Full article: Owen, William T.  (1997) The Challenges of Teaching Social Studies Methods To Preservice Elementary Teachers.  Social Studies, May/Jun97, Vol. 88 Issue 3, p113, 8p, 1 chart.

Challenge 1: Negative Past Experiences with Social Studies

The finding that an unacceptably high percentage of preservice elementary teachers shared a negative perception of their past encounters with social studies presents a serious challenge. The cumulative percentage of participants who described their past social studies courses as being either "very interesting" or "interesting" was 58.5 percent. For those who reported their past social studies courses as being either "very uninteresting" or "uninteresting," the cumulative percentage was 41.5 percent.

The harsh reality is that over two-fifths of the participants described most of their past social studies courses as being more or less boring. That finding substantiates other research that indicated that students often perceived social studies as a boring subject (Schug, Todd, and Berry 1984; Shaughnessy and Haladyna 1985). I believe the finding, which comes from a sample in which 90 percent of the participants were women, adds to the literature by connecting the negative perception to the low status that social studies has among preservice elementary teachers (the second challenge).

The fact that most elementary education programs either offer only one course that concentrates solely on social studies methods or combine it with other content areas raises the question of whether it is expecting too much from professors to have them strive to alter the negative perception that many preservice elementary teachers have of social studies. After all, how much enthusiasm for teaching social studies can professors really be expected to generate, over the course of a semester, among those who have found social studies to be anything but interesting?

A related issue is the temptation for individuals to equate the uninteresting with the unimportant. Too many preservice elementary teachers are likely to have experienced disengagement on a cognitive and affective level with the content of social studies courses. If one of the goals of social studies educators is ensuring that social studies "receive vigorous support as a vital curriculum component responsible for accomplishing uniquely important purposes and goals" (NCSS 1994, 174), then maybe the place to begin rallying support is on the preservice level.

The first challenge is how to change the negative perception that many preservice elementary teachers have of social studies and how to convince them that it is an important and vital subject in the curriculum.

Challenge 2: Lack of Interest in Teaching Social Studies

What should come as no surprise is the connection between the negative past experiences of the participants and their current lack of interest in teaching social studies. Of the participants who were completing the course, twice as many of them (33.2%) reported their interest level for teaching social studies before enrolling in the course as being "low," compared to the number of participants (16.6%) who reported it as being "high." Actually, the finding that a majority of these participants (50.2%) reported their interest level as being "medium" appears rather generous and provides some basis for optimism that professors can somehow "turn things around" in favor of social studies. One would like to think that the tepid or low interest level that many preservice elementary teachers may have for teaching social studies before taking a social studies methods course is not necessarily indicative of what their interest level will be when they are about to complete one. Unfortunately, such optimism appears ill-founded.

When competing against the other content areas in the traditional elementary curriculum for the participants' selection as their most preferred content area, social studies did not fare well, as shown in table 1. Social studies ranked either last or next-to-last and was consistently surpassed by language arts, reading, and mathematics, in this order. These findings are similar to those of Houser (1995) who found social studies to have a secondary status among inservice elementary teachers. Confirming the earlier conclusion that preservice elementary teachers have a low regard for social studies before taking the course, the participants who had not taken the course chose social studies the fewest number of times as their most preferred content area. Of the participants who were completing the course, social studies was chosen next to last. Although the positive news is that the position of social studies improved among the participants who were about to complete the course, there is little cause for celebration in social studies being chosen next to last by tomorrow's teachers. The second challenge awaiting professors is changing the reality that many preservice elementary teachers have concluded that other subjects in the curriculum are more desirable to teach than social studies. Unless their minds are changed, the secondary status of social studies in the curriculum will continue.


Challenge 3: Confusion over the nature of Social Studies

Although the history of social studies is replete with conflicting views about its nature and definition (Allen 1996; Barr, Barth, and Shermis 1977; Barr, Barth, and Shermis 1978), preservice elementary teachers should fundamentally understand that it is a field of study (Engle 1976; Maxim 1995; Oliva 1982) that draws content from a variety of sources, predominately from the social sciences (Martorella 1994; National Council for the Social Studies 1994).

The first item on the questionnaire asked participants to respond to the following statement: "Social studies is one of the social sciences, just like sociology and economics." The item is worded in a manner that could bring a negative response. It is quite common for elementary social studies methods textbooks (Banks 1985; Ellis 1995; Maxim 1995; Naylor and Diem, 1987) to list the academic disciplines in the social Sciences. Although sociology and economics are always included in these lists, social studies never is. In fact, what preservice elementary teachers are supposed to understand is that the existence of social studies is dependent upon its multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary nature (Banks 1985; Martorella 1994). Of the participants who had not yet taken the course, 59.2 percent of them agreed with the statement, and 22.9 percent of them were undecided. Although disturbing in some ways because "social studies" is a term commonly used in K-12 education, the finding is not unexpected. Far more troubling is the finding that 58.8 percent of the participants who were completing the course agreed with the statement, and 14.7 percent were undecided.

In another item, the participants had to consider whether or not it was difficult to define social studies. Of the participants who were completing the course, 58 percent did not think it was, and 9.6 percent were undecided. Less than a third of the participants perceived the definition of social studies as being elusive, even though the literature is saturated (Mehlinger 1977; National Commission for Social Studies in the Schools 1989; NCSS 1994; Wesley 1950) with debates over the definition of social studies and discussions about how its definition influences the choice of content (Allen 1996; Barth and Shermis 1970). More research is needed to investigate the suspicion that to many preservice elementary teachers these debates and discussions are either unknown or have not been made meaningful.

In a third item, the participants had to determine if the term "social studies" really means a combination of history and geography. Of the participants who were completing the course, 32.5 percent agreed with the statement, 52.5 percent disagreed with the statement, and 15 percent were undecided. The results were disappointing because just over half the participants considered social studies to be something other than a combination of history and geography.

While I acknowledge that too much can be inferred from a limited number of items, I still feel that the findings raise some important questions. First, if almost three-fourths of the participants who were about to complete the course either believed that social studies was one of the social sciences or remained undecided, what did that indicate about their understanding of the nature of the academic disciplines in the social sciences and how these disciplines differ from social studies? Second, how can preservice elementary teachers adequately understand the multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary nature of social studies if they believe social studies is one of the academic disciplines in the social sciences? If a majority of the participants did not perceive social studies as being difficult to define, how do they explain the fact that experts in the field have found the opposite to be true? Why was such a large percentage (47.5%) of the participants unconvinced that social studies was something other than merely a combination of history and geography?

Although some issues in social studies education at the preservice level may be negotiable, the nature of social studies is not one of them. Herein lies the third challenge. It is difficult to comprehend how social studies can be taught purposely and successfully as an integrated study of the social sciences and other areas to promote civic competence (NCSS 1994) when its basic nature remains a mystery to those who are responsible for teaching it.




Challenge 4: Conflicting/Conservative Sociological Beliefs

Banks (1985) stated that one of the major goals for social studies should be "to help develop citizens who have the commitment and the skills needed to help close the gap between the democratic ideals of our nation and societal realities" (9). That goal, stated in various forms, has long been advocated by social studies educators. For example, the NCSS (1979) concluded that the ultimate goal of social studies was not "to advance the frontiers of knowledge nor to produce social scientists" (267) but rather "to engage students in analyzing and attempting to resolve the social issues confronting them" (267). Also, the National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools (1989) chose as one of its goals the development of "critical attitudes and analytical perspectives appropriate to analysis of the human condition" (65). As a further commitment to that goal, the NCSS (1994) described effective social studies programs as those that "prepare young people to identify, understand, and work to solve problems facing our diverse nation in an increasingly interdependent world" (159). Clearly, there is a nexus between social studies education and a desire to improve the human condition (Leming 1989) for all the nation's citizenry, but especially for those who have had limited access to the nation's political and economic resources.

In principle, the participants agreed with the aforementioned goal. Several items on the questionnaire provided data to substantiate that finding. When the total number of participants was asked whether "social studies should teach children to accept society the way it is," 74 percent disagreed with the statement. When they were asked whether "social studies should acknowledge our country's social problems," 90 percent of the participants agreed with the proposition. When the participants were asked if they favored "teaching children what the world is really like as well as what it should be like," 88 percent of them responded favorably. Another item asked the participants whether they thought it was desirable for children to "believe that American society needs to be improved," and 90 percent of them responded that it was desirable. Similarly, when asked whether "children who are concerned about problems in our society" was something they considered desirable, 95 percent of the participants believed that it was desirable.

From the data above, we can conclude that the participants supported the goal of social improvement. What might not be as obvious is the general nature of the items; none dealt with specifics. When the items became more specific, the participants responded quite differently than one might have been led to think from their previous responses. One such item asked the participants whether they believed it was desirable or undesirable for children "to believe that the American Dream is available to everyone who will simply work hard enough to attain it." Of the total number of participants, 75 percent responded that that was something desirable for children to believe. When only the participants who were completing the course were included in the analysis, the results were much the same: 69 percent of them believed it was desirable; 9 percent of them found it undesirable, and 22 percent of them were undecided.

Another item asked whether it was desirable or undesirable for children to "believe that America's political and economic institutions have the best interests of all Americans at heart." Of the total number of participants, 26 percent found it desirable, 36 percent found it undesirable, and 38 percent were undecided. When the data were separated so that only the participants who were completing the course were included, the results were nearly identical: 28 percent found it desirable, 35 percent found it undesirable, and 37 percent were undecided.

Although the participants had progressive sociological beliefs generally, their responses on specific items reflected conservative positions. That finding seems to relate directly to important issues in multicultural education; one of which is the difference that is likely to exist between the life experiences and sociological perspectives of teachers and their students who are members of diverse cultural groups (Banks 1988; Garcia 1994; Grossman 1995). Because most teachers come, and will continue to come, from a middle-class background, the sociological perspective they bring to the classroom may be far more conservative and benign than that of minority parents and children. That difference in perspective is inherent in both items that were specific in nature.

For the first item, the difference is found in how one explains the realities of poverty and unemployment in the United States. A belief that everyone can attain the American Dream simply by hard work is what Bennett and LeCompte (1990) refer to as "a middle-class ideology which states that status and mobility in American society are based upon merit, earned competitively, and facilitated by schooling" (161). To those who accept that ideology, individuals who experience poverty and unemployment have only themselves to blame; they just have not tried hard enough to succeed (Lewis 1978, Sleeter and Grant 1993). Comments made by preservice elementary teachers subsequent to the initial study provide further evidence of such a belief. Five selections from their statements that support the conservative ideology follow:

  1. I believe children need to know that the American Dream is available to everyone [emphasis in original] but that to attain it one must work hard. If you want something [goal], you have to do what is needed to get it. Not only does it take work but also an education. Nears age, an education wasn't as important as today. A lot of parents back then didn't go to school. Therefore, study in school.
  2. I believe that it is important for children to have dreams. I also think it is important to teach our children that anything is possible if you work hard enough.
  3. I would explain to this child that it is not impossible for people in poverty to get out and reach the American Dream. I would emphasize the hard work part of it and tell the student it is a struggle, but to always keep the hope alive.
  4. It is important for students to believe that it's possible to achieve in America. even though they need to realize that many things are only a dream [emphasis original].
  5. I would tell the child that I do not know why he lives in the projects. And that the government is not responsible for why he or she lives the way they do. People make their own choices in life. And it is not of [sic] my business how choose to live it.

Bennett and LeCompte note that those who accept such explanations somehow overlook the fact that that ideology most often applies in principle to those who are already the most advantaged (white middle-and upper-class men). The contrast is rather apparent between the conservative, "middle class" ideology and one that includes such concepts as "reproduction," "hegemony," "oppression," "resistance," and empowerment" (Apple 1978, 1979, 1982; Giroux 1983a, 1983b, 1988; Freire 1970)--concepts that persons with minority status in a society may find particularly relevant and meaningful.

The difference also concerns how one perceives the nature of society. Sleeter and Grant (1993) believe that members of dominant groups are likely to perceive the nature of society as fair and open, whereas members of oppressed groups are likely to view it as unfair or rigged. An uncritical view of societal institutions is a characteristic of structural functionalism (Bennett and LeCompte 1990), which, once again, reflects a conservative position, that is, "a benign, unquestioning view of the social system" and one that "accepts existing class structures as appropriate" (Bennett and LeCompte 1990, 6). Such a view has little in common with "critical citizenship" (Engle and Ochoa 1988) that encourages questioning and leaves room for doubt.

The fourth challenge is to encourage preservice elementary teachers to adopt and teach the all-important social studies goal of working to improve society. A conflict may exist between their general agreement with the ideals of that broad goal and their conservative sociological beliefs on specific issues. Additional research is needed in this area. What becomes clear is the need for professors to engage preservice elementary teachers in meaningful and substantive discussions about sociological issues, especially because elementary classrooms will include increasing numbers of students from diverse cultural groups (Garcia 1994).


Challenge 5: Selecting What to Teach

The number of topics deemed pertinent to social studies education at the preservice level continues to expand. As the content demands increase, so does the pressure on professors to prepare preservice elementary teachers adequately for an increasing number of responsibilities. The sheer number of topics can leave professors perplexed about finding enough time to cover some, much less all, of them. Massialas and Allen (1996) label some of these topics "crucial issues" and include the following under the description of what to teach in social studies: creating a civic culture, the hidden curriculum, student motivation, thinking skills, values education, global education, multicultural studies, gender studies, educational technology, alternative assessment, meeting the needs of students with disabilities, and academic freedom. One of the greatest challenges facing professors is how to use the limited amount of time available to them in a prudent manner.

Elementary social studies methods textbooks typically present what Leming (1989,1992) refers to as the social studies theorists' culture of social studies. Another apt description of that culture is a `university perspective' of social studies education. Within this perspective, the following positions are usually espoused: Society needs to be improved (Banks 1985); controversial studies (or problem-centered units) should be included in the curriculum (Jarolimek and Parker 1993); citizenship education is highly related to social studies (Maxim 1995); units of study are highly desirable (Chapin and Messick 1995); social interaction among students is encouraged (Ellis 1995); student engagement in social issues is a worthy and realistic goal (Martorella 1994); and multiple perspectives should be used for investigating historical events (Brophy and Alleman 1996).

I designed the Elementary Social Studies Perspective Questionnaire to measure a university perspective of elementary social studies. The items were derived from a literature review of the professional writings in the field and from elementary social studies methods textbooks. For the two groups in the study, an ANCOVA was used to test the adjusted means, with GPA serving as a covariant. Although the participants who were completing the course had a significantly higher adjusted mean (a more positive university perspective) than those who had not yet taken the course (M = 4.0 vs. M = 3.82), the difference on a practical level was too small to be meaningful. Both groups had a moderately positive university perspective of elementary social studies.

Among the possible explanations for the lack of practical significance, one that deserves careful consideration suggests that the ideals of social studies education (i.e., a university perspective) are closely aligned with the ideals of education in general (Hollins 1996; Leming 1989; Schubert 1986). According to that hypothesis, preservice elementary teachers who enroll in a course that addresses social studies methods, after having been exposed to the ideals of education in introductory education courses, are predisposed to accept a university perspective and readily agree with most of the general elements of this perspective.

On a practical level, the issue is whether or not professors should spend as much time (let alone an entire semester) attempting to persuade preservice elementary teachers of the merits of the general elements of a university perspective. To use the limited amount of time efficiently, professors need to engage preservice elementary teachers in new, challenging, and unresolved issues rather than in those on which, for the most part, they are already in agreement. The findings should encourage professors to spend more time discussing critical and complex topics and less time covering generalities that relate to a university perspective.

The fifth challenge is selecting and teaching content that is new, challenging, complex, and specific, rather than that which is redundant, simple, and general. By going beyond the general, valuable and enriching discussions can occur between professors and preservice elementary teachers.

Challenge 6: Using a Concurrent Social Studies Field Experience

Two universities in South Florida required an intensive and interactive field experience during a preservice elementary teacher's enrollment in a social studies methods course. Other universities in the area used different models for providing field experience in social studies prior to student teaching. For the two universities that offered a concurrent field experience, using it to its full advantage proved problematic. Although the data supported the general finding that the field experience was beneficial and important to the participants (N = 127), areas for improvement were found.

For instance, when considering the field experience in relation to what the students had learned in their social studies methods course, 80 percent of the participants found it a positive experience ("excellent" or "good"). Of those participants, the finding that just over a third (33.9%) of them evaluated it as being "excellent" was disappointing. The other 20 percent of the participants evaluated the field experience as being either "fair" (15.7%) or "poor" (4.7%).

Because nearly all the instructional strategies that are recommended in elementary social studies methods (e.g., cooperative learning, roleplaying, simulation, inquiry, group and independent projects) encourage socially interactive and active learning experiences (NCSS 1994), one would naturally think that field experience placements would be made with directing teachers who model these strategies. The data revealed that over 30 percent of the participants were placed with directing teachers whom they described as having a "traditional" teaching style. Although the term "traditional" is subject to interpretation, it is commonly used to denote a style that favors passive rather than active learning experiences (Dewey 1938) and one that is highly teacher-directed (Hollins 1996).

The most revealing finding to support the contention that the field experience was not used optimally pertained to the participants' evaluation of the interest level their directing teachers had for teaching social studies. A third of the participants (33.3%) reported that their directing teachers were either "uninterested" or "very uninterested" in teaching social studies. It is counterproductive, to say the least, to place a preservice teacher with a directing teacher who is not interested in teaching social studies.

To meet the sixth challenge, instructors must place each preservice elementary teacher with a directing teacher who can provide encouragement, positive modeling, and support for teaching social studies. Simply finding directing teachers who are willing to have preservice elementary teachers in their classrooms is not an acceptable nor a successful strategy for making field experience placements.


These formidable challenges are obstacles that professors of social studies methods will confront. Social studies educators on all levels have a vital interest in discussing the challenges and developing effective strategies to meet them. To enhance their dialogue, I offer the general observations that follow:

  1. For the first challenge, secondary and postsecondary social studies educators must improve existing lines of communication and develop new ones. The fact that social studies is considered boring by a large percentage of preservice elementary teachers needs to be addressed within the context of causes and cures. What must not be overlooked is the fact that 90 percent of the participants in the study were women. The issue of integrating women into the social studies curriculum (Bloom and Ochoa 1996) must receive more attention, and changes must occur that will allow women to relate better to the content of social studies courses.
  2. The finding that social studies has a low status among preservice elementary teachers mirrors the view found among elementary teachers in general. What must become more apparent is that teaching social studies can be a rewarding, enjoyable. meaningful, and significant experience, both for elementary teachers and their students. Although social studies will continue to lag behind other content areas so long as current concerns over reading and mathematics remain the focus of the public, it can attract a greater following. Of the preservice elementary teachers who were completing the course, the largest percentage of them (24%) reported that they did not yet have a preference for a content area. Professors of elementary social studies should take some solace from that finding and develop strategies for reaching the uncommitted.

Although discussions are constantly occurring over what content should be taught to elementary children, the real issue is whether teachers (preservice and inservice), who have a low regard for social studies, will make the necessary effort to find the time to teach the subject at all, regardless of what the content is. Presently, that issue appears to be the more important of the two.

  • 3. Professors of social studies must make ever, effort to ensure that preservice ice elementary teachers finish a course that addresses social studies methods with an understanding of the basic nature of social studies. A follow-up study should be conducted to verify the findings of the current study.
  • 4. The fourth challenge serves notice of the need to discuss various sociological issues. particularly those that relate to race, class, and gender, in courses that address social studies methods. The topic of multicultural education could serve as a springboard for such discussions. Professors cannot assume that a sociology course, somewhere along the way, will provide preservice elementary teachers with sufficient opportunities to reflect upon their own sociological beliefs.
  • 5. The fifth challenge may, in fact, have a "silver lining." Professors of social studies methods cannot ignore the prior knowledge and attitudes that preservice elementary teachers bring to their courses. The current study suggests that preservice elementary teachers have a predisposition to accept many of the general elements of a university perspective of elementary social studies and that more time should be spent discussing specific issues.
  • 6. To address the sixth challenge, universities must implement or improve the monitoring procedures for field experience placements. Those procedures should provide guidelines for screening, selecting, evaluating, retaining, it necessary. excluding directing teachers. Every preservice elementary teacher deserves to benefit positively from a social studies field experience, and universities and schools must work together to reach that goal.


Table 1--Preferred Selections of Content Area and Percentages Listed by Groups

All participants            Participants in
(N = 536)                   the course (n =267)
Language arts (23.1%)       Language arts (23.6%)
Reading (17.9%)             Reading (18%)
Math (14.4%)                Math (13.5%)
Social studies (9.5%)       Social studies (11.6%)
Science (8.8%)              Science (9.0%)
No preference (25.1%)       No preference (24.3%)
Participants not in
the course (n = 269)
Language arts (22.7%)
Reading (17.8%)
Math (15.2%)
Science (8.6%)
Social Studies (7.4%)
No preference (28.3%)
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