Teaching Social Studies = Habits of Mind

Head ArtWe are deep in the cold and snow of Central New York winter, and digging deeper into the Social Studies Framework.

At our last Social Studies Leadership Network meeting, groups of participants worked their way through the K-12 vertical articulation of the Social Studies Practices from the Framework to understand how these thinking skills build and develop through the grades. It was an interesting and enlightening process for many of us. Although some of the Practices do refer to content, most of them indicate what we want students to do with any kind social studies knowledge. As we continue to move the teaching of social studies from “one fact after another” information delivery to inquiry, where historical questions and primary sources are central to the process, the Practices become more than just another list. They are the habits of mind of social studies, and, as such, a critically important part of the Framework.

The Social Studies Practices are arranged in 6 categories and are interpreted through the grades with growing complexity and sophistication:

  1. Gathering, Using, and Interpreting Evidence
  2. Chronological Reasoning and Causation
  3. Comparison and Contextualization
  4. Geographic Reasoning
  5. Economics and Economics Systems
  6. Civic Participation

The first category, Gathering, Using and Interpreting Evidence is, according to Greg Ahlquist, the overarching practice that cuts across the sub disciplines and under which all of the other practices live. (Ahlquist 2015)

The ability to use credible sources to gather evidence, and interpret and use this evidence to build a strong argument is a key disciplinary skill in social studies. This is what it means to read, write and think like a historian, political scientist, geographer, or economists. What does this mean for what we want our students to know and be able to do? In Kindergarten we want our students to “ask questions, recognize forms of evidence used to make meaning in social studies, identify the author or creator of a book or map, identify opinions expressed by others, and create understanding of the past.” (New York State Education Department 2014) This is where the disciplinary learning about social studies starts—with an understanding of the past, asking questions and knowing about evidence.

As students progress through school, these skills become more complex and more critical to understanding in social studies. Take a look at the skills we want our students to develop by the end of high school:

  • Define and frame questions about events and the world in which we live, form hypotheses as potential answers to these questions, use evidence to answer these questions, and consider and analyze counter‐
  • Identify, describe, and evaluate evidence about events from diverse sources (including written documents, works of art, photographs, charts and graphs, artifacts, oral traditions, and other primary and secondary sources).
  • Analyze evidence in terms of content, authorship, point of view, bias, purpose, format, and audience.
  • Describe, analyze, and evaluate arguments of others.
  • Make inferences and draw conclusions from evidence.
  • Deconstruct and construct plausible and persuasive arguments using evidence.
  • Create meaningful and persuasive understandings of the past by fusing disparate and relevant evidence from primary and secondary sources and drawing connections to the present.

The focus is still on asking questions and knowing about and using evidence. Now we want students to use these to create, analyze and evaluate arguments.

These skills and practices may seem like BHAGS (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) when we think of our current students. However, teaching these skills is not only possible, it is nonnegotiable if we want our students to become informed, productive global citizens. We can no longer be content to “cover” the material and expect students to engage with the material in meaningful and thoughtful ways. I am excited about the possibilities for change in the teaching and learning of social studies. As Bob Dylan wrote, “Your old road is/ Rapidly agin’/ Please get out of the new one/ If you can’t lend your hand/ For the times they are a-changin’.” (Dylan 1964)




  • Ahlquist, Greg. 2015. “Re-imagining Social Studies: Framework, Resources, Exams.” Syracuse, New York, February 3.
  • Dylan, Bob. 1964. The Times They Are a-Changin’.
  • New York State Education Department. 2014. “New York State K-12 Social Studies Framework.”

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