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Contemporary Social Studies: An Essential Reader

reviewed by Charles Tocci - July 06, 2012

coverTitle: Contemporary Social Studies: An Essential Reader
Author(s): William B. Russell III (ed.)
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1617356719, Pages: 616, Year: 2011
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Compiling a state of the field volume in education is a difficult task given the volume of work published, the wide range of initiatives underway, and the rapid evolution of digital technologies impacting learning inside and outside of schooling.  William B. Russell IIIs (ed.) volume, Contemporary Social Studies: An essential reader, does a yeomans job of addressing the questions posed at its outset: What is the cotemporary state of social studies?  How did we get here?  What will social studies look like in the future (p.1-2)?

The volume consists of twenty-eight chapters organized into five sections, each section addressing a major vein of scholarship in social studies education: I. Purpose and Approach; II. Curriculum, Content, and Standards; III. Diversity and Perspective; IV. Pedagogy; V. Media, Technology, and Teacher Education.  The chapters themselves are generally of high quality, mixing original research with reviews of recent literature.  Russell did a fine job integrating chapters from leading figures in the field, such as Christine Woyshner and Keith Barton, with early- and mid-career scholars.  The overall effect is that of listening in on several lively conversations about key topics in social studies education; the chapters in each section speak to each other and provide a range of meaningful perspectives for readers to consider.

Section I deals with the core question social studies educators have wrangled with since the rise of the field over 100 years ago: what is its purpose?  The five chapters within settle on familiar concepts (citizenship education and democratic education), but attempt to revise them for the contemporary world.  Santora (Chapter Two) and Miller-Lane (Chapter Three) seek to expand meaningful participation in democratic education and thereby democracy through the embrace of multiculturalism and alternative forms of education (e.g., embodied education).  Merryfield (Chapter Four) and Rapoport (Chapter Five) push the notion of citizenship to include global responsibilities and relationships, while Waters and Russells sixth chapter argues a deep connection between character education and citizenship education.  As is typical of the Contemporary Social Studies, the section does not make one definitive statement; instead, it lays out the connections and contentions between the notable perspectives in the field.  The question of social studies purpose is not laid to rest here, but the conversation is moved towards engaging democracy as a historical process, engaging global concerns, and engaging the individual students virtue as hallmarks of 21st Century social studies.

The next eight chapters, covering section II and two-thirds of section III, address the content of social studies.  The core chapters of this subset are Vinson, Ross, and Wilsons (Chapter Nine) on the politics of the standards movement in social studies and Bislands (Chapter Ten) on the marginalization of social studies in elementary classrooms.  Together they profile the pressing challenge social studies educators face: attempting to teach an unwieldy set of standards in diminishing amounts of instructional time.  The pairing of these chapters suggests that by trying to craft compromise standards respecting conservative and progressive views as well as a range of academic disciplines, the field of social studies is hamstrung in arguing its relevancy in the No Child Left Behind era that is heavily focused on literacy and numeracy.  The other chapters arguments for the importance of historical thinking, geography education, culturally responsive teaching, studying race, studying GLBTQ issues, and studying gender are powerful and vital to the themes raised in section I, but they are ultimately moot if the marginalization of social studies continues in public schools.

The final two chapters of section III and the six chapters of section IV concern how social studies is taught.  Turner, Clarbough, Philpott, and McConkey (Chapter Twenty-Two) provide an overview of the lecture-based history of social studies pedagogy and the wider palette of modern techniques, including inquiry, drama, and questioning.  The other chapters complement this with discussions of reading in secondary social studies (Chapter Seventeen), facilitating conversations (Chapter Twenty), experiential learning (Chapter Twenty-One), teaching a globalized United States history (Chapter Eighteen), and teaching the social-emotional side of students along with the intellectual (Chapter Nineteen).  Social studies pedagogy is given a further push by Linter and Schweder (Chapter Fifteen) as well as OBrien (Chapter Sixteen) who address the current state and challenges of special education and English language learners in social studies classrooms, respectively.  The general theme of pedagogy is continued in the first half of section V, though specifically dealing with media and digital technologies.   The authors each advocate for the increased incorporation of media and popular culture (Chapter Twenty-Three), information and internet literacies (Chapter Twenty-Four), and web 2.0 tools (Chapter Twenty-Five).  Taken as a group, these chapters articulate numerous ways that social studies is and can be taught, though many of the arguments are normative.  As the field moves forward, there needs to be more scholarship that analytically explores social studies teaching methods to assess outcomes, compare effectiveness, ascertain consequences, and qualify the student and teacher experiences through the pedagogy.  

The last three chapters deal with teacher education, both in preparation and in continued development.  Chapter Twenty-Six argues for more global education in social studies teacher preparation in order to support efforts at teaching for global citizenship.  The final two chapters, Twenty-Seven and Twenty-Eight, both address a similar issue for in-service and pre-service teachers respectively: how to instill and support reflective teaching in the context of accountability and high-stakes testing?  These three chapters touch on the major issues teacher educators and professional development experts continuously navigate; there is enough suggested in these chapters to warrant a full volume exploring the work of preparing and supporting social studies teachers amidst shifting regimes of accountability and accreditation.

Global citizenship appears across many of the chapters as a leitmotif, which reflects how pervasive this concept is in the field.  As far back as 1918, the National Education Association articulated a purpose of secondary education to be a greater extent and in a more direct way cop[ing] with the problems of community life, State and National Governments, and international relationships (p.1). Rapoports chapter (Five) does a fine job of sketching out the competing conceptualizations of global citizenship and various critiques thereof; as is common, global citizenship is presented as an expanded model of older forms of citizenship, a model in which a individuals expectation of loyalty, commitment, and belonging is no longer limited to a living place or nation, but also comes with a sense of belonging&to the world (p.78).  But who is this individual?  As Cary (2001) argues, citizenship is a discursively produced category; it produces a vast array of differentiated experiences in relation to being a citizen or exclusions from citizenship.  When considered in the contemporary United States, how is global citizenship constructed and experienced differently for the wealthy as opposed to the middle class or poor?  For different racial and ethnic groups?  For different sexual orientations?  For seniors versus adults versus youths?  As these various identifiers combine and as the scope is widened from America to the rest of the world, the permutations of global citizenship proliferate with attendant differentiated access to power and resources.  Put another way, global citizenship must move beyond a neo-liberal focus on cultivating particular attitudes and dispositions in individual students.  It must thoroughly consider the inequities and injustices suffered by persons near and distant; it must consider citizenship as practiced in spaces now suffused by corporations, international organizations, foreign states, and digital technologies.  This requires a more direct, critical pedagogy than the ones described in Contemporary Social Studies.  The incorporation of civic action (Levinson, 2012) or direct confrontation of student beliefs (McAvoy & Hess, 2012) are examples of social studies teaching methods and scholarship rooted in a different conceptualization of citizenship, global or otherwise.

Of course, no state of the field book can include all perspectives.  Instead, judging by breadth and general representation, Russells volume is an excellent contribution to social studies education scholarship in that it facilitates multi-perspective, complicated thinking around some of the most important topics in the field today.  This book will be of interest and use to social studies teacher educators, doctoral students as well as researchers in the field, and teachers who draw inspiration from academic works.


Many thanks to Dr. Seungho Moon for his comments and suggestions.


Cary, L. (2001). The refusals of citizenship: normalizing practices in social educational discourses. Theory and Research in Social Education, 29(3), p.405-430.

Levinson, M. (2012). No citizen left behind. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

McAvoy, P. & Hess, D. (2012). The political classroom: Evidence and ethics in democratic education. New York: Routledge.

National Education Association of the United States. (1918). The Cardinal principles of secondary education. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 06, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16818, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 7:38:13 PM

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About the Author
  • Charles Tocci
    National Louis University
    E-mail Author
    Charles Tocci is assistant professor of secondary education and director of the Secondary Social Studies Education program at National Louis University. He is also director of studies for InterFuture, an independent organization that supports undergraduates to conduct original intercultural research in twenty locales around the world. Charlie also serves as chair of the steering committee for the Chicago Alliance of History Educators. His research interests center on grading and assessing practices, particularly the ways in which the seemingly technical aspects of grading have significant impact on teaching practice and social relations. His most recent article, “An immanent machine: Reconsidering grades, historical and present,” appeared in Educational Philosophy and Theory.
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