Theory & Research in Social Education

We use cookies to improve your website experience. To learn about our use of cookies and how you can manage your cookie settings, please see our Cookie Policy. By closing this message, you are consenting to our use of cookies.

Elementary School Studies Education

Theory & Research in Social Education


Elementary social studies education is vital to the development of young children’s civic ideals and practices, notions of social justice, critical thinking skills, and adequate content knowledge in history, geography, economics, and civics. Likewise, the skills, attitudes, and values advanced by coherent elementary social studies programs are integral to the development of young minds toward a diverse, equitable, and just democratic society.  As advocates of strong social studies programs in PK-12 schools, social studies teacher educators and researchers recognize the role of fostering critical elementary social studies knowledge while children are young in order to continue to add to it effectively as children advance into middle and high school.

During the past decade, however, we have witnessed the disappearance of social studies from many elementary school classrooms, as evidenced by the study by Paul Fitchett and Tina Heafner in this virtual issue. AS the authors note, this marginalization is primarily due to the impact of high stakes testing’s emphasis on literacy and mathematics skills. Countering this recognition, a growing number of examples of effective and innovative social studies being taught in elementary grades have been elucidated.

The researchers in this themed virtual issue advance our knowledge about elementary social studies in unique ways.  They report findings on contemporary and historical elementary social studies content and pedagogy that has been marginalized and/or underrepresented. The articles in this issue represent a range of well conceived and enacted studies that explore formal curricula in a rural setting historically, challenge traditional curricula with more nuanced and accurate narratives in teaching place-based history that emphasizes the troubling and long-lasting impacts of colonization, examine elementary state social studies standards across the United States through a Black critical patriotism lens, investigate young children’s understanding of time with the use of Timewise lessons, and consider children’s trust and negotiation of subjectivities during a deliberative dialogue experience.

Using a historical lens to illuminate elementary citizenship education in four Iowa counties, Carolyn Weber and Sarah Montgomery found that teachers in these counties emphasized civics education focused on home, school, and community prior to World War I, and after, local civics content continued to be privileged while a recognition of a national move toward citizenship education occurred. This lack of major curriculum change, even after a major world event, confirms the slow pace of curriculum reform, rather than overt resistance, to movement toward teaching a national citizenship curriculum by Iowa teachers during the period of study. Harper Keenan problematizes traditional American colonial history via his research on the historical site, San Francisco de Asis (commonly called Mission Dolores) where he observed the Mission’s full time curator and additional full time employee, who both identify as Ohlone, and school children’s visits to the site during a six-month period.  Keenan carefully reveals the counterstory narrated during these visits, which “addressed the catastrophic impact of the mission system for California Indian communities” and also “a nuanced approach to the treatment of difficult history” (p. 66).

Christopher Busey and Irenea Walker interrogated elementary social studies across all 50 states’ standards documents and used the frame of Black critical patriotism for evidence of “Black physical resistance, sociopolitical activism, political thought, and intellectual agency” (p. 476).  They found, sadly for the most part, scattered evidence that privileged individuals over collective resistance.  Further, the authors call for finely-tuned attention to race in elementary social studies curricula with an eye toward teachers having rich discussions in classrooms across the country and, thus, equipping young citizens with appropriate vocabulary and knowledge of critical history, civic history and citizenship. In the Netherlands, researchers Marjan De Groot-Reuvekamp, Anje Ros, and Carla van Boxtel conducted a study of 2nd and 5th grade students’ understanding of time after an intervention of lessons (Timewise) specifically designed to regularly use a timeline to teach lessons that foreground the time during which historical events took place and to contextualize the events by placing them into large chunks of time. Both experimental groups showed significant gains in their identification of historical time and understanding of the content of the history lessons.  Finally, Jennifer Hauver, Xiaoying Zhao, and Jessica Kobe studied 9-11-year-old students’ use of deliberative dialogue to work together in groups toward a solution for a relevant school issue.  Children had the opportunity to examine and re-examine their agency and how to use it in various ways in working toward a common response amongst the group.  Their ability to “read” the spaces they entered—in this case, small discussion groups-- proved to be impacted by their previous experiences and in their opportunities to engage in meaningful deliberation in their classroom.

Taken as a whole, the authors in this elementary social studies-themed issue illuminate new examples of the contemplative, grounded work in elementary social studies classrooms and in elementary social studies teacher education.  Individually, each study challenges the reader to consider bringing deeper meaning, challenging content, and sophisticated context to the field and in the work that we do as researchers, teacher educators, and contributors to social studies content and teaching at the local, state, national, and international levels.

Sherry Field is Associate Dean for Faculty and Academic Affairs of the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin. An internationally recognized expert in elementary social studies education, Dr. Field is a former recipient of the Jean Dresden Grambs Career Research Award from the National Council for the Social Studies. She also served as editor of Social Studies and the Young Learner from 1996-2006.  

Stay up to date with @EducationArena
Follow Us on Twitter

Latest Tweets