New York State School Boards Association

New social studies framework approved by Board of Regents

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On Board Online • May 26, 2014

By Cathy Woodruff
Senior Writer

A lot has happened since New York last updated its social studies standards in the 1990s. In American history, terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and the election of the nation’s first African-American president stand out as events with obvious significance.

Meanwhile, introduction of the Common Core learning standards has prompted teachers to focus on encouraging students to think more critically and communicate more clearly.

“Things have just changed,” said Dunkirk social studies teacher Walter Robertson, a member of an advisory panel that has worked with the State Education Department staff since 2011 to craft new Common Core-aligned guidance documents for social studies teachers.

The state Board of Regents last month adopted a new Social Studies Framework recommended by the advisory panel.

The new framework should help refresh instruction and curriculum that had grown stale since adoption of the state Learning Standards for Social Studies in 1996, said panel Chairman Steve Goldberg, who chairs the Social Studies Department in New Rochelle schools.

With the new framework, “inquiry takes center stage,” said panel member Greg Ahlquist, a Webster social studies teacher who was New York’s 2013 Teacher of the Year. “Students become the ones who are doing the thinking … students are the ones interpreting the text and the evidence.”

The framework also incorporates a renewed emphasis on civics, and “is designed to prepare students to be engaged citizens in a local and global context,” said Ahlquist.

The framework is not a curriculum, but its elements are tied to the state’s social studies learning standards. The document identifies themes that can be addressed in each content area and recommends a scope of content to be covered.

In an interview with On Board, Ahlquist likened the framework to a road map for teachers to use as they plan their lessons for the year. He said the topics addressed will not change drastically. Students still will learn about historic events and people, geography, cultures, economics and other traditional social studies staples. The way the information is presented and what students do with the material, however, could change a lot, he said.

Ahlquist cited an example from his own work to illustrate how differences might become apparent in a classroom.

He said he used to rely on anecdotes and information on worksheets to teach about Peter the Great, the Russian czar of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Eventually, he concluded that such an approach puts too much emphasis on rote facts with insufficient context.

Ahlquist revamped his coverage of Peter the Great to incorporate documents that present divergent perspectives on the czar. Now, his students examine the evidence, consider the historical context and reach their own conclusions. Class discussions are lively and substantive, he said.

Similarly, the new state framework encourages a more comparative approach in crafting lessons about World War I and World War II, Ahlquist said. Although lessons will deal with much of the same important factual material, such as causes and impacts of the wars, historic events, leaders and economic conditions, presentation of the material should put greater emphasis on understanding of concepts, such as the role of nationalism and ideology in shaping the period between the wars.

“Hopefully, this framework moves away from a Jeopardy-style social studies that emphasizes trivia and concrete facts,” he said. “It’s not a question of content or skill. It’s about content and skill.”

The “course of study” for each grade under the framework is largely unchanged. Kindergarten lessons still will focus on “self and others,” third graders still will learn about communities around the world, and fourth graders still will learn about local history and local government.

Global history and geography will remain a two-year undertaking for students in ninth and 10th grades, but the framework provides a more precise chronological split for the material. Ninth graders will study the world from the Paleolithic Era to a period between the years 1400 and 1750. Tenth graders will begin with 1750 and move through the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution to the present.

Other modifications include movement of a unit on Reconstruction, which follows the Civil War, from seventh grade to eighth.

The next task for the Social Studies Content Advisory Committee is to work with SED to produce a Field Guide slated for release in the summer or fall of this year. The guide is expected to include case studies and examples to help teachers and school districts as they craft local curriculum.

As part of the transition to Common Core learning standards, many social studies teachers already have begun modifying their instructional practices and approach to curriculum design, members of the advisory panel said. Identifying and accumulating instructional materials and resources to support that work will take time, however, Ahlquist said.

The department has not announced a specific deadline for implementation of the new framework, but Ahlquist said conversations will begin soon on how future Regents exams should reflect the changes.

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