Harvard Educational Review
  1. Teaching Social Studies That Matters

    Curriculum for Active Learning

    By Steven J. Thornton

    New York: Teachers College Press, 144 pp. 2005. $19.95.

    Although several chapters provide lesson-plan ideas, Teaching Social Studies That Matters is directed more at teacher educators and curriculum specialists than at classroom teachers. Lest readers mistake his intentions, Steven Thornton introduces the book as “more an exercise in the theory of curriculum, instruction, and teacher education than a methods manual” (p. 5). Thornton divides his subject into two parts: part 1 provides a historical and theoretical analysis of social studies; part 2 explores the practical application of these theories.

    Teaching Social Studies That Matters begins by reviewing past and present debates over the nature of social studies. One group of educators defines the field as “social sciences,” a federation of distinct academic disciplines such as history, geography, and economics. Other educators champion “social education” and argue that the subject should be seen as an interdisciplinary approach to current social problems such as environmental degradation, economic inequality, and globalization. Thornton generally embraces the latter conceptualization, arguing that it presents stronger incentives for learning as well as “greater possibilities for identifying relevant knowledge” (p. 7). He worries that educators preoccupied with disciplinary subject matter may devote insufficient attention to important aims such as training for democratic citizenship. Thornton argues, however, that the content/aims debate has been founded upon a false dichotomy. Heavily influenced by Dewey’s love of synthesis, Thornton reasons that disciplinary methodologies and subject matter are both necessary for in-depth study of contemporary social dilemmas. Similarly, Thornton concludes that discussions of whether teacher education should focus on course content or pedagogy are also misguided. Each is impoverished without the other. Thornton seeks to resolve conflict between advocates of social sciences and social education by indicating that social educators still rely on disciplinary approaches while proponents of social science still include analysis of current events and social problems in their curricula. Thornton argues for increasing the integration of disciplinary subject matter into teacher education. In particular, he suggests that academic departments once again offer survey courses designed especially for aspiring educators.
    Teaching Social Studies That Matters
    emphasizes a commonsense truth that still gets lost in the shuffle of education reform — it is teachers who implement curricula. Thornton argues that teachers are curricular “gatekeepers” who ultimately determine how curriculum standards materialize in the classroom. Therefore they must be empowered to make informed decisions about what mix of content and methods will be most effective for their students. Since there is a lack of consensus on the proper scope and sequence of social studies, Thornton asserts that gatekeeper training is especially necessary for teachers of this subject. While Thornton does not categorically oppose content standards, he believes that teachers inevitably make the final decisions about curriculum regardless of the best efforts of policymakers.

    Thornton’s pedagogical recommendations flow smoothly from his theoretical framework. He believes that teachers should refer to their students and to social needs for the inspiration of curricular aims. He states that methods should be selected in order to match the subject matter at hand. For example, Thornton advocates employing a constructivist approach if there is exciting and accessible information for students to discover. In other cases, Thornton suggests using more traditional methods of instruction. He provides additional rationales for the decision of whether to design small-group work or whole-class instruction.

    Thornton seeks to temper his prescriptions for best practices with a realistic sense of the time and energy constraints under which most teachers operate. For example, instead of asking teachers to develop a spontaneous and infinite array of lesson plans to match student interests and evolving social problems, Thornton suggests having students vote for their preference out of a small number of possible units. While some educators might argue that these constrained choices are inauthentic exercises in democracy, others will commend Thornton for his sensitive resolution of the tension between student empowerment and teacher capability.

    Thornton has thought deeply and written extensively on social studies over the past decade and a half. A user-friendly account of his approach to the field, this book will be rewarding for anyone with professional or personal interest in the future of social studies education.

    S. G.
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    Book Notes

    Teaching Social Studies That Matters
    By Steven J. Thornton

    Becoming Adult Learners
    By Eleanor Drago-Severson

    NCLB Meets School Realities
    By Gail Sunderman, James S. Kim, and Gary Orfield

    Compelled to Excel
    By Vivian S. Louie

    Inequality in America
    By Benjamin M. Friedman