By Hank Bitten, Executive Director, New Jersey Council for the Social Studies
The students in your class will likely see the 22nd century as they will be between 85 and 95 years old in 2101. The changes in communication, technology, transportation and the home during the 20th century were significant. Amazon and Google were created in the 1990s and Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat did not exist at the beginning of this century.
Revolutionary changes in society, culture and history have been part of the first two decades of every century since 1500, and the 21st century is already experiencing dramatic changes with information, shopping patterns, health care and artificial intelligence.
• 1517 – Reformation and Protestant churches
• 1620 – Pilgrims and settlement of America
• 1720 – Agrarian and Industrial Revolutions
• 1815 – End of Napoleonic era
• 1917 – Russian Revolution and World War I
Factual evidence is critical for decision-making in a democratic republic. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about liberty and the press in Democracy in America (1831), stating, “What [citizens] seek in a newspaper is a knowledge of facts and it is only by altering or distorting those facts that a journalist can contribute to the support of his own views.”
Although propaganda, bias, alternative “facts” and “fake news” have influenced our factual evidence since the first century, it is the speed of social media and the ability to share information within minutes that requires educators to teach students how to differentiate sources, discriminate between different perspectives and determine the validity of the information.
Many teachers use examples from contemporary news reports of the Spanish-American War, the burning of the Reichstag in Berlin on the eve of the 1932 German federal election, and the radio broadcast of War of the Worlds to teach the impact of the media on the people.
According to the Pew Research Center in 2016, 73 percent of all 12-17 year olds in the United States use Facebook daily to get or share information. On a global scale there are almost 2 billion Facebook logins every month. (See bit.ly/fbstatsyouth.)
Thirty years ago there were about 50 independent news sources and today they have consolidated to six. (See bit.ly/newsconsolidation.) Internet search engines and mobile apps provide access to information through allegedly independent news sources, but those sources often have a hidden bias. The widely circulated report by Rolling Stone in November 2014 about a sexual assault on the campus of the University of Virginia was eventually retracted. The jury also said that the author committed actual malice for reporting something that was false or recklessly disregarding whether the evidence was accurate. Unfortunately, the inaccurate report continues on internet searches.
All teachers and media specialists have a responsibility for teaching students how to research, investigate, analyze and determine the credibility of information in their disciplines. In addition, discernment about how the information is presented is an important skill for analyzing content presented in images, textbooks, lab reports, editorials, headlines, PowerPoint presentations, television media, videos, websites, text boxes, sound bites, graphs, news headlines, Twitter and internet search engines.
“Students, for example, had a hard time distinguishing advertisements from news articles or identifying where information came from,” said Stanford Professor Sam Wineberg, who is the lead author of the November 2016 report by the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) on how students make decisions about information.
Although the core content standards in social studies and English directly relate to sources of information, the scope of the problem needs to be addressed by every teacher.
“As societies become more complex in structure and resources, the need of formal or intentional teaching and learning increases,” John Dewey wrote at the beginning of the 20th century. “As formal teaching and training grow in extent, there is the danger of creating an undesirable split between the experience gained in more direct associations and what is acquired in school.” This danger was never greater than at the present time, on account of the rapid growth in the last few centuries of knowledge and technical modes of skill.(See Democracy in Education, bit.ly/deweydemed.)
Democracy depends on communicating and sharing information because it contributes to a consensus of the diverse people living in a society. This is why Dewey understood the importance of the informal education that takes place in a school in addition to the teaching of disciplines and skills.
The first alarm was raised 125 years ago when the National Education Association appointed the Committee on History, Civil Government, and Political Economy chaired by Charles Kendall Adams, President of the University of Wisconsin. This committee recommended that every high school student take four years of history “to exercise a salutary influence upon the affairs of their country.”
The second alarm was raised 25 years ago in when the National Council for History Education reported that 15 percent of students did not take any American history courses in high school and that 50 percent did not study world history. (See www.nche.net/bradleyreport.)
The third alarm was sounded through the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), nicknamed the Nation’s Report Card. Test results revealed that in 2014, only 18 percent of American eighth-graders performed at or above the proficient level in U.S. history, only 27 percent performed at or above the proficient level in geography, and only 23 percent performed at or above the proficient level in civics. These results were significantly the same in 2010. Such scores that can only be raised with a commitment to teaching to the New Jersey Student Learning Standards for Social Studies, professional development for social studies teachers, and effective strategies for engaging students in discussion and debate.
The fourth alarm was raised this past November by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which found that only 23 out of 76 of the “best” colleges, according to the Wall Street Journal, required history majors to take at least one U.S. history course. (Melissa Korn, “America Drops Off History Curriculum.”)
The crisis extends beyond U.S. history and world history to basic literacy in civics, economics and geography.
According to Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, “One of the subjects that those surveyed really struggled with was economics and trade. Asked to name the United States’ largest trading partner, most got it wrong, saying it was China. Only 10 percent correctly answered Canada.
Most respondents also overestimated the extent of Mexican immigration to the U.S.—another key issue in this election cycle. Two-thirds did not know that the number of Mexicans exiting the U.S. actually exceeds the number that enter.” (See bit.ly/natgeoamericans.)
New Jersey students deserve to learn the facts to discuss global and domestic affairs.
Before a fifth alarm sounds, the time to rigorously implement and assess the current standards is now if New Jersey will have educated citizens who are prepared for college, careers and civic engagement.
It is critical for educators, parents and the public to support the New Jersey Student Learning Standards and skills for social studies. We must implement them through interdisciplinary and project-based learning, engaging students in problem-solving and decision-making. Students need strategies for analyzing data from primary and secondary sources, and educators need quality assessments that enable them to evaluate what students know and act on their findings. The timetable for action should not be delayed by criticisms that the state standards require too much history, because democratic institutions deserve educated and informed students.
Hank Bitten is the executive director of the New Jersey Council for the Social Studies and an independent curriculum consultant. He taught history in the Ridgewood Public Schools and was a supervisor in the Ramapo Indian Hills High School District. Bitten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Civic engagement benefits democracy in local communities
Project-based learning engages students in reality education
Children can learn to become responsible and active citizens who make right decisions. They are more likely to become independent learners and thinkers by actively participating in real-world projects. They develop their own world by improving knowledge, skills and have a sense of society nationally and globally. The use of a project approach in teaching of social studies can help developing research and hands-on skills such as collecting, organizing and interpreting data, managing time, solving problems and manipulating materials. (See bit.ly/socialstudiespblearning.)
Social studies is a social science and with project-based learning it becomes a lab science. The diversity of perspectives in a classroom, the availability of documents on historical events, collaboration with professionals through partnerships and field trip experiences, participation in student government and competitions such as Model UN, National History Day, Euro Challenge, Fed Challenge, and debate provide real-world opportunities for research, debating perspectives, and presentation of solutions. The experience of teachers using strategies to guide inquiry and research are important in a society that values democracy and representative government.
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