opinion

​Social Studies Should Teach Students for Tomorrow, Not the Past

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Are you teaching for tomorrow? It’s a question I often ask myself and educators in my professional network. In fact, this question has become the cornerstone of my personal educational philosophy, and a guiding principle for my team of high school social studies educators at Fairfax County Public Schools.

Teaching for tomorrow allows us as educators to reflect on our profession and the experiences students are having. It also emphasizes students’ exploration and understanding of how past events continue to impact the ever more globalized world of today, and how they will continue to shape the future. If an adult walked into a classroom, would they feel like they time-traveled to their high school experience of the 20th and early 21st century? They shouldn’t. Years ago, social studies classes used to focus on memorizing dates, names, and intricate details of historical events. In Fairfax County, we are working to change the idea of social studies to focus on the content knowledge and skill development that will prepare students for the future.

The most compelling way to teach for tomorrow is for teachers to avoid replicating their classroom experiences, and rather use practices that address global citizenship: a combination of knowledge, skills, and dispositions, all of which put the focus on students’ futures. Teaching for tomorrow is about providing the instructional structures, resources, assessments and technology to make global connections so students can explore topics for themselves to construct their own knowledge and form informed opinions and views.

A student’s worldview is not static. The way they view the world at 12 will not be the same as the way they see it at 25. Teaching for tomorrow utilizes current issues to build relevance and seeks to develop a mindset that is open and accepting of new ideas and cultures. It’s our job as educators to teach students how to engage in dialogue, have understanding, and navigate the complex, and diverse globalized world.

An Emphasis on Student-Centered Learning

Teaching for tomorrow means putting the student at the center of their own learning, and allowing the educator to take more of a facilitator role in the classroom. Our social studies classrooms are transforming to a workshop model where two-thirds of the time is spent on student-centered activities, which may include stations, simulations, or discussions. The remainder of classroom time is focused on formative assessment and direct instruction. Often the teacher poses an open-ended question and students contribute and drive the conversations on topics such as “What does a more globalized world mean?”

In order to teach for tomorrow, teachers need to incorporate what’s happening globally, not just in the U.S. What better way to teach students about their peers across the globe than to connect them face-to-face? With today’s technology, many of our educators take advantage of live videoconferences with programs such as Generation Global. These tools help students develop an understanding and appreciation for students around the world and opens their eyes to the realization that, no matter how far away, people are not so different after all. These interactions define teaching—and learning—for tomorrow because it gives our students experiences I never could have had in high school.

How to Get Educators on Board

Regardless of how long you’ve been in the classroom, there’s always more to learn. Here are three easy tips to ignite passion within educators and inspire them to teach for tomorrow.

  1. Celebrate early adopters. When I see an educator trying something new or innovative, I make sure to recognize them for their creativity in front of the entire department. Oftentimes, the praise and acknowledgment creates a domino effect. More teachers want to try the same idea in their classrooms, and this may even trigger a district-wide movement.
  2. Make time for one-on-one conversations. With 25 high schools and hundreds of educators to support, I do my best to form personal relationships with each of them. I gauge their personal definition of “success,” as this information often informs their educational philosophy and worldview. If success means students simply passing the state social studies exam, then that invites a larger conversation about our mission to develop critical thinkers who can collaborate, are reflective, and are globally aware.
  3. Provide professional development opportunities. I do my best to provide a wide array of opportunities for teachers to develop their craft, network, and produce resources for their colleagues. The best workshops are teacher-centered and provide ongoing support after the session is complete.

By using a combination of knowledge, skills, and dispositions, we can teach for tomorrow and help our students navigate the world with open minds. Providing a safe space to ask questions and challenge preconceived notions about different cultures and historical events encourages them to form their own world views. This model prepares our students to successfully navigate and contextualize a complex globalized world both today and in the future. 

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