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Democratic Education for Social Studies: An Issues Centered Decision Making Curriculum

reviewed by Todd Hawley - June 08, 2007

coverTitle: Democratic Education for Social Studies: An Issues Centered Decision Making Curriculum
Author(s): Anna S. Ochoa-Becker
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1593115903 , Pages: 347, Year: 2007
Search for book at Amazon.com

In a climate where standards-based educational reforms are commonplace, Democratic Education for Social Studies: An Issues-Centered Decision Making Curriculum is a powerful addition to the literature on curricula designed to develop democratic citizens and a socially just society. Ochoa-Becker’s second edition of Engle and Ochoa’s (1988) Education for Democratic Citizenship: Decision Making in the Social Studies is an excellent resource for teacher educators, administrators, and teachers interested in implementing a social studies curriculum designed to produce student-citizens capable of developing solutions for persistent social issues. While specifically written for social studies educators, it is well suited for anyone interested in the process of democratic education, in ways of promoting reflective and participatory global citizens, or in gaining a deeper understanding of different approaches to teaching social studies.

Ochoa-Becker’s book is divided into two parts along with an epilogue and three appendices. Part One establishes a rationale for the issues-centered decision making curriculum. The first six stand-alone chapters summarize democratic ideals, citizenship in a global age, socialization and counter socialization for democracy, democratic decision-making, and the status of social studies programs. These chapters provide teacher educators with a great deal of material to draw upon when thinking about readings for undergraduate and graduate level courses in social studies education. Taken individually, Chapters 1, 5 and 6, are the most powerful in Part One.

Chapter 1 sets the stage for the entire curriculum by examining the concept of democracy and democratic ideals. Ochoa-Becker explores what she considers to be the six essential tenets of democracy while examining the role social studies education should play in deepening democracy in the United States. These tenets make up the core themes for those involved in the education of the next generation of decision makers. For Ochoa-Becker, today’s students are a “new and different breed of citizen…requir[ing] an education that provides both the knowledge and abilities that empower citizens to be thoughtful, assertive, and proactive as well as able to demonstrate the ability to function fully in an open society” (pp. 22-21). It is for the development of this new breed of citizens that the issues-centered decision making curriculum is designed.

Chapter 5 focuses on decision making and the implications for a social studies curriculum encouraging students to deliberate on controversial public issues and to then make decisions on how best to respond as citizens. The strength of this chapter is the discussion of how social studies teachers must move beyond the traditional lecture-style instruction where content is presented as fact to be regurgitated on multiple-choice tests. Instead, Ochoa-Becker argues, the content must be chosen based on its ability to engage student-citizens in the process of testing the validity of truth claims and as part of solving complex issues embedded within the content. Drawing on the work of Whitehead (1929), Taba (1967), and Engle (1960), Ochoa-Becker focuses on the value of the process of decision-making as content, not just something to be done with the content of the various disciplines making up the social studies curriculum. This attention to process as content deserves more consideration by social studies teachers and teacher educators.

The final chapter in Part One outlines Ochoa-Becker’s understanding of the various ways the social studies have been defined and provides an assessment of competing conceptions of social studies curricula. Situating social studies within three distinct definitional categories, Ochoa-Becker identifies seven distinct conceptions of social studies, each promoting a specific purpose and desired outcomes. These definitions are spread along a continuum from a narrow perception of social studies as the study of the social sciences as history, to a more critical examination of the same topics, and finally, to a broad conception of social studies as an exploration of persistent and often controversial public issues. The seven conceptions of social studies teaching and learning expand the ongoing discussion started by Barr, Barth, and Shermis (1978) whose “three traditions” continue to structure thinking about ways teachers approach their teaching of social studies.

While Part One argues the merits of promoting the power of social studies to develop socially just democratic citizens, Part Two outlines the framework for the issues-centered decision making curriculum and provides a detailed description of democratic teaching practices and the role assessment can play within the curriculum. The final two chapters in Part Two discuss ways to implement the curriculum in schools and give a much-needed overview of the conditions necessary to make the curriculum a reality in schools today. Again, the majority of the chapters in Part Two (especially Chapters 7, 8, and 9) would work as individual selections in social studies methods and curriculum courses.

The framework Part Two describes for the issues-centered decision making curriculum is built upon the desire to “strengthen the abilities of citizens to make justifiable democratic decisions” (p. 190). This seemingly simple change in the focus of the social studies curriculum would represent a foundational shift given the long tradition of content coverage. Again the attention is on the process of learning to make decisions as much as it is on the content used to facilitate the decision-making process. Ochoa-Becker promotes a gradual approach to change while walking teachers through the process of making the transition to a more issues-centered curriculum. The gradual-change model will continue to utilize the traditional subject courses (World History, US History, Government, and Economics) while rethinking the approach taken with the content of these courses. Additionally, schools are encouraged to develop internships to support the development of student-citizens capable of engaging with issues facing their communities.

Indeed this curriculum is ambitious, well-articulated, and positions teachers to do more than continue to follow the traditional transmission style of teaching which historically dominates social studies teaching and learning. Ochoa-Becker’s thinking is reminiscent of the works of Dewey (1933), Hunt and Metcalf (1955, 1968), Newmann (1970, 1975), and Oliver and Shaver (1966). Her thinking can also be seen in the current work of Parker (2003), Barton and Levstik (2004), and Thornton (2005). These authors place their faith in the power of democratic decision making to produce a more socially just world.

It has been almost 20 years since the first edition of this book was published. While the core themes of the original remain and a stronger emphasis on social justice issues has been added, it remains to be seen if this edition will have a greater impact on day-to-day social studies practice than its predecessor. Will the ideas promoted in this edition find an audience with classroom teachers and enable them to implement a more democratic curriculum in social studies, or will they meet with the same fate as the New Social Studies movement? Teacher educators who pursue a research agenda focusing on classrooms where teachers work to implement Ochoa-Becker’s curriculum are needed if this curriculum has a chance of moving beyond colleges of education and into social studies classrooms.

Research conducted with teachers engaging their students in the issues-centered decision making curriculum could help make a stronger case for the power of democratic teaching and learning in practice. Case studies of individual teachers - or departments working to shift both their thinking about and teaching of social studies content related to producing thoughtful student-citizens - could only serve to strengthen Ochoa-Becker’s argument and may actually convince teachers and administrators that a shift away from a standardized curriculum is finally worth the risk.


Barr, R., Barth, J.L., & Shermis, S.S. (1978). The nature of social studies. Palm Springs, CA: ETC Publications.

Dewey, J. (1933). How we think. Boston: D.C. Heath.

Engle, S. H. (1960). Decision making: The heart of social studies instruction. Social Education, 24(7), 301-304, 306.

Engle, S. H., & Ochoa, A. S. (1988). Education for democratic citizenship: Decision making in the social studies. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hunt, M. P. & Metcalf, L. E. (1955). Teaching high school social studies. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Hunt, M. P. & Metcalf, L. E. (1968). Teaching high school social studies: Problems in reflective thinking and social understanding (2nd Ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

Levstik, L. S., & Barton, K. C. (2004). Teaching history for the common good. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Newmann, F. M. (1970). Clarifying public controversy: An approach to teaching social studies. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.

Newmann, F. M. (1975). Education for citizen action: Challenge for secondary curriculum. Berkeley, CA: McCutchan Publishing Corporation.

Oliver, D. W., & Shaver, J. P. (1966). Teaching public issues in the high school. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Parker, W. C. (2003). Teaching democracy: Unity and diversity in public life. New York: Teachers College Press.

Taba, H. (1967). Teacher’s handbook for elementary social studies. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Thornton, S. J. (2005). Teaching social studies that matters: Curriculum for active learning. New York: Teachers College Press.

Whitehead, A. N. (1929). The aims of education and other essays. New York: MacMillan.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 08, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14513, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 10:04:50 PM

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About the Author
  • Todd Hawley
    University of Georgia
    E-mail Author
    TODD S. HAWLEY is currently a doctoral candidate in the Department of Elementary and Social Studies Education at the University of Georgia. His research interests include social studies teacher education, rationale-based practice, and pedagogical decision-making.
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