As a social studies educator I have heard all the excuses as to why social studies is not a priority within our elementary school classrooms.
“There isn’t enough time.”
“We need to focus on reading and math skills.”
“Social Studies isn’t tested so it really doesn’t matter.”
These excuses are gut wrenching and disheartening, because research tells us that when we teach elementary social studies we are teaching our youngest citizens how to be more humane, empathetic and to just be better people. Without these experiences, our students are at a disadvantage when it comes to being productive citizens.
This past summer, I joined a group of elementary educators from Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, Tennessee to begin development of inquiry units using our Tennessee State Standards with a focus on Geography. Using the lens of geography and the vehicle of inquiry, our goal was to develop inquiries to be shared with teachers in our state and begin to break down those pesky excuses as to why elementary social studies is not a priority.
I began this project with a huge amount of hope. Hope for inquiry to be the catalyst elementary social studies need to jump start curiosity and excitement. Hope that through inquiry students will deepen their understanding of content and use their voices to express what they are learning. Hope that through inquiry teachers and administrators will see the value of allowing students to do the most basic of human actions: ask questions and seek the answer to those questions. And, ultimately hope that with inquiry we will finally break away from traditional ways of thinking in education and give students the tools they need to become citizens.
But, I’m not so naive to think this is all going to happen with careful consideration for how students and teachers interact in an inquiry classroom.
Inquiry requires students to take risks in the pursuit of knowledge as they ask questions and look for answers. They must risk initial failure while stepping out of their comfort zone of the traditional learning classroom environment and into an educational experience where they can experience productive struggle resulting in frustration. In inquiry, there may not be a “right answer” and students risk putting themselves in a vulnerable place by taking a stance on an issue that might not be the “popular” stance within their classroom.
And all of these risks are worth it because elementary social studies, infused with inquiry, helps students develop into civic minded citizens. This looks like practicing leadership skills, communication skills and provides them opportunities to work on teams, practice problem solving, and participate in public speaking in a safe space. The classroom is the perfect place for students to practice these skills in an environment designed to push their thinking, while developing their understanding of the world around them. As we transition into 2022, my hope is that educators across Tennessee will come to see how to engage students in inquiry as a way of producing citizens who are prepared to do great things in their community, their state, their country, and the world.