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Do Social Studies Lessons need a Makeover?

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By Roli S

“The government makes laws and everyone who lives in the country has to follow these. This is the only way governments can function. It is the people who give the government this power. They do this through elections in which they vote for particular persons and elect them. Once elected, these persons form the government. In a democracy, the government has to explain its actionsand defend its decisions to the people.”
This extract is taken from the NCERT textbook of Grade VI – Political and Social Life, and it is pertinent and to the point. I have taught social studies in various schools for several years and I understand that by providing relevant information and knowledge, skills and attitudes, the study of Social Science prepares students to grow up as active, responsible, and reflective members of society. It also teaches them to address societal and global concerns using literature, technology and other identifiable community resources.
In the last few days, what I have witnessed in the country has left me thinking whether the students of my country are indeed learning social studies effectively? If so, then why were these responsible members of society through their actions creating an atmosphere of hatred and violence? Did they not learn about political and social life from the nicely written textbooks of NCERT or other publications? What were they taught in their schools and colleges? Did they go to schools and study social studies at all?
One of the longtime goals of public education is to produce young people capable of participating in the democratic process. Experts say that requires regular and high-quality social studies lessons, starting in kindergarten till higher education, to teach children to be critical thinkers and communicators who know how to take meaningful actions.
However much I emphasise on the importance of teaching social studies, the fact remains that teachers and students in our schools only push to raise the standard of math and science, while social studies fare very low in academic priorities, especially in the early grades.
But what I have witnessed recently has made me certain that we can’t prepare children to live in a rich, diverse democracy if we don’t expose them to the controversial issues inherent in our democracy.
My experience as a school reviewer has highlighted the fact that teachers of primary and secondary schools are the least competent in teaching social studies as compared to Math, English language and even the Sciences. Because social studies isn’t an academic priority in many schools, teachers often receive inadequate training and, like for any other subject teachers, social studies teachers need continued professional development to allow them to master the skills of effective social studies instructions.
Teachers should be trained to teach controversial topics like religion, prejudice, discrimination, etc., because when children have the language to explain these issues in a meaningful and beneficial way, good things can happen for them and their country. However, there is something about religion and discrimination that’s so fundamentally uncomfortable in our culture that in my experience of school reviewing, I have seen teachers shying away and not handling the topic as competently and fairly as they should. They cannot put, both, historical and current perspectives skillfully in front of the students, neither can they create an atmosphere of healthy debate in the classrooms!
Social studies are not just a subject to be learnt but, rather, an opportunity for inquiry and exploration. If teachers come into the classroom trusting that children have knowledge about the world, already, then they can build an understanding of the world along with them.
We don’t have open conversations in our schools. Teachers freak out and quickly change the subject whenever it comes to religion, class, gender issues or, in other cases, sound overly ‘preacher like’. Most teachers in the Indian school system just aren’t equipped to handle these issues.
So, if we have an emergent curriculum in which social studies teachers ask, ‘What’s on your mind? What isn’t fair? What bothers you? What could be improved in society?’, it might start very small, but I am confident, based on my experience in elementary classrooms, that all these issues will be found present in even the most homogeneous classrooms of our country.
Introducing difficult conversations about sensitive issues in the early grades is crucial preparation for students to be able to delve more deeply into various social studies disciplines in the later grades. History, for example, with its accounts of wars, invasions, colonial past, intrigue and fierce battles for power and supremacy is full of social and ethical issues including religion, race, gender roles, cultural differences, and the merits of different political and economic systems.
Social studies teaching in our classrooms can tend to be a political football and it can ruffle a lot of feathers in terms of how it’s being used. But who doesn’t want children to be part of the democratic process? Who doesn’t want young people to be critical consumers of the world around them? Maybe I’m too optimistic here, but I think that — across parties — most people want that.
In an era when students must sort through increasingly complex social and political issues, absorbing news and information from an evolving digital landscape, social studies should be meaningful and engaging—a means for preparing students for the modern world.
The skills that should form the core of effective social studies education should be: Assessing the point of view of an author and source, placing arguments in context and, finally and very importantly, validating the veracity of every claim provided in the textbook, such as mentioned above, by effective strategies, in a civil atmosphere and using critical and analytical thinking!

(Roli S is an Educator, Teacher Trainer, Author and School Reviewer based in Mumbai)