Handout: Changes in Social Studies

In an increasingly complex society, it is important that all students engage in inquiry to gain strategies to ask questions, investigate the answers through the analysis of multiple sources and perspectives, create claims and take informed action to make a difference. Inquiry in social studies enables students to use the disciplines of social studies to ask questions, make decisions and to participate in discussions of issues that affect society (National Council for Social Studies [NCSS], 2012). The Minnesota social studies standards and benchmarks describe an integrated and inquiry-based approach to learning social studies.

The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards (NCSS, 2012)framework identifies four “dimensions” that outline the knowledge and skills that all students should learn:

· Dimension 1: Developing Questions and Planning Inquiries

· Dimension 2: Applying Disciplinary Concepts and Tools

· Dimension 3: Evaluating Sources and Using Evidence

· Dimension 4: Communicating Conclusions and Taking Informed Action

These dimensions connect to the anchor standards, substrands and benchmarks of the Minnesota Social Studies Standards, specifically the first substrand in each discipline.

The following are key changes called for by Minnesota’s social studies standards:

Social Studies change toward inquiry-based practices

The first substrand in each discipline specifically focuses on engaging students in disciplinary inquiry. For example, Geography Standard 2 states “Geographic inquiry is a process in which people ask geographic questions and gather, organize and analyze information to solve problems and plan for the future.” This standard has benchmarks for each grade that outline how to engage students in geographic inquiry. An example at the benchmark level is which states “ask basic historical questions about a past event in one's family, school or local community.” These standards and benchmarks frame the expectation that students engage in the inquiry process throughout the K-12 social studies experience.

Social Studies change toward cultivating collaborative civic spaces

Collaboration is a key component of the Minnesota Social Studies standards. Throughout the standards, benchmarks are prefaced by the notation that students will work “individually and with others...” to accomplish the learning goals. The idea of collaboration is an essential social studies skill. Collaboration is a natural part of civic life. Collaboration is a critical element of an inquiry approach. Students collaborate to develop questions and rely on one another to examine the importance of those questions. When engaging with the disciplinary specific standards and benchmarks students are expected to communicate to a variety of audiences, including classmates but also outside the classroom. Students are also expected to analyze sources and critique arguments. In order to fully engage in the inquiry process, students must also engage in a range of deliberative and democratic conversations in and outside of the classroom.

Social Studies change toward the integration of content and skills

The strands of the Minnesota Social Studies standards focus on disciplinary skills and key conceptual knowledge associated with civics, economics, geography, and history. The substrands, standards and benchmarks outline the content necessary for a rigorous social studies program. Discipline-specific content specifies the particular ideas and concepts to be taught and the grade levels at which to teach them. Disciplinary content is critically important to studying social studies, and teachers will need to be thoughtful in selecting appropriate and relevant content to help students ground their learning and to help them build up their disciplinary skills and conceptual knowledge. The notion of content as separate from skills is an artificial distinction. Skills, particularly those in the disciplines, exist for the purpose of developing content knowledge. By including a skill-based standard as part of the first substrand in each discipline, the Minnesota Social Studies Standards call for using the skills to apply the disciplinary content and concepts.

Social Studies change toward the integration of literacy

The Literacy in History/Social Studies Standards were adopted in 2010 as a component of the English Language Arts standards. These standards provide the basis for developing literacy skills that can support the learning of social studies concepts and skills. Social studies has long emphasized literacy, and social studies teachers recognize that they share the responsibility for literacy instruction in the schools. The Literacy in History/Social Studies Standards provides a clear accounting for literacy development among students. They support the understanding of text information in many forms, such as graphical, visual and online, and the evaluation of text information from many sources. They also develop communication skills and reasoning from evidence.

One avenue for integration is in the inquiry process. Social Studies inquiry emphasizes the identification of primary and secondary sources, the analysis of sources to develop claims and arguments, and the communication of the claims and arguments to a variety of audiences. These skills come directly from the Literacy in History/Social Studies Standards.

Literacy in social studies also includes disciplinary literacy. Disciplinary literacies that emerge in social studies from the disciplines of civics, economics, geography, and history require special attention. The Minnesota Social Studies standards emphasize these unique disciplinary literacies throughout the grade level standards and benchmarks. The standards and benchmarks represent a roadmap for students to develop disciplinary literacies as they examine content in civics, economics, geography, and history. Disciplinary literacies include processes such as using deliberative processes, using economic data, reasoning spatially, analyzing cause and effect. With consistent practice, students can become more literate and practiced at thinking in the social studies disciplines.

Social Studies change toward incorporating opportunities to communicate conclusions and take informed action

Social Studies should be a thought-provoking and inspirational exploration of information from various sources that ultimately promotes depth of understanding of the past and present and encourages active civic engagement. Students can construct meaning by investigating the world around them. Just as students “do” chemistry or physics in the science laboratory, students can “do” Social Studies. S.G. Grant wrote, “At heart, Social Studies is about understanding the things people do. Whether those things are brave, ambitious, and inventive or cowardly, naive, and silly, Social Studies is about using questions to direct our investigations into the world around us” (Grant, 2013, p. 322).

Implementation of the Minnesota Social Studies standards requires the teacher to serve as a facilitator and coach, providing support for student-centered sustained inquiry, productive collaboration, and informed action. This support comes in many forms and it should be noted that the teacher will make careful, strategic choices about creative ways to communicate and disseminate important information to students.

Communicating conclusions and/or taking informed action is an essential component to helping students “do” social studies. The Minnesota Social Studies standards do not prescribe the actions that are appropriate for a particular classroom context. Instead, what these standards do is focus on being informed when taking action. Students in social studies use their study of the standards as a launching pad for action. The standards and benchmarks guide the development of experiences allowing students to grow in the skills that undergird purposeful, informed, and reflective action.

Social Studies change toward a focus on conceptual understanding

Social Studies is far more than a mere march through facts, where student learning stops at the level of recalling names, dates, and other information they may soon forget. Specific content knowledge is important and serves as a foundation for conceptual understandings. Social Studies learning can be designed around meaningful conceptual understandings related to ideas such as human-environment interaction, economic decision-making, or revolution. The Minnesota Social Studies standards include these conceptual understandings as an integral part of the overall framework. Students develop conceptual understanding by engaging with the ideas and concepts in the standards and benchmarks at each grade. The anchor standards help to allow students opportunities to return to the key ideas and concepts throughout a K-12 social studies experience in order to ensure they can continue to apply their understanding at deeper levels with different content. With consistent practice, students can transfer their conceptual understanding to a practical example. In summary, organizing learning around the anchor standards increases the likelihood that students will remember more specific knowledge in relation to concepts, be more engaged in their learning, and be better able to apply their understandings across places and times.


Grant, S.G. (2013) “From Inquiry Arc to Instructional Practice: The Potential of the C3 Framework,” Social Education, November/December 2013

National Council for Social Studies. (2012). College, career, and civic life (C3) framework for social studies state standards: Guidance for enhancing the rigor of K-12 civics, economics, geography, and history. Silver Springs, MD: Author.

The New York State Education Department & The University of the State of New York. (2014). New York State K-12 Social Studies Field Guide. Retrieved August 1, 2018 from https://nysed-prod.engageny.org/resource/new-york-state-k-12-social-studies-field-guide