the plight of the Indians."

On the first day of a two-day discussion, Mrs. Thomas and her students spent most of their time generating a definition of "civilized" and sharing some reasons why they believed California Native Americans were or were not civilized, based on their knowledge of the tribes they had studied.  Students were given five minutes to write down what civilization meant to them, and an explanation of whether or not they believed California Native Americans were civilized according to this definition.  After this, Mrs. Thomas had students get up and go to either side of the room, depending upon whether or not they believed California Native Americans were civilized.  Students gathered in groups of four or less and shared their explanations regarding the civilized status of California Native Americans, and then returned to their desks for another five minutes of writing, adding to their explanations based on other students' comments.  Wrapping up the lesson, Mrs. Thomas called on individual students to share their explanations regarding the civilized status of California Native Americans, and then asked students to ask their parents for their definition of civilization and their opinions regarding the civilized status of California Native Americans.

This had been a productive preliminary discussion, but Mrs. Thomas was not satisfied with the definition of civilization they had developed.  In response, she returned on the second day with a definition of civilization she had taken from a textbook on ancient civilizations and led a discussion focused on specific characteristics of civilizations and whether these characteristics were present among California Native Americans.

[1] Mrs. Thomas: Let's take a look at this definition.  Civilization is a society that has cities, written language, specialized jobs, organized government, technology, and skilled craftspeople [read slowly, emphasizing each point, with Mrs. Thomas pointing at each word with her finger].  Okay, let's start with just the first part, cities.  Did the California Native American people have cities?

[2] Students: No.  [One student says, "No, villages."]

[3] Mrs. Thomas: They had villages though.  So, they had villages and perhaps that's something that Latasha was making a point of, that in their way, they had a civilization because, for us, we have cities.  For them, they have,

[4] Latasha: Villages.

[5] Mrs. Thomas: villages, and communities [writes on the front board, above the definition of civilization].  I remember lots of you had this in your fact sheets.

[6] Rashid: What is written language?

[7] Mrs. Thomas: What is what?

[8] Rashid: Written language?

[9] Jose: They had their own language.

[10] Mrs. Thomas: Written?  Like books, like you could write down what you're saying.  Okay so villages, did they have a written language?

[11] Dennis: Not really.

[12] Latasha: Ya.  Indian language.

[13] Mrs. Thomas: But did they write it?

[14] Fernando: No.

[15] Rashid: They told stories like they, they can remember.  They carved it out.

[16] Mrs. Thomas: Okay they told stories they had a language, absolutely.  But were those stories written?

[17] Fernando: No.

[18] Mrs. Thomas: No.  We called that, when they would tell stories one to the other it's called a, oral telling or oral history.

[19] Patrick: What if they're writing on the wall?

[20] Mrs. Thomas: So they didn't have a written language.

[21] Patrick: What about the writing on the rocks?

[22] Mrs. Thomas: Ohhh.  What do we call those?

[23] Dennis: Whatever it's called.

[24] Mrs. Thomas: Who did the Chumash? [half a dozen hands go up, Patrick is pointing at Rashid, who has his hand up]

[25] Latasha: We did.

[26] Mrs. Thomas: And what did we call those paintings on the rocks?

[27] Tammy: We called them, [thinking]

[28] Kyle: Chumash.

[29] Latasha: Glyphs.

[30] Mrs. Thomas: Glyphs, exactly petroglyphs.

[31] Mark: Oh like those [pointing to the materials on the wall in the back of the room]

[32] Mrs. Thomas: Right.  Well yes, exactly 'cause the hearts behind that are on the wall and that's a glyph it, it's a drawing that represents something and so their drawings were,

[33] Dennis: The reading log [pointing at the side board, with math materials]

[34] Mrs. Thomas: The reading log? [looking where Dennis is pointing]  No that's a bar graph.  Okay, a petroglyph though, exactly so in some ways that would be a form of written language.  Good job Patrick.  So let's put a little they had [draws line from "written language" in the definition on the front board and writes "petroglyph."]

Similar to the thoughtful discussions in Mrs. Matthews' classroom, Mrs. Thomas facilitated a discussion that drew upon students' knowledge to help them think more deeply about the societies and cultures of Native peoples.  Going step by step through the definition of civilization written on the front board, they first considered whether or not Native peoples had cities, with one student noting they had villages [line 2].  Mrs. Thomas built upon this idea by referring back to a comment that Latasha had made earlier in the discussion—"I think that Native Americans are civilized in their way, and not our way"—suggesting that villages, being like cities, could be considered a mark of civilization [line 3].

They proceeded to discuss whether or not Native peoples had a written language, with Mrs. Thomas trying to help her students see the distinction between having an oral language versus a written language [lines 6-20].  In fact, it seemed from her comments [culminating in line 20] that Mrs. Thomas may have already concluded that on this point Native peoples would not be considered to have civilization, given the absence of a written language.  However, what was characteristic of thoughtful discussions in Mrs. Thomas' classroom was that they resulted in new understandings for her students and often Mrs. Thomas.  Patrick raised a point, drawn from their study of four California Native American tribes, which had apparently not occurred to Mrs. Thomas: "What if they're writing on the wall?" [line 21].  Acknowledging and building upon Patrick's comment, Mrs. Thomas called upon students who researched and wrote about the Chumash, a tribe who in fact created rock paintings, or petroglyphs, which was confirmed by Latasha [lines 22-30].  Mrs. Thomas ended this part of the discussion by concluding that petroglyphs could be considered "a form of written language" and praised Patrick for his observation as she added this point to the front board [line 34].

This discussion continued, with Mrs. Thomas and her students considering each aspect of the definition of civilization, drawing upon their knowledge of Native peoples to decide whether or not they met these criteria.  Students noted the different jobs performed by men and women in the tribes they studied to establish that Native communities had specialized jobs.  They remembered that tribes like the Mohave and the Miwok were lead by a headman or headmen, although Mrs. Thomas had to remind them that they were called "headmen" and not "chiefs."  After identifying different kinds of technology in the classroom (computers, a television, my camcorder), students identified forms of technology present among Native peoples (arrows, spears, ovens, baskets, boats) and then the need for skilled craftspeople to make these products.  All the while, Mrs. Thomas questioned and probed, helping students to draw upon their knowledge of Native peoples settled in California to consider whether or not these tribes fit the definition of a civilization.  Finally, having considered all the criteria listed in the definition of civilization on the front board, Mrs. Thomas brought the discussion to a close.  She repeated the question they began with, "Were the California Native American people civilized?  Did they have a civilization?" and then called on Tammy, who summed up her position.

[194] Tammy: They, it says on the definition they had cities.  They had something like cities, they had something like a written language.  They had jobs, they had a, they had an organized government, like they had a headman or chief.  And they had technology and skilled crafts people.

[195] Mrs. Thomas: Exactly.  The reason why you might say yes is 'cause all these things are up here.  You know I was just thinking when she was saying that, part of the organized government might also be that they had a system of money.

[196] Rashid: That's what I thought.

[197] Mrs. Thomas: A way of buying and trading things right?  They used what?

[198] Latasha: Shells.

[199] Mrs. Thomas: Shells [a couple of other students repeat this with Mrs. Thomas]. All the tribes used that we dealt with, all used shells.  So they had even a money system.

Mrs. Thomas' final comment underscores the richness and purpose of this discussion.  Not all of the students concluded that Native peoples in California were civilized, neither in this discussion nor in their written work.  But they were all thinking hard about this question, using their knowledge of California Native American tribes that they had learned, applied in creating models of Native American settlements, and written about previously.  Even Mrs. Thomas was thinking hard, positing that a mark of civilization might also include the fact that all the tribes they studied had a monetary system, an idea that came to her in the course of this discussion.

In relation to the observational dimensions identified by Newmann (1990) as indicators of classroom thoughtfulness, teacher-student discourse would indicate a thoughtful classroom where students were applying their newly learned knowledge of California Native American peoples to decide whether or not they represented a civilization.  Spanning two days, this was a sustained examination of a single topic, involving large group discussion, small group discussion, talking with parents, and individual student writing.  This was a systematic inquiry, with adequate time for students to think and develop their reasons regarding the civilized status of California Native Americans.  The task was a challenging one, requiring students to use their prior knowledge of California Native Americans to generate new knowledge.

Mrs. Thomas carefully considered students' explanations, pressed students to elaborate when necessary, and encouraged students to generate original ideas, as in her praise of Patrick's observation that petroglyphs might be considered a form of written language.  Mrs. Matthews herself was a model of thoughtfulness, both when she validated Patrick's insight, and when she shared her observation that during their discussion it had occurred to her that having a monetary system might be an indication of an organized government and therefore civilization.  Students offered explanations and reasons for their views on whether or not California Native Americans were civilized, in the large group discussion, small group discussion, and their written responses.  Student responses were articulate and germane, supported by the knowledge they had acquired of California Native Americans.  By the conclusion of the discussion, twenty out of thirty-two students had participated in the whole class discussion, with all students participating in the small group discussions and writing assignment.  Throughout the discussion students were enthusiastic, with Mrs. Thomas often having to tell one student to wait while another student commented.  This discussion was not rushed, and there was never a sense of needing to hurry or speed things up.  As exemplified by this discussion, Mrs. Thomas' management of teaching dilemmas was largely successful in supporting students' acquisition of content knowledge and providing sustained opportunities for classroom thoughtfulness within time constraints for social studies.

Sustaining classroom thoughtfulness in social studies

Such lengthy discussions of a single topic was not a weekly occurrence in social studies in Mrs. Thomas' classroom, but social studies did provide regular opportunities for students to think productively about what they were learning.  Each unit of her California history curriculum included discussions, activities, or projects that asked students to analyze, interpret, or apply their knowledge to address challenging problems or issues.  Taken together, the enacted curriculum supported a thoughtful classroom that balanced content coverage and the promotion of student thinking.

In the unit on California Native Americans, students researched the way of life of four California Native American tribes (Chumash, Yurok, Miwok, Mohave), wrote essays on their tribe's settlements, houses, food, clothing, tools, trade, and ceremonies, and then created a model of a settlement for their tribe.  These models were presented in class—which led to discussions concerning the accuracy of specific details—and then displayed for the entire school.  It was this knowledge that students drew upon in the discussion of the civilized status of California Native Americans.  After studying the California mission system and learning about the experiences of Native Americans living at the missions, both positive and negative, students, imagining they were Native American, discussed and then wrote essays explaining whether or not they would choose to stay at the mission or leave.  In the unit on the California gold rush, students were divided into five groups (Golden 49ers, Gold Seekers, Golden Eagles, Ghost Town, and the Burglars) and presented with a series of decisions to make as gold miners.  After discussion, students recorded their decision in their "Gold Miner's Journal," listing reasons for their decision based on the information they had learned about the gold rush.  For example, after learning about different routes to the gold fields and the hardships each route entailed, students decided on the specific route they would take to the gold fields, explaining why they chose that route over others.  After learning about different methods for mining gold, students decided on the method they would use (pan, rocker, sluice, long tom) and explained the benefits of their method over others in their journal entries.

It was in these ways that students experienced a consistently thoughtful social studies curriculum in Mrs. Thomas' classroom, one that balanced content coverage with opportunities for student thinking.  Students learned about California history, then used their newly gained knowledge to accurately represent tribal life and culture, to discuss the treatment of Native Americans in the missions, and to figure out the best course of action if they were to be successful in their search for gold.  While the curriculum provided numerous opportunities for student thinking, the enacted curriculum in Mrs. Thomas' classroom also included many "episodes" of thoughtfulness initiated by students when the material sparked their interests or when they saw some connection between history and their own lives.  Mrs. Thomas' willingness to promote student thinking by supporting opportunities for classroom thoughtfulness that arose during lessons was evident in a lesson on Cabrillo's search for a water route to Asia from North America.

This lesson began with Mrs. Thomas taking the time to share two things students had brought to class in response to previous lessons on the Aztec Empire, which had sparked much interest among the students.  Jeff had brought in a book, The World of the American Indian, published by National Geographic, which talked about the Aztec as well as the five California Native American tribes they had studied in the previous unit.  Eduardo had brought in an Aztec calendar made out of pottery, the third Aztec calendar brought in during the past three days since students had seen an illustration of the Aztec calendar in the reading and many had declared that they had "one of those" in their homes.  They briefly discussed the meaning of the symbols on the calendar, drawing on the reading and student knowledge, for example Tony's knowledge that the sun and moon are symbols of good luck.

Seven minutes later Mrs. Thomas began her lesson, first recapping what they had already learned about Cortez, then beginning the day’s reading on Cabrillo.

[57] Mrs. Thomas: I would put him [Cortez] on the fifteen, that's where I would put him [referring to "1500s" on the exploration timeline in the back of the room], and that's where I plan on putting him when I put him up there.  Alright let's go to page twenty-five where it says Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo.

[58] Rashid: Hey that was the same person that did the Chumash thing, they visited the villages.

[59] Mrs. Thomas: Oh what did you know about that from the Chumash?

[60] Rashid: I wrote it inside my book.

[61] Mrs. Thomas: Okay so what did you write about him?  What did he do?

[62] Rashid: They went, they discovered the Chumash people in nineteen something or eighteen something.

[63] Mrs. Thomas: Or fourteen something.

[64] Rashid: Ya.

[65] Mrs. Thomas: Fifteen something actually.  Okay, so good recognizing of the name.  And it is an explorer and you're right, some of you had read about some of the explorers already when you did your Chumash or Miwok or Mohave, Yurok, um research.  Okay Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo.  Linda please read the first paragraph.

After Linda finished reading, Mrs. Thomas called on Eduardo, Athena, and then Juan to read the second, third, and fourth paragraphs, respectively, finishing the one page on Cabrillo in their packets.  After Juan finished reading, Rashid immediately raised his hand.

[72] Mrs. Thomas: Rashid?

[73] Rashid: I went back to my um, Chumash report and it was the thing, it's like they went to both tribes.

[74] Mrs. Thomas: Which tribes? What tribe did they say they went to in here?

[75] Tammy: They didn't go to any tribes.

[76] Mrs. Thomas: It didn't say they went to any tribes?

[77] Tammy: It said they went to what is known now as San Diego.

[78] Mrs. Thomas: Okay.

[79] Tammy: And they, [starts reading] On September 28, 1542 he sailed into a bay of water.  He named it San Miguel Bay.  Later, the name was changed to San Diego, as it is still known today.

[80] Mrs. Thomas: Okay.  So Cabrillo, this is around, this is San Diego this area here [at back wall, pointing at construction paper map of the Southwest, which shows where the five California Native American tribes they studied are located].  Okay, so San Diego is the first place that he stopped.  Did he call it San Diego?

[81] Tammy: No he called it San Miguel Bay.

[82] Mrs. Thomas: He called it San Miguel Bay.  And then he continued, what did it say?  Where'd he go next?

[83] Tammy: [reads] Cabrillo and his crew sailed north along the coast of California.

[84] Mrs. Thomas: North along the coast.  So Rashid, if he's gonna sail north see my finger? Which way will I go if I'm gonna go north?

[85] Rashid: Up.

[86] Mrs. Thomas: Okay I'm sailing up.  Who am I gonna run into?

[87] Students: THE CHUMASH.

[88] Mrs. Thomas: The Chumash.  In what we now call what city?

[89] Tommy: Santa Barbara.

[90] Mrs. Thomas: Santa Barbara.  So he would have gone north.  Even though it doesn't say it in this paper, we know because we've read already about the Chumash, that he visited that area that is now called Santa Barbara.

There are important contrasts between this discussion, whose purpose was to learn specific information about Cabrillo's exploration off California's coast and search for riches and a water route to Asia through North America, and discussions in Mrs. Matthews' classroom.  Although Tammy was reading verbatim from the reading, much as Tyler did in the discussion of the Iroquois in Mrs. Matthews' classroom, the purpose was not to reproduce textual knowledge or to simply check students' acquisition of this knowledge.  Instead, Mrs. Thomas used Rashid's comment [line 58] to deepen her students' understanding of California history by "solving the problem" raised by Rashid—how did Cabrillo meet the Chumash?  Using the map of the Southwest in the back of the room and putting together the facts contained in the reading, Mrs. Thomas helped her students understand how Cabrillo's exploration would bring him into contact with the Chumash, and other tribes along the coast of California [lines 80-90].

The discussion continued, with Mrs. Thomas questioning her students about what they had read to answer three questions: Why did Cabrillo go exploring?  Why did they want to find a water route to Asia through North America?  Did Cabrillo find what he was looking for?  This took Mrs. Thomas and her students back to the reading, clarifying that Cabrillo was Portuguese but employed by Spain, that he was searching for "cities of riches" and a water route to Asia through North America, and the kinds of goods Spain wanted from Asia.  It was in answer to a question posed by Mrs. Thomas—How do you think they would probably get there [to Asia from Spain]?—which led to an unexpected digression in the lesson.  For whatever reasons, students were quite interested in this question and attacked it as a problem to be solved.  For the next twelve minutes, Mrs. Thomas invited students to the world map in the front of the room so they could propose, discuss, and critique different possible routes from Spain to Asia.

[148] Mrs. Thomas: They had some things some spices and other objects that people from Spain were interested in purchasing.  And they wanted to be able to get here [pointing from Spain to China on the front map], but it’s a long walk.  And it’s a long ride on a horse on the land and there are big mountains you gotta go over and it’s difficult.  So, they wanted a water route because you can sail a ship much faster and easier.  How do you think they would probably get there?  [Tony’s hand shoots up]  Tony, why don’t you come up and show us how you think they probably got there.

[149] Tony: They went here and over to this side and to China [moves his finger from Spain, down past Africa and around the tip of South America, then across the Pacific and then he moves  No, please put this back the way it was -- "and then moved down past Africa" -- that is what Tony said.to the right side of the map and continues until he reaches China].

[150] Mrs. Thomas: Okay.  That’s a possibility.  That they came, they went down here and around South America and, because the map would be folded around they would end up over here. Okay.  Dawn how do you think they might have come?  One person at a time [Jeff stands up, anxious to go to the map].  Now look and see because Dawn might say exactly what you’re thinking.

[151] Dawn: Start right here and go like that, and then go right to here [begins in Spain, makes it to the Suez Canal, goes down into the Indian Ocean, and then around India and up the coast to China].

[152] Mrs. Thomas: And then they could just come right up here, through the Bay of Bengal, right?  But actually this, I don’t know if that’s open in there.  It is now because there’s the Suez Canal but it wasn’t at that time.  At that time this was all land.  So they’d have to take their huge boat and do what with it?

[153] Dennis: Sell it.

[154] Mark: Pick it up.

[155] Mrs. Thomas: Ya sell it, buy a fresh one on the other side.  No that’s not going to work very well [lots of students have their hands up].  Okay Juan what do you think?  Jeff I can’t call on you just yet.  What do you think?  That was good thinking though Dawn because, and they thought about that too, maybe we could get there.

Students clearly thought this was a problem worth thinking about and trying to solve, and Mrs. Thomas accepted this and did her best to facilitate the discussion.  She listened carefully to each student's solution to the problem of finding a water route to Asia and praised students for their ideas [line 155], even when she pointed out possible problems with their solutions [line 152].  Students were engaged, anxiously waiting to be called on and listening intently to other students' solutions.  Students generated a number of original and unconventional solutions to the problem, including a solution proposed later by Rashid involving sailing across the top of the world.

[177] Mrs. Thomas: Alright, what about that?  Rashid is wondering why they didn't take their boat and sail up through here [pointing at the top of the map] and then they would be on the other side of the world.  What do you think?  What could be a possible problem with that?  Raise your hand if you have a thought on what possible problems that might present?

[178] Rashid: Oh I have something.

[179] Mrs. Thomas: Rashid you have a thought now?

[180] They might be too cold?

[181] Mrs. Thomas: Yes it would be extremely cold since that is the North Pole.  Patrick?

[182] Patrick: They might freeze to death, and there'd be polar bears.

[183] Mrs.Thomas: Okay.  But are there polar bears in—they're on a boat.  Latasha?

[184] Latasha: The water's frozen.

[185] Mrs. Thomas: The water is frozen which makes it?

[186] Latasha: Hard to sail.

[187] Mrs. Thomas: Okay it makes it hard to sail through when it is ice.

As Mrs. Thomas often did in these discussions, she did not immediately provide a critique of student comments, but instead continued to ask questions to further the discussion and support other students in offering constructive criticism.  This was a thoughtful, albeit unplanned, discussion of possible routes from Spain to Asia, with students proposing and, with Mrs. Thomas' assistance, questioning and critiquing the various routes proposed.

Mrs. Thomas concluded the lesson by questioning students and articulating one final time what Cabrillo was looking for and that he died without finding riches or a water route to Asia through North America.  This lesson was forty minutes long.  Nineteen minutes were spent sharing Jeff's book and Eduardo's calendar at the beginning of class (seven minutes) and discussing possible routes from Spain to Asia (twelve minutes).  The other twenty-one minutes were spent reading and discussing the information on Cabrillo (eighteen minutes) and concluding the lesson by repeating what they had learned about Cabrillo (three minutes).  Content coverage and time for student thinking and addressing student interests were equally balanced within the time constraints for social studies.

Classroom discourse in this lesson did not reflect the sustained thinking evident in the two-day discussion of the civilized status of Native Americans.  However, the value of this lesson and others like it was that it provided students with a consistently thoughtful social studies curriculum, a regular space in which to think that supported attitudes and values that constitute thoughtfulness.  Newmann notes the importance of dispositions of thoughtfulness as a necessary condition for higher order thinking, a factor in reinforcing thoughtfulness in the curriculum.  These dispositions include such traits as "a persistent desire that claims be supported by reasons," "the flexibility to entertain alternative and original solutions to problems," a "tendency to be reflective," and "a curiosity to explore new questions" (1990, p. 47).  Taken together, planned opportunities for student thinking and episodes of classroom thoughtfulness in the enacted curriculum supported and reinforced dispositions of thoughtfulness, as students learned that social studies was a time to comment, to ask questions, and to think.

After class, I asked Mrs. Thomas why she had taken the time to talk about Jeff's book and Eduardo's calendar and why she had allowed the discussion of various water routes to continue for so long, since this seemed to be a diversion from the purpose of the lesson.  I was curious, because at this same time Mrs. Matthews was struggling to catch up in social studies, and only three days earlier I had observed her lesson on the Bill of Rights, when she was forced to abandon their thoughtful discussion to cover the necessary content.  Mrs. Thomas replied simply that students were thinking, and since there was no longer enough time in the fourth-grade curriculum for students to do this on a regular basis, she had simply decided to allow the discussion to continue, regardless of its academic value.  Later, talking about this unit in an interview, Mrs. Thomas talked more about her willingness to spend more time on certain topics.

This is something new this year, a better sense of where Mexico came into the whole thing, just a better sense of their Mexican heritage for those that are Mexican.  And so we started with the Aztec Empire and we spent a lot of time on that.  I don't know if Mrs. Shelly spent so much time on that in her room, but I didn't have a problem spending that much time on it and they seemed to have some sense for it or it validated something for them.  And to me that's more important than, you know, than going on to facts and more facts (Interview, May 2003).

This could just as easily be Mrs. Matthews talking about her desire to provide a history of the United States that was relevant to her students' lives.  Both Mrs. Matthews and Mrs. Thomas valued opportunities to promote student thinking in social studies, but their ability to realize this goal was significantly affected by each teacher's management of teaching dilemmas.  Mrs. Thomas provided a social studies curriculum that was consistently thoughtful, providing regular opportunities for student thinking, and this was made possible by the curricular and instructional decisions she made to manage competing demands of content coverage, the promotion of student thinking, and time constraints.

Managing teaching dilemmas and constrained classroom thoughtfulness

As VanSledright and Grant (1994) found in their study of citizenship education in three elementary classrooms, different teachers' management of similar classroom teaching dilemmas can have very different effects on the enacted curriculum.  Mrs. Matthews struggled to make time for student thinking that went beyond the moments of thoughtfulness evident in the brief talk regarding gender relations in the lesson on the Iroquois excerpted above.  Oftentimes, social studies lessons exhibited an absence of thoughtfulness, as content coverage became privileged over thoughtful discussion and the focus shifted to the reproduction of knowledge as Mrs. Matthews raced to catch up to her year plan for social studies.  In contrast, social studies in Mrs. Thomas' classroom was consistently thoughtful, with regular opportunities for students to think productively about what they were learning, either planned in advance by Mrs. Thomas or initiated by her students' comments, questions, and interests.  How was Mrs. Thomas able to achieve this through her management of teaching dilemmas in social studies?

Significantly reducing the scope of California history to four manageable units in light of reduced instructional time for social studies was one important factor.  Mrs. Thomas simply had less history to cover in her social studies curriculum than Mrs. Matthews did, in effect "making time" for classroom thoughtfulness.  In addition, Mrs. Thomas used materials that succinctly covered the information she felt her students needed to know.  Students' social studies textbook was not the primary source of information in her classroom, but a resource that she sometimes used for specific chapter sections, illustrations, or maps.  Studying California Native Americans, students did read information in their textbooks (four pages on the Yurok, Chumash, and Mojave), but most of their time was spent reading and gathering information from two-page fact sheets on California tribes, which concisely described settlements, housing, food, clothing, tools, trade, and ceremonies.  Mrs. Thomas did not use the textbook (45 pages) in their study of European exploration, settlement, and the mission system, but a packet of information (28 pages, with many full-page maps and illustrations) that she put together which briefly and clearly covered the important facts students needed to know.

In addition to making her curriculum concise and thereby making her coverage of content less time consuming, Mrs. Thomas also made time for student thinking in social studies by using social studies content in what were essentially language arts lessons.  The afternoon typically included twenty-five minutes of writing instruction or silent reading.  During the unit on California Native Americans, Mrs. Thomas modeled the writing of an essay for her students using the two-page fact sheet on the Yokuts as content for this exercise in generating topic sentences and gathering pertinent facts for coherent paragraphs.  Following this, students used two-page fact sheets on one of four California Native American tribes (Chumash, Yurok, Miwok, Mohave) to gather information and write essays on the way of life of these tribes.  These essays were written in class and consumed a significant amount of time, and not social studies time but language arts time.  Mrs. Thomas argued that this was the only way she could justify spending so much time studying California Native Americans with her students, and the only way to make time for this work in the curriculum.

By efficiently conveying a reduced body of knowledge to students, Mrs. Thomas was able to consistently make time in lessons for content coverage and classroom thoughtfulness within the limited time she had for social studies.  However, Mrs. Thomas' management of teaching dilemmas in social studies had significant costs for students, not only in providing a narrow history of California, but also resulting in constrained classroom thoughtfulness in her final unit on the California gold rush.  As Newmann argued, an important general characteristic of the promotion of student thinking is that it takes time.  Higher order challenges and the promotion of thoughtfulness require "in-depth study and sustained concentration" and the time to reflect, ponder, and "develop more elaborate reasoning and experience patient reflection" (1990, p. 50-51).  The discussion of the civilized status of California Native Americans and the creation of models of tribal settlements reflected instances where students had adequate time and information for thoughtfulness.  In contrast, the unit on the California gold rush, a one-month unit Mrs. Thomas taught during the last two weeks of school, illustrated how the lack of time for social studies resulted in constrained classroom thoughtfulness that supported, but did not promote, students' higher level thinking.

Mrs. Thomas managed teaching dilemmas in social studies by reducing the scope of California history and making curricular and instructional decisions that allowed her to move quickly through that history.  She was constantly assessing whether or not she was moving fast enough through the curriculum and adjusting curriculum and instruction accordingly.  During the unit on California Native Americans, it "seemed like we were getting behind," so Mrs. Thomas eliminated student research on individual explorers and the creation of explorer biography boards from their upcoming study of European exploration so they could "just move more quickly" through California history.  While students had learned much from these projects in past years, she was more concerned that they finish the gold rush unit by the end of the school year.  In the previous year, they had completed the gold rush unit during the final week of school in June, as other teachers returned textbooks to the library and began to clean up and pack up their classrooms.

To make the transition from the mission system to the gold rush as quickly as possible, students attended a local production, The Ramona Pageant, a play based on Helen Hunt Jackson's book, Ramona, to learn about California in the mid to late 1800s.  A romantic tale of love between the Indian Alessandro and the half-Indian, half-Scottish Ramona, the story takes place just after California had become a state and portrays the harsh treatment of Native Americans.  Mrs. Thomas used the play as a way of giving students some sense of California during this time period, in lieu of reading and discussing the thirty-four pages in their textbook that dealt with ranchos, pueblos, pioneers in California, the Bear Flag Revolt, and statehood for California.

In spite of using The Ramona Pageant to cover approximately fifty years of California history in a one-day fieldtrip and eliminating explorer biography boards, Mrs. Thomas did not begin the unit on the gold rush until the middle of May, leaving two weeks to complete a one-month unit.  Mrs. Thomas managed the tension between content coverage and the promotion of student thinking by making specific curricular and instructional decisions that made the unit quick and efficient, resulting in curriculum that lacked depth and instruction and activities that were condensed.  Opportunities for student thinking did not disappear from the enacted curriculum, but classroom thoughtfulness was constrained due to Mrs. Thomas' management of teaching dilemmas.

The main source of information for students were PowerPoint presentations of historical images and bulleted information on the discovery of gold, the forty-niners, the different routes they took to get to California, life in mining towns, and mining justice.  These lectures were quick and to the point, focused on the delivery of information to students with little discussion, the information was sufficient for writing assignments and activities, but was neither deep nor expansive.  Mrs. Thomas had hoped to supplement this material by reading Sid Fleischman's By the Great Horn Spoon! to her students, but settled instead on reading Sonia Levitin's Nine to California, a picture book that she was able to read in its entirety during the last fifteen minutes of a lesson.

Its frustrating ’cause there is an excellent book on the gold rush by Sid Fleischman, it's around the great horn spoon or something like that, and it's hysterical and the kids would really enjoy it.  But it's a big novel and you know, it's too much to read in the last weeks [laughs].  Which is why I got those picture books, ’cause those you know I can read in fifteen minutes and we can talk about them and then they're done (Interview, May 2003).

Mrs. Thomas acknowledged that this lack of depth precluded engaging in a fuller discussion of topics during this unit, including the culminating activity, a simulation in which student mining groups had to decide the fate of a Chinese man accused of stealing another miner's gold.14

So again it comes down to that kind of moral dilemma, what would you do sort of thing without there necessarily being a—although we did, there were consequences for the different decisions that were made 'cause that's part of the simulation game.  So there were so we didn't actually even let them solve it on their own, which is probably problematic.  It might be more interesting if you just presented that as a dilemma and asked "what would you do?"  But I'm not sure that we had given them enough information like that there were courts of law.  I'm not sure that they had that, you'd have to have more facts for them to make a good decision (Interview, May 2003).

This simulation was rich in possibilities, including imparting a deeper understanding of the diverse peoples brought together during the gold rush, the problems that arose as a result of diversity, including issues of prejudice and justice.  However, there was no time to engage in a sustained discussion of these issues, nor time to provide students with enough information to enable them to hold such a discussion.  As a result, Mrs. Thomas opted to follow the instructions of the simulation, giving students four solutions to choose from rather than allowing students to discuss, debate, and formulate their own solution, in effect constraining classroom thoughtfulness, evident in the discussion of each student mining camps' decision.

[78] Mrs. Thomas: We're gonna start with Ghost Town.  They've decided on solution number four, which I believe was to simply let him go already.  This seems like a good choice [reading from the card that came with the simulation].  But he might be guilty.

[79]Andrew: See.

[80] Mrs. Thomas: And you could be his next victim.  Lose fifteen gold nuggets.  [Disappointed "ohs" from these students.]  Alright, quiet please.  The Burglars chose solution number one, to give him as fair trial as possible.  So, they have chosen solution one this is a good choice.

[81]Students: YAAAH.

[82] Mrs. Thomas: You are applying the law the best way you can under the circumstances and you are not wasting valuable time that could be spent looking for gold.  You get twenty gold nuggets.

[83] Students: YAAAH.

[84] Mrs. Thomas: The Golden Forty Niners also chose solution number one.  The Gold Seekers chose solution number four.  So they lose fifteen.  And our last group chose solution number one  [count downs to restore order].  Just like when people were at the real gold rush in the eighteen forty nines, eighteen fifties.

[85] Latasha: That was a long time.

[86] Mrs. Thomas: That was a long time ago.  Just like them, they lost money, they made good decisions, they made bad decisions.  Things happened that they couldn't have control over.  This is a situation where they could have control over what they did  Please put this back the way it was, she said "over what they do and what they decide to do", and what they decided to do.  And it's interesting that you guys decided either to have a fair trial, which three groups decided to go ahead and give him the fairest possible trial, see if he's truly guilty or not.  The other two groups decided let's just let him go.  There are consequences as I've said for decisions.  And he may be guilty, he may not.  You never know.  So you lost some things.

Due to time constraints (this was the final social studies lesson and school ended the following week), student thinking was not absent in this lesson, but classroom thoughtfulness was constrained.  Presentation of each mining camp's decision was not an opportunity for thoughtful discussion, nor were issues of diversity, prejudice, and justice—issues discussed briefly at the beginning of the lesson—pursued, developed, or explored.  Each camp's decision was simply a cause for celebration or disappointment, the "goodness" of their decision primarily judged according to whether or not they were rewarded with gold (at least as measured by student outbursts).

In contrast, discussions in each mining camp (ten minutes) and entries in students' Gold Miner's Journals (five minutes to write) reflected consideration of questions of justice and fairness and arguments for expediency and the need to search for gold in determining the guilt or innocence of the Chinese man.  For example, some students argued against the possibility of holding a fair trial in the mining camp because "most of them [miners] are prejudiced against the Chinese."  Others argued that a fair trial was possible in the mining camp, either rejecting or ignoring the brief discussion of prejudice at the beginning of the lesson by arguing that "the Chinese man and I are equal."  And some students argued for simply letting the man go, because then "I won't be wasting time and I could spend more time mining for gold."

There was no absence of student thinking in the gold rush curriculum, neither in student small group discussion or writing in this lesson, or in other lessons where students had to decide how to travel to California or what method of mining they would employ.  But this culminating activity, due to time constraints and a lack of depth in the knowledge available to students, constrained classroom thoughtfulness by not providing an opportunity for promoting students' higher order thinking to further, advance, or deepen students' understanding of diversity and justice.  In the gold rush unit, students encountered consistent, though less fertile, opportunities for classroom thoughtfulness as Mrs. Thomas adjusted her curriculum and instruction to manage teaching dilemmas in social studies.  Mrs. Thomas recognized the limitations of this final unit, but was stumped on how to "go faster" through California history so she could use richer materials, incorporate more sustained discussion, and make the final activity less bounded and therefore more effective in promoting classroom thoughtfulness.


We don't do the ranchos, and I was thinking maybe I need to incorporate that next year, because it's a big gap between the missions and the gold rush.  And you know the Ramona Pageant isn't quite enough to fill that gap [chuckles].  And we don't, we never have done how California became a state, how that big piece of land that Spain owned became Mexico and California.  I don't know how to incorporate it.  I don't know how to make things go faster or something (Mrs. Thomas, interview, May 2003).

I would love nothing more than to do Socratic dialogue with these kids, an entire period.  I don't want to read the text, I don't want to have to outline the text.  If I could I would just step back from the text and say this is what these kids need to know, and forget about page three hundred twenty eight, three hundred seventy five, unit tests.  Give them a test of nothing more than higher level thinking skills. . . . But now, what we're hearing is, next year science will be tested and not social studies.  So you know what that's going to do from the top down to us?  They're gonna say, "You know what, the scores are gonna come out on science so, you know," how much social studies will we be able to teach?  So now again we have a balancing act.  And you know so it's just, I mean I just it's just, it's frustrating as a teacher (Mrs. Matthews, interview, September 2003).

What is being squeezed from social studies as a result of high stakes state-mandated testing in language arts and mathematics?  In Mrs. Matthews' and Mrs. Thomas' classrooms, the scope of U.S. and California history was reduced, whether by default or design.  There was simply not enough time for students to learn the survey of U.S. or California history specified by state content standards.  On a good week, Mrs. Matthews was able to commit 70 minutes to social studies instruction, Mrs. Thomas up to 160 minutes—but only during a social studies month, meaning on average up to 80 minutes per week.  Studies of instructional time devoted to social studies report intermediate teachers spending anywhere from approximately 150 minutes to close to 230 minutes per week on social studies, significantly more time than available to Mrs. Matthews or Mrs. Thomas (Goodlad, 1984; Thornton & Houser, 1996; VanFossen, 2005).  At the end of the school year, students in both classrooms left with large gaps in their knowledge of U.S. and California history.

More significant than the reduced scope of the history curriculum was the squeezing of opportunities for classroom thoughtfulness from the curriculum.  Discussions, assignments, and activities that promoted students' higher order thinking and deepened their understanding of history were curtailed, constrained, or abandoned as both teachers managed teaching dilemmas resulting from reduced instructional time for social studies.  Time has become an incorrigible teaching dilemma in social studies at Dusty Valley, a dilemma actively managed by teachers but one that makes it impossible to present the body of historical knowledge specified by state content standards and to consistently provide students with a thoughtful curriculum.  Dusty Valley Elementary was a good school where teachers supported their students' academic success by teaching to the state content standards in all subject areas, a decision that resulted in their students' exceeding state benchmarks on state exams in language arts and mathematics every year.  But teachers were increasingly frustrated as the focus on state testing and language arts and mathematics instruction left them unable to realize their goals in subject areas not tested by the state, like social studies.

In his study of elementary social studies instruction in Indiana, VanFossen (2005) found that teachers provided a variety of rationales for social studies, from various forms of citizenship education to concerns with fostering an appreciation of diversity, character education, or preparing students for the next grade's curriculum.  No matter the kind of social studies teachers seek to enact, state testing threatens to make their curriculum less thoughtful and potentially more mindless due to inadequate instructional time.  Classroom thoughtfulness takes time; the time to provide students with in-depth knowledge to support sustained examination of specific topics, whether in class discussions, activities, student writing, or other projects.  Promoting students' higher order thinking, a perennial problem in social studies and schooling in general, is difficult to achieve without sufficient instructional time, and this is what high stakes standardized testing has taken from social studies, particularly in schools serving poor students and students of color (Manzo, 2005; Pascopella, 2004; Von Zastrow & Janc, 2004).

The possibility that content knowledge and classroom thoughtfulness might be getting squeezed disproportionately from the education of poor students and students of color is particularly troubling.  One would expect teaching dilemmas arising from state testing to vary from school to school and classroom to classroom, and teachers' management of these dilemmas to vary considerably from teacher to teacher, with potentially very different consequences for the enacted curriculum.  The significant question, one that we do not have sufficient data to answer, is whether or not schools serving middle-class, predominantly White students, are also experiencing a similar squeeze in social studies and other subject areas not tested by the state.

Such elementary schools in Southwestern Riverside County, with API scores in the 700s to 800s when state testing began, may have escaped the teaching dilemmas faced by teachers at Dusty Valley, never needing to reduce instructional time in some subject areas to concentrate on language art and mathematics.  There is no guarantee that these classrooms would provide a thoughtful curriculum to their students, no matter how much time was available for social studies.  But state testing seems to forestall the possibility of a consistently thoughtful curriculum in low-performing elementary schools, schools serving poor students and students of color.  If the experiences of teachers at Dusty Valley are not unique, then the institution of a system of accountability meant to improve teaching and learning throughout California is instead significantly undermining the quality of students' education in social studies, at least for students at low-performing schools like Dusty Valley.

Many thanks to Margaret Nash who read and commented on an earlier draft of this manuscript, and also to Lyn Corno and the anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments.


1 All proper names are pseudonyms.  I have assigned pseudonyms that reflect the race or ethnic origins of students' true names, so pseudonyms for some Latino students do not reflect their ethnic origins.

2 Classes at each grade level were organized according to ability with English Language Learners in one classroom, GATE students in another, "regular" students in another.  However, the GATE classes typically included at least some students who had not been GATE identified to keep the teacher-student ratio consistent across classrooms.

3 Simply put, Mrs. Thomas, Mrs. Shelly, and Mrs. Matthews devoted the entire morning to math and language arts, leaving social studies, science, and physical education to the afternoon.  It originally appeared that it would be possible to observe all three classrooms in the afternoon.  However, subsequent adjustments in the teachers' schedules left Mrs. Thomas and Mrs. Shelly often teaching social studies at the same time, or with considerable overlap, making it impossible for me to observe both classrooms on a regular basis.

4 For a discussion and analysis of social studies instruction in Mrs. Knight's classroom see Wills (2005).

5 In comparison, I observed virtually all the lessons on US history taught by Mrs. Knight, 66 lessons in all.

6 I say virtually all the lessons, because I did not attend class on days not involving teacher instruction or activities or discussions.  For example, I did not attend class when students were researching and writing their reports on individual states in Mrs. Matthews' classroom, or on California Native American tribes in Mrs. Thomas' classroom.

7 During the 2002–2003 school year, when this research was conducted, there was no annual state test given in social studies or science that was used to calculate a school's API score.  During the 2005–2006 school year, there was still no annual state test given in social studies that was used to calculate an elementary school's API score.

8 Mrs. Thomas typically spent twenty-five minutes in the afternoon on writing instruction or silent reading.  Mrs. Matthews often gave her students twenty minutes for silent reading in the afternoon.  Wednesdays were minimum days at Dusty Valley, with students going home early to allow time for staff meetings and grade-level team meetings, so only language arts and mathematics were taught on Wednesdays.

9 An unfortunate consequence of scheduling social studies on Mondays and Thursdays was that social studies was often cancelled due to Monday holidays or on Thursdays, when once a month Mrs. Matthews attended district GATE meetings during the day, since she was the GATE Coordinator for Dusty Valley Elementary.  Factoring in field trips, assemblies, minimum days for parent-teacher conferences, and other unforeseen events, I would often be absent from Mrs. Matthews' classroom for one to two weeks at a time because social studies was not being taught.

10 Mrs. Matthews’ used Mrs. Knight as a gauge for judging whether or not she was making adequate progress in the year plan for social studies they had jointly developed.  Throughout my analysis I refer to where Mrs. Matthews is in social studies compared to Mrs. Knight because this was how she expressed her “falling behind” in social studies, not in relation to her year plan.  This occurred so consistently that at one point I jokingly asked if this was a “competition” between her and Mrs. Knight, to which Mrs. Matthews’ responded somewhat seriously, “I don’t like to be behind.”

11 Hank actually meant the “impending war with Iraq.”  The United States invaded Iraq ten days after this discussion, on March 20, 2003.

12 Since the students’ textbook has a copyright date of 1991, it does not include the 27th Amendment, which was approved May 7, 1992.

13 Mrs. Matthews and her students were still studying the establishment of the United States as a new nation while Mrs. Knight and her students were studying westward movement, making Mrs. Matthews’ completion of their survey of U.S. history prior to the end of the school year increasingly doubtful.

14 This simulation presents a situation in which there have been recent attacks against miners who have had their gold stolen.  The rumor circulating is that this is the work of a Chinese cult.  A Chinese man is found with a bag of gold and accused of stealing it from a miner, although the man claims he found the gold.  Student mining groups must decide what to do with the man, choosing from one of four possible solutions, all the while keeping in mind that the more time they spend dealing with this man is time away from their search for gold.  Solution one was to give him the fairest trial possible in the mining camps, even though most of the miners were prejudiced against the Chinese.  Solution two was to take the man to the nearest court of law, about two hundred miles away, to be tried.  Solution three was to assume the man is guilty and punish him, since he is a foreigner and so has no right to a trial, and get back to work.  Solution four was to let the man go and return to your mining, since the man is too small to have made these attacks and no one saw him stealing the gold.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 109 Number 8, 2007, p. 1980-2046
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14080, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 11:18:35 AM

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About the Author
  • John Wills
    University of California, Riverside
    E-mail Author
    JOHN S. WILLS is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside. His research focuses on history-social studies education, multicultural curriculum reform, the politics of school knowledge, and schooling and collective memory. Recent publications include "'Some People Even Died': Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights Movement, and the Politics of Remembrance in Elementary Classrooms" in International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education and "Authority, Culture, Context: Controlling the Production of Historical Knowledge in Elementary Classrooms" in Classroom Authority: Theory, Research, and Practice, edited by J. L. Pace and A. Hemmings.
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