Teaching Social Studies = A Balancing Act

I have been doing far too much thinking this week, and by Jove it’s got to stop! I have been working on a presentation for the CNY Council for the Social Studies Fall Conference and it has led me to cogitate on the idea of the balance of content and skill that is at the heart of the NYS Social Studies Framework and the Toolkit Inquiries. I have been using that phrase (“a balance of content and skill”) a lot in the past few months and every time I do I stretch my hands out in front of me, palms upward, and seesaw them back and forth to symbolize balance. Can you see it in your mind’s eye?

But what does that really mean in classroom practice? It certainly does not mean that we take turns teaching some content and then teaching some skills, perhaps on alternating days of the week. It also doesn’t mean that just any content matched up with any skills will do. So what, then?!?

So here is the paragraph that got me started on this contemplative path. It is from the website Historical Inquiry which is all about strategies for using primary sources in the classroom:

History is a way of organizing and explaining the past. One cannot come to know history by merely learning overviews of the past, nor by simply learning the skills of history in terms of analyzing historical sources. The danger of learning history by learning overviews is that “pupils will switch off when they hit overload or fail to connect with abstract alienating detail” (Counsell, 2000, p.61). The danger of learning history by learning the skills of history is that this “underplays the importance of narrative structures, which provide the framework within which questions are posed and answers developed” (Pendry, Husbands, Arthur, & Davison, 1998, p. 147). In order to overcome simplistic conceptual distinctions between the importance of learning facts and dates, and developing skills to analyze historical sources and develop historical accounts, Counsell (2000) contends that the acquisition of historical knowledge is “both the servant and the result of enquiry” (p.70). Learning history means learning how to engage in the process of historical inquiry. (Doolittle, Hicks and Ewing 2005) (Italics added)

Go back and read it again, especially the italicized bits. Go ahead. I’ll wait…

So what do we have? We have content that cannot exist without process and process that cannot exist without content. Indeed, it is a balancing act, but one that must be intentional in order to be meaningful. This is not an either-or proposition, folks. As teachers we must consider the content – the “what” of teaching and learning. But we must also consider skills – the processes of how we teach most effectively (and efficiently) and how students learn most effectively what they know. This is the “how” of teaching and learning, and this “how” involves inquiry. The skills we teach must support students in learning the content! The content must be considered with an eye to developing students’ skills to remember and apply what they know! Too often we spend our time on the “what” without considering the “how.” To see either content or skills as less relevant or less worthy of the limited time we have in the classroom, is to leave the job of teaching half done, and to leave our students with only part of what they need to be critical thinkers and informed citizens. Students have to be involved in the inquiry process.

In the Social Studies Framework the content (Key Ideas, Conceptual Understandings and Content Specifications) as well as the skills (Social Studies Practices and Common Core Literacy Standards) are specified. It is up to us to determine how to put these into a structure of inquiry in our classrooms. What reading, writing and discussion strategies will best support students’ inquiry into the issues leading up to the Civil War? How can I best present and structure students’ inquiry into the history of suffrage in the United States and help students see the connections to current issues of voting rights and responsibilities? How can I use different strategies to support all of my students and their inquiry around the Bill of Rights, even those who are struggling to read, write and speak English?

Okay, my puzzler is sore! So now I have planted this thought in your brains. Get back to me when you’ve got some ideas to share…


Fanelli_Jen_WEBJenny Fanelli



Doolittle, Peter, David Hicks, and Tom Ewing. Historical Inquiry. 2005. http://www.historicalinquiry.com/inquiry/index.cfm (accessed October 16, 2016).

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