Rethinking Social Studies for an Uncertain (Likely Dystopian) Future

Rethinking Social Studies for an Uncertain (Likely Dystopian) Future


With depressing regularity, since the start of the 2016 presidential campaign, I've felt a tug to blow-up large chunks of planned lessons because of a morning indictment, Congressional hearing, or some norm-shattering tweet. On the days that I do, I set a timer for 10 to 15 minutes and we talk through the scandal du jour. In these moments, my students are always more engaged. They ask incredibly thoughtful questions and then groan loudly when my timer goes off to end our conversations. 

Each time I say to myself, this is how school is supposed to feel. 

No one asked me, but I believe that in teaching, particularly in social studies, we're overdue for a revolution in the skills and dispositions with which we seek to endow students. I support the Common Core State Standards and C3 Framework, but you can drive a Kenworth Truck through the gaps they have and replicate in students' collective understanding. Standards are important, but standards are also why nearly every U.S. 11th grader can explain the broad contours of the Industrial Revolution, but they're largely oblivious to the role of labor movements and government regulators in taming its greatest excesses. I think it's worth questioning aloud whether the current skills front and center in most social studies classrooms—reading and note-taking, summarizing, answering multiple guess and short-responses—will meet students' needs in an uncertain near-future. For the record, I believe the answer is "the hardest of nos."

I've opined previously about my leveraging of controversial police shootings and the lack of meaningful law enforcement oversight to engage students about civil liberties in my government class. My classroom practice is imperfect, but I enjoy learning and thinking aloud. With that, here are some avenues I intend on pursuing this school year, an instructional to-do list:

Do a Better Job Teaching Media Literacy

If I ever write a book, there will be a profanity-laced chapter detailing my experience visiting Istanbul last week, during the flare-up between the Turkish military and the Kurds. Seeing events unfold first-hand was my 2,000th recent reminder that we have to do better with teaching students about navigating media.

Here's a recent example, below are two widely used graphics about media sources. One is imperfect, the other is arguably educational malpractice. If students are emerging from our classrooms believing that Vox and Breitbart are just "presenting opposing viewpoints" or worse "equally reliable," we're doing them a grave disservice in the name of "objectivity" and that's a terribly bad look. 


Created by @vlotero, use this and follow them on Twitter.



Never, ever let me see you put this in front of students


Emphasize the Importance of Local Activism

Trump isn't why U.S. cities are increasingly unaffordable to live in; he's not why people in Washington State can vote at home in their jammies, while Black folks in Georgia stand in line for hours; the president isn't why low-income Black and Brown students attend increasingly segregated and decreasingly equipped and funded schools. These are the outcomes of local governments. But how much time do we spend intentionally teaching about school boards, city councils and state legislatures? Small groups of organized people, especially young people, can make a meaningful impact on local issues and campaigns. But they don't know that if we don't teach them and show them replicable local examples.

Modernize and Contextualize Teaching About the Mid-Twentieth Century

The civil rights narrative you likely received in school was something like this: "the U.S. was founded, there was slavery, it was bad. Then Lincoln freed the slaves and they were happy. But the South was still mean, but M.L.K. came along and 'Had a Dream' and now we're all equal." Similarly, we essentialize World War II and the Holocaust: "Hitler was bad. He tried to exterminate European Jews, but the U.S. Army won the war and freed them."

We owe students better. Students need to understand the history of state repression in the U.S. and the rise of fascism elsewhere. We need to mine recent history for lessons for today: Why was the civil rights movement successful? What are some unresolved civil rights issues? How can we apply our understanding of the civil rights movement to issues facing disabled people and the LGBQT+ population? Similarly with World War II: How did Hitler come to power? What institutional or societal checks failed and allowed his rise? How do we prevent violent authoritarianism in modern times? How can we effectively respond to modern fascist movements in the U.S. and elsewhere?

I could go on. These are the kind of questions students should be grappling with and interrogating in class. 

Let's be real. Teaching social studies and living in 2019 is really weird. This historical moment demands more responsive models of teaching where we teach students about our complex world (our assigned task). But we also must teach them how to navigate what will certainly be an uncertain near-future (what they will really need). We're already leaving them with crumbling infrastructure, a warming planet and mounting national debt. The least we can do is give students the skill-set necessary to navigate the (bleak) future we're leaving them.



Nate Bowling is the 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year, a Finalist for National Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY.) He teaches social studies at the American Community School in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Nate publishes a blog called, "A Teacher's Evolving Mind" and is the host of the "Nerd Farmer Podcast.

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