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Teaching Social Studies That Matters: Curriculum for Active Learning

reviewed by William I. Mitchell - 2005

coverTitle: Teaching Social Studies That Matters: Curriculum for Active Learning
Author(s): Stephen J. Thornton
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807745227, Pages: 127, Year: 2005
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Thornton believes that standards-based educational reform has failed. He writes that neither teachers nor secondary students are satisfied with the social studies instruction that is currently taking place in classrooms. Evidence seems to indicate that young people perceive little relevance in much of the mandated disciplinary content. The curriculum serves as an inflexible plan to be followed by teachers instead of a manipulative tool for quality instruction. Thornton believes that politicians and education reformers see curriculum development rather than classroom instruction as a high-status activity. Thus educational reformers have focused on curriculum as the key to education improvement. The standards movement has treated disciplinary content as more important than the potential utility of the content to students. Thornton believes that reformers need to reexamine the purposes of social studies instruction. The purpose of the social studies program, the relevance of social studies content to students, and the characteristics of the learners in a particular school or class must determine the selection of content. Reformers must also reconsider the role of the teacher in instruction. The single most important factor in achieving a quality education is not the curriculum, but rather the teacher. Successful educational reform must center on the teacher as gatekeeper to the curriculum. Thornton defines gatekeeping as the decisions teachers make about curriculum and instruction as well as the criteria they use to make these decisions.

Divided into seven chapters, the first part of the work supplies the theoretical foundation for the authors thesis. Thornton reviews the curricular history of the social studies, reexamining the work of early committees and philosophical battles as to whether social studies is a federation of disciplines or a single integrated field of study. He frames this debate in terms of competing social science and social education models. Thornton posits that all the important national social studies curriculum committees have recognized that the selection of content must be determined by a social education rationale. Unfortunately, he believes that this model has never taken hold in secondary schools. Secondary social studies courses are taught like simplified college courses.

In general, Thornton believes there has been a failure to link mission statements, course goals, and unit objectives with lesson objectives in secondary social studies instruction. He asserts that the primary basis for educational aims must be the interests and aptitudes of students, the demands of social living, and contemporary scholarship. Scholarly disciplinary experts who have little concern for the educational purposes of secondary education have determined content in the standards-driven model. The negative effects of standardizationparticularly, that they minimize individuality and stifle students powers of inquiryhave received little attention. Many teachers, left out of the decision-making loop, take no responsibility for accomplishing educational missions. Thornton criticizes both the national history standards and the National Council for the Social Studies themes for failing to recognize the importance of the teacher as gatekeeper. As a result of this failure, the social studies curriculum has become an inflexible plan to be followed by teachers rather than a tool to be manipulated by teachers to accomplish educational aims.

The second portion of Thorntons work develops the basis for better social studies curriculum development, instructional planning, and teacher education. Thornton focuses on the role of higher education in preparing teachers. The author lashes out at institutions of learning whose promotion policies discourage scholars from writing secondary social studies texts as well as at historians and social scientists who reject responsibility for teacher preparation. He recommends that disciplinary-content courses in teacher preparation institutions create separate sections for preservice teachers in which the teaching applications of content are addressed. If that is not feasible, he suggests the creation of discussion sections for preservice teachers that are attached to content courses to address these needs.

The heart of Thorntons reform recommendations is a plan for remodeling the methods course in teacher preparation programs. He suggests that methods teachers devote classes to issues concerning the teaching of each social science discipline. Specifically he identifies content-specific methods instruction in U.S. history and government, in global history and geography, in economics, and in current events.

Thornton resurrects Alfred North Whiteheads recommendations that lesson-planning formats should reflect a rhythm of activities that incorporate romance, a stage of discovery that arouses student curiosity, followed by varied methods and materials. Specifically he mentions engrossing historical fiction, small-group work, discovery, and concept attainment strategies. Unfortunately the author is somewhat vague in explaining what precisely this rhythm is or how to implement it in units of study and lessons.

Nevertheless, Thornton is cognizant of the serious gap that exists between the perspective of academicians and the classroom teacher. He recognizes that a difference exists between knowing content and knowing how to organize content for instruction. One of the very valuable, even outstanding, features of this book is a chapter that provides concrete examples of how lessons might be organized.

Teaching Social Studies That Matters has a number of characteristics that the reader may find surprising. Thornton recommends that more research be done on effectiveness of instruction. The author specializes in how content might be effectively taught. The  book is not about research, however, but rather about theory. Thornton bases much of his argument upon the work of John Dewey and Whitehead. Many educators may believe Dewey was a man for all seasons, but there is something almost quaint in reading the books many citations to works over 50 years old. At a time when school practice emphasizes research-based instruction, readers may want to see more emphasis placed on recent research.

Critically oriented readers may also argue against the authors perspective. Thornton reiterates the old saw that teacher practice is too often mindless; he assumes curriculum reform is about improving social studies instruction, not about issues of power or the politics of diversity. The author also believes that teachers can agree on curricular content. In doing so he ignores much of the history of social studies curriculum development that has been chronicled by various scholars (Cornbleth & Waugh, 1995; Evans, 2004; Symcox, 2002).

Despite the failure of standards-based reform, Thornton believes that gatekeeping can be improved through teacher education reform. Thus Teaching Social Studies That Matters is written for people engaged in teacher preparation, particularly for methods instructors, though all readers interested in improvement in social studies instruction will benefit from this work.



Cornbleth, C., & Waugh, D. (1995). The great speckled bird. New York: St. Martins Press.

Evans, R. (2004). The social studies wars. New York: Teachers College Press.

Symcox, L. (2002). Whose history? The struggle for national standards in American classrooms. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 7, 2005, p. 1454-1457
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11759, Date Accessed: 10/18/2021 10:23:43 AM

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About the Author
  • William Mitchell
    SUNY Buffalo State College
    E-mail Author
    WILLIAM I. MITCHELL is an Associate Professor of History and Social Studies Education at SUNY’s Buffalo State College. He has 15 years experience in the secondary classroom. His work focuses on the curriculum history of the social studies and he is working on a book about the role of history in citizenship education.
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