From reviewing social studies journals, there seems to be a regular occurrence of Kieran Egan, an educational theorist at Simon Fraser University. While he is employed in British Columbia, he has written numerous pieces that can be viewed by American social studies educators. In many of his articles, Egan expresses that educators would be “educationally better off letting the early 20th-century American curriculum experiment called social studies quietly die” (1983). Not only that, the goals that are trying to be implemented in the social studies curriculum can “simply [be done] through the study of history” (Marquardt, 2018). Reading Egan’s views on social studies is intriguing. Is it wise to wipe away a 100-year-old curriculum that many have found to be critical to developing democratic citizens of the United States and the world? While this would make a substantial argument, this is not the focus of the paper. Instead, the content of this paper will focus on a different question: what are the ways for social studies to be more impactful in schools, especially secondary education? To answer this question, two topics will be researched: curriculum and instruction which includes new developments in disciplinary literacy. To show how these two topics have evolved and to illustrate the best practices through time, various journal articles from the early, mid, and late 20th century will be reviewed, along with recent articles from the 21st century.

     Tracking the 100+ years metamorphosis of the social studies curriculum is a tremendous project on its own.  However, David Warren Saxe was able to give a detailed summary of the curriculum in his paper “On the Alleged Demise of Social Studies: The Eclectic Curriculum in Times of Standardization—a Historical Sketch.”  Rendering down his nine-page essay is difficult, but the primary focus is around the Committee of Seven, the National Education Association (NEA), and the National Council of Social Studies (NCSS).  In 1899, the Committee of Seven introduced a history-based curriculum in the school system (Saxe, 2004).  In 1916, the NEA would define the term social studies for the first time, which would be followed with an outline of the social studies curriculum in 1918.  Why the dramatic shift from history to the social studies curriculum?  The dramatic shift was due to the changes that were occurring in the early 1900s.  One reason why these changes were occurring was due to the influx of WWI immigrants from 1914-1918.  The NEA felt that it was the responsibility of the school system to “[develop] patriotism among the new foreign-born citizens” (Saxe, 2004). 

     While there were good intentions for creating this curriculum, by the 1950s and 60s, parents and educators were expressing different views.  Their opinions lead the way for the New Social Studies movement to being.  The New Social Studies movement was a result of four events:  the Korean War, Sputnik, a citizenship poll conducted, and in 1955 some specialists wanted to educate children on closed areas of societies (marginalized people) (Byford, 2007).  From this movement, curriculum centers were built across the nation to develop projects.  Here are three projects that were constructed:

The Harvard Social studies Project which allowed the introduction of various course materials.

Man: A Course of Study (MACOS) which focused on teaching students about animals and the Eskimos.  This project would spark much controversy due to discussing divorce and cannibalism.  However, while in progress it was the first of its kind to have “student-centered projects that incorporated non-traditional teaching exercises (field notes, journals, poems, construction exercises) into [recurring] themes used in grades four through nine” (Byford, 2007).

Carnegie Mellon University Slow Learner Project produced a social studies curriculum designed for students that have disabilities; however, many of these techniques can be beneficial to any teacher.  The goal was to overcome “‘1) poor self-concept; 2) poor attitude toward learning; 3) poorly clarified value systems; 4) poor study skills; 5) poor inquiry skills; and 6) superficial understanding of historical content'” (Byford, 2007). 

The main reason why this movement was unsuccessful as a result of the teachers not having any professional development on instructing students on how to have productive discussions and analyze texts. What it did bring were more materials for teachers to use and the introduction of the textbook. With negative results came negative views. Kieran Egan, an educational theorist, expressed most of these views in the 1980s. In the article “Social Studies and the Erosion of Education,” Egan developed a four-part argument on why people would be “educationally better off letting the early 20th-century American curriculum experiment called social studies quietly die” (1983). Even with negativity, some people wanted to improve the curriculum. In 1988, Richard E. Gross published his article “Forward to the Trivia of 1890: The Impending Social Studies Program?” detailing what is needed for the social studies curriculum to be successful. There are five ideas expressed: 1) selecting professionals to develop “a national framework of basic concepts, skills, and values for all U.S. students,” 2) focus on contemporary affairs locally, nationally, and globally, 3) “feature issued center courses,” 4) teach students the cultural ideas of the American way, and 5) teacher need to model the four previous goals” (Gross, 1988).

     In the 1990s, the NCSS and Teaching Tolerance would informally enact Gross’s five points.  For Teaching Tolerance, an online magazine created by Southern Poverty Law Firm, the curriculum focuses on identity, diversity, justice, action.  For the NCSS, the standards are broken into thematic and disciplinary.  On the contrary, these are not required curriculums, unlike the state SOLs.  The social studies curriculum has been unsuccessful due to teachers pulling from three different curriculums.  To be more effective, the state needs to render the three into one.  However, the construction of a curriculum is a long process.  Mr. Lambert, the Coordinator for Social Studies at the West Virginia Department of Education, discussed the process with me in an interview.  Simply educators gather to discuss adaptations they want.  After that, the adaptions get released to the public for comments.  Finally, they get sent to the Board of Education (BOE), where they accepted or denied.  There are no specific guidelines that are going to deny a standard being part of the new curriculum.  All that matters is that the curriculum continues to have a balance of history, economics, and geography.  History?  Unlike the NCSS and Teaching Tolerance curriculum, there is no emphasis on any social studies or social justice in a state’s SOLs, at least from the ones I reviewed.  By illustrating what a social studies curriculum entails, this leads to the second reason why the social studies curriculum has been ineffective: people use social studies and history as interchangeable words, but they are not the same.  Social studies is the study of human behavior and how they interact with others by using social science.  History is the study of chronological events.  A few schools have realized this difference allowing for the development of history and social studies classrooms.  While this seems like progress, I do find it unnecessary to separate the two contents because they do need each other to co-exist.       

    The third way to improve the social studies curriculum, whether it be on a state or national level, is for more research to be done on instructional methods, as Gross explained.  What are some of these new instructional methods?  As discussed by Kevin Bolinger and Wilson J. Warren in “Methods Practiced in Social Studies Instruction: A Review of Public School Teachers’ Strategies,” in the 20th century, teaching students social studies revolved around the memorization of facts (2007).  While this technique continues to exist in classrooms, professional organizations such as the NCSS and the Interstate New Teachers Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC) have researched and developed new instructional methods.  The NCSS released “Powerful, Purposeful Pedagogy in Elementary School Social Studies,” which displays five instructional techniques to improve the learning of students in the social studies classroom.  The techniques are meaningful, integrative, value-based, challenging, and active.  To summarize all five strategies, educators can teach students to become more democratic citizens by including resources for all students to comprehend, be inclusive by bringing in things from their worlds, and allowing them to investigate certain topics.  Not only that, but the article also discussed that educators should attend professional development seminars.  As the article puts it, “[o]ngoing professional development is … necessary for teachers to develop and monitor the curriculum. Resources are needed to support teachers’ involvement in professional conferences, college courses, summer institutes, webinars and podcasts, and visits to educational sites. Effective professional development should model the kind of flexible, interactive teaching styles and instructional strategies that work well with children,” (2017).  Mr. Lambert feels professional development (PD) is necessary to improve social studies instruction. In the interview, he discusses how he plans PD courses to educate teachers on how to use secondary and primary sources, graphic organizers, and project-based learning in their classrooms.

     Another article published on NCSS was “Effective Strategies For Teaching Social Studies,” written by C. Frederick Risinger, listing six strategies teachers can do that involve disciplinary literacy.  These techniques are encouraging in-depth research on a topic, using narrative to write a story, and showing cause and effect through connections (Risinger, 2011).  The list that Risinger composed contains strategies that Releah Cossett Lent describes in her book This is Disciplinary Literacy. In Lent’s book, disciplinary literacy means that the students become experts through reading, writing, inquiry, and collaboration.  Some of the techniques she recommends are learning logs, reading texts other than textbooks, and advising students to learn academic vocabulary.  Lina Bell Soares and Karen Wood continue to build on the original purpose of the social studies curriculum in their literary work, “A Critical Literacy Perspective for Teaching and Learning Social Studies.”  For Soares and Wood, to increase students understanding of civic competence, students must learn about others’ differences.  Soares and Wood describe that learning about other’s difference is done through “examining multiple perspectives, find[ing] authentic [a] voice, recogniz[ing] social barriers and cross borders of separation, find[ing] one’s voice, and call[ing]to service” (2010).

     In 1899, the Committee of Seven designed the history curriculum which would be by the social studies curriculum. The social studies curriculum was designed based on the changes that were taking place in the early 1900s.  Most of these changes were a result of the influx of WWI immigrants migrating to America.  However, by the mid-1900s, the social studies curriculum was failing.  Improving the Social Studies movement began allowing for the construction of curriculum centers that were pushing out projects.  Eventually, the movement would die down, but the curriculum saw no improvement and was receiving backlash from critics.  There are three ways to improve the social studies curriculum: simplify the three curriculums into one, properly define social studies and history, and research proper instructional methods.  Professional organizations such as the National Council of Social Studies have researched methods.  Not only that, there have been research books, one being Releah Cossett Lent’s book This is Disciplinary Literacy.  Effective instructional methods are learning logs (disciplinary literacy), teachers attending professional development, and making an inclusive classroom.           


Byford, Jeffrey, and William Russell. “The new social studies: A historical examination of curriculum reform.” Social Studies Research and Practice 2, no. 1 (2007): 38-48.

Egan, K. (1983). Social studies and the erosion of education. Curriculum Inquiry, 13(2), 195-214.

Gross, R. (1988). Forward to the Trivia of 1890: The Impending Social Studies Program? The Phi Delta Kappan,70(1), 47-49. Retrieved October 25, 2020, from

Saxe, D. W. (2004). On the Alleged Demise of Social Studies: The Eclectic Curriculum in Times of Standardization–A Historical Sketch. International Journal of Social Education, 18(2), 93-102.

Education, S. (2017). Powerful, Purposeful Pedagogy in Elementary School Social Studies. Social Education, 81(3), 186-189.

Marquardt, K (2018, November). #debatED: The Social Studies Curriculum. Pondering Pedagogy.

Risinger, C. F. (2011). Effective Strategies for Teaching Social Studies. Social Education, (2)(74), pg. 36.

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Cite this article as: William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team), "Essay: History of the Social Studies Curriculum," in SchoolWorkHelper, 2019,
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