Creating a Social Studies Curriculum that Connects Students to History and Today’s World

Cristina Marcalow
September 18, 2019

A high-quality social studies curriculum engages students, builds their content knowledge, and inspires and enables them to apply their learning. Indeed, a large national study showed that students who were taught in effective social studies classes were more likely to vote, talk about politics outside of school, volunteer in their communities, and confidently engage in public speaking and discussions with elected representatives. 

But Brookings scholar Grover Whitehurst and his colleagues lament that we don’t do enough to focus on school curriculum, even though research shows that curriculum has a greater effect on learning than other education reforms. Today, only 31 states require a year of U.S. history to graduate, and just eight states require a yearlong civics or government class. Even in the states that do offer social studies courses, too many classes rely on a small number of textbooks to build student knowledge, resulting in an ineffective curriculum composed of, as education historian Jonna Perrillo describes, “many simple story lines, decontextualized facts and fragmented, disconnected events” that don’t engage or inspire students to think deeply. 

Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuk argues, too, that a social studies curriculum predominated by textbook learning doesn’t invite students to question the authors’ narratives they’re reading. Instead, he and others contend that the most effective social studies curriculum—one that enables students to dig into the complexities of history and the connection to today’s unfolding events—focuses on primary sources and other narratives that explore competing perspectives, taught using a series of “provocative” questions that trigger higher-order thinking.

To create curricular units that engage students, encourage them to analyze what they learn, and help them apply that learning, use the following guidelines. 

1. Use essential questions.

Frame your unit’s content with essential questions that are open-ended, inspire higher-order thinking, require explanation and justification, and engage your students. In fact, your questions should not only stimulate your students’ thinking but also drive them to uncover the topic’s depth and richness. Critical thinking experts Linda Elder and Richard Paul, in their book The Art of Asking Essential Questions, write that essential questions are “the engine, the driving force of thinking,” helping us focus on what is most important. This type of inquiry-driven learning has special implications for how students apply their social studies learning outside the classroom: The National Council for the Social Studies’ C3 Framework emphasizes that a teacher’s use of questions can not only spark students’ curiosity but also start them on the path to becoming engaged citizens. 

Ask questions beginning with Why or How to focus your students’ thinking. When teaching a middle school unit on the ancient dynasties of China, for example, you can ask, as we do in our unit: “How did the environment influence the development of early civilizations in China?” Positing this question for each related assignment—before students read about the Yellow River, explore a topographical map, and compare other ancient civilizations across the globe to their terrain—will activate a student’s thinking about how a civilization’s environment can help a population survive and grow. 

As you progress through the unit, ask new essential questions to build on students’ knowledge and expand their thinking; ask questions about how China united into a single state during the Han Dynasty, for example, and how Confucianism influenced individuals, rulers, and society. By the time you get to the Silk Road, your students will have already been thinking deeply about China’s geographical, political, and intellectual development and will be ready to learn about its complex relationship with surrounding civilizations. Your students will be ready when you ask, as we ask in one of our units: “How did the establishment of the Silk Road increase trade, the spread of Buddhism, and the connections between China and the other civilizations of Afroeurasia?” 

As your unit comes to a close, you can return to your essential questions to reinforce your students’ learning and help them retain their new knowledge.

2. Include thought-provoking primary sources. 

To help students create a deep understanding of the people and events in history, find trusted, interesting primary sources that pull students in. Primary sources and DBQs can certainly help students prepare for standardized tests, and they can also engage students in the thinking and use of language specific to a period of time. You can enrich your teaching of Daoism, for instance, by adding excerpts from the Daodejing. After your students read it, add time in your unit for reflection and discussion, asking them, as we suggest in one of our units: “How do Laotzi’s teachings help an individual live a better life? How do they help rulers and society?”  

Gauge each class’s interest in particular content, too. If a class is hungry to learn more about Malcolm X, as many of my students were, don’t rely solely on textbooks to teach them about this influential speaker and eloquent writer. Find an adapted speech embedded with annotations and questions, such as our adaptation of “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Introduce Malcolm X by asking students to think about how his original use of language and logic made a case for Black Nationalism, and let them experience the power of his words.

You can use other strategies to connect students with challenging language in primary sources, too. In the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, researchers Sarah Lupo, John Strong, and their colleagues recommend a four-dimensional framework to access challenging texts, including using visual resources such as videos or images, informational texts, and accessible novels or current events articles (Lupo, Strong, Lewis, Walpole, and McKenna, 2017). You can also excerpt texts to engage them in close reading or guide them to listen carefully to an audio recording of a speech.

3. Integrate different types of content to construct a rich version of history.

Too often students’ experience of a historical event is a simple story told through the lens of a single text. Today’s historians use intensive research and analysis in their work, critically looking at artifacts, art, travelers’ diaries, songs, newspaper accounts, and other primary sources. To make social studies lessons more complex and memorable, and to help students think and work like historians, as Stanford professor Sam Wineburg argues, feature different types of content—not just textbook excerpts, but a variety of primary sources, videos, images, podcasts, art, and music from the time period, for example—and different voices. Let students create a multifaceted understanding of the past. 

In a unit on the Age of Revolutions, for example, use primary sources to help students compare the British, American, and French declarations of rights, all passed within 100 years of each other. Ask them to write about how these declarations are unique and what they have in common. Show Marie Antoinette’s rise and fall by studying elegant portraits of her during her rise and then comparing them with an illustration just before her execution. Show how philosophers of the Enlightenment drew from Greek and Roman sources, and supplement your textbook readings with Plato’s engaging “Allegory of the Cave.” And after studying the Scientific Revolution and the Latin American War for Independence, watch a video on Crane Brinton’s Anatomy of a Revolution and guide your students with questions to help them build on what they’ve learned in your unit by creating their own “anatomy” for revolutions.

Use a variety of content to engage your students and help them develop a deep understanding of important, ideas, and connections.

4. Use multiple high-quality images to engage students and reinforce concepts.

Robert E. Horn, a professor and political scientist, wrote that “when words and visual elements are closely intertwined . . . , we [increase our ability] to take in, comprehend, and more efficiently synthesize large amounts of new information” (Horn, 2001). Studies have shown that illustrations paired with text improve student learning (Carney and Levin, 2002), memory (Weinstein, Sumeracki, and Caviglioli, 2018), and answers to short answer questions (Bui and McDaniel, 2015). At Actively Learn, our units incorporate high-quality maps, charts, photographs, infographics, paintings, videos, and more to help students grasp and retain the material. When our team creates a unit, we include several images for each textbook section, article, and primary source. In a piece of content describing the history of Tenochtitlan in our unit on the Americas in Medieval World History, for example, we knew that students might have a hard time staying engaged while reading detailed paragraphs describing this complex ancient city. So we began the article with an image of a Diego Rivera mural, which not only introduces the style of a renowned Mexican artist but also quickly imparts a distinct feeling of what it might have been like to live in the city. To give more perspectives, we added images throughout the reading and in the notes to connect to specific passages in the text: two different maps, a close-up city model, a Rivera mural of the city’s causeways, photographs of a modern chinampa garden and a bird species native to Mexico, videos of a virtual tour and a pronunciation of the city’s name, and recent drone footage of the area today. These images and videos become different entry points that invite students into the concepts, help them understand multiple aspects of a rich culture and geographical area over time, and create a stronger memory of the material.

Diego Rivera, Mural of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City
To engage students and create stronger memories of complex concepts, add interesting related images to your curricular units and ask your students to write about and discuss them.

It’s also important for students to interpret and evaluate visual media, including data visualizations. In a study of 3,000 data visualizations in 42 K–12 social studies textbooks, Professor Tamara Shreiner describes the important role that images play in social studies instruction, and in the world outside the classroom, to convey meaningful political and economic information (Schreiner, 2017). To help students learn how to understand and assess data visualizations, look at a series of data tables illustrating the spread of industrialization, four charts comparing U.S. employment between men and women in 1920, or a video’s data visualizations that convey the cost of human life during World War II. Ask students to write about the trends and patterns they uncover in the images, and then ask them to discuss their discoveries in small groups or the larger class. Ask them what conclusions they can make—and not make—based on this visual information. 

To help your students interpret and evaluate data visualizations, ask them to point out the trends and patterns they see in this chart describing the railways in 10 countries across a 60-year period. Then discuss what this chart says about the growth of industrialization. 

You can help students master visual literacy in other ways, too. At Edutopia, Todd Finley outlines specific strategies to help students interpret and understand visible actions, objects, and symbols. Finley points to Professor Nelson Graff’s video modeling the think-aloud strategy and to The Learning Network’s What’s Going On in This Picture? series in the New York Times to help students build skills outlined in numerous Common Core standards. Larry Palazzo, in an article on using photographs to more effectively teach ELL students, suggests exercises that ask students to compare and contrast different images and generate writing to describe what they see. He also provides a strategy for choosing photos to use in class, pointing to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study (Isola, Xiao, Torralba, and Oliva, 2011) that found that photos featuring people, a sense of movement, and elements of “strangeness, funniness or interestingness” are more likely to be remembered. In a unit on World War I, for example, you can ask your students, as we do in our unit, to look closely at a photograph and a painting of soldiers fighting from trenches. Ask them about their thoughts and emotions as they observe the images, and then ask them to compare and contrast the images in writing. 

To increase your students’ visual literacy skills, ask them to carefully observe significant images and compare and contrast them in writing and discussions. 

5. Frame each unit so students clearly see the connections between what happened at a specific time in history and what’s happening now in their own world.

With a sequenced unit, you can help students develop a rich understanding of the world they live in and learn how historical events shaped the present. 

It’s important to help students see patterns repeated throughout history and discover how leaders were inspired by the strategies of other eras or failed to learn essential lessons from the past. Don’t let your students study the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, for example, and let that be the end of it. Instead, develop a unit on imperialism that not only explains the Roman Empire’s practices but also shows how centuries later, the U.S. practiced imperialism in the Indian Wars, Mexican-American Wars, Phillipine-American War, Cold War, and today. Knowing about the role of imperialism can help students better understand the ideas that precipitated the Westward Expansion and the bombing of Pearl Harbor

Social studies units can also show how people throughout history have used their power to gain advantage. Teachers can frame their units by creating essential questions through the lenses of security versus freedom, equity versus inequity, and business growth versus labor protection. In studying complex themes, students may learn the context that set the stage for their families’ immigration or see how natural disasters, shifts in industry, or redlining determined whether their ancestors grew up in the country, the inner city, or the suburbs. Students who understand systems of power can choose to work successfully within them or challenge current power dynamics to make life better for themselves and others.

6. Give students opportunities to apply their knowledge.

Applying learning in projects, group activities, and experiences tied to the outside world can help your students become informed, thoughtful citizens who can meaningfully engage with others inside and outside their communities.  

As Lisa Guilfoile and Brady Delander at the Education Commission of the States point out, teachers should move beyond textbooks to fully engage students with interactive strategies such as those in the We the People and Project Citizen programs. In the We the People program, students read texts and interact with embedded media to discover connections between the U.S. constitution and the recent past, perform research and write speeches, and participate in simulated congressional hearings. The Project Citizen program takes a local approach, asking students to identify public policy issues in their own community, develop original solutions, and create action plans to contact local officials and persuade them to adopt the new solutions. 

Social studies teachers should also discuss current events and controversial issues and guide student participation in community service, extracurricular activities, and school governance. To that end, a group of social studies educators makes a compelling case that teachers should use inquiry-based practices to help students explore human rights issues and produce films for a national video contest that apply their social studies learning (Swan, Karb, and Hofer, 2017). 

In conclusion, it’s clear that textbooks alone aren’t enough to engage today’s students and prepare them for higher learning, careers, and the duties of engaged citizenship. As University of Washington professor and Center on Reinventing Public Education founder Paul T. Hill writes, students need to understand the reasoning behind our country’s core democratic principles and learn how to engage knowledgeably and productively with those who hold different points of view. Using a variety of high-quality, standards-aligned sources and essential questions will help you construct social studies units that give students the chance to learn historical content from different perspectives; develop a deep understanding of important events, ideas, and connections; and apply their knowledge in real-life situations. In doing so, you’ll help to create not just informed U.S. citizens, but engaged citizens of the world.  

Works cited:

Bui, D. and McDaniel, M. (2015). “Enhancing Learning During Lecture Note-Taking Using Outlines and Illustrative Diagrams.” Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition. 4 (2): 129-135.

Carney, R. and Levin, J. (2002). “Pictorial Illustrations Still Improve Students' Learning from Text.” Educational Psychology Review. 14 (5):

Horn, R. “Visual Language and Converging Technologies in the Next 10-15 Years (and Beyond).” (2001). National Science Foundation Conference on Converging Technologies (Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno) for Improving Human Performance. 

Isola, P., Xiao, J., Torralba, A., Oliva, A. (2011). “What makes an image memorable?” IEEE Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR). 

Lupo, S., Strong, J., Lewis, W., Walpole, S., and McKenna, M. (2018). “Building Background Knowledge Through Reading: Rethinking Text Sets.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. 61 (4):

Shreiner, T. (2018). “Data Literacy for Social Studies: Examining the Role of Data Visualizations in K–12 Textbooks.” Theory & Research in Social Education. 46 (2): 194-231.

Swan, K., Karb, J., and Hofer, M. (2017). “Teaching Social Studies with Film.” Social Education. 81 (3): 166-168.

Weinstein, Y., Sumeracki, M., Caviglioli, O. (2019). Understanding How We Learn. London: Routledge,

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