Redesigning Social Studies Education: Empowering Students through Authentic Inquiry

Posted by Natalie Stapert on 10/1/16 5:09 AM

Separate_is_Never_Equal.jpgRecently, the United Nations data center reviewed tweets from around the globe to determine the issues that people in each member nation cared about the most. According to this snapshot, the top ten most important issues for Americans are:

  1. Better job opportunities
  2. Freedom from discrimination
  3. Good education
  4. Honest and responsive government
  5. Political freedom
  6. Taking action on climate change
  7. Protecting forests, rivers, and oceans
  8. Equality between men and women
  9. Reliable energy at home
  10. Transportation and roads

Not surprisingly, they are all social studies issues. Most of the modern challenges we face are rooted in the four spheres of social studies—civics, economics, geography, and history. In order for the next generation to thoughtfully and meaningfully address the issues we care about, it needs high-quality social studies instruction; however social studies is difficult to teach because it is so personal, political, complicated, and even uncomfortable at times.

Despite the challenges, Lowell has made a commitment to innovative social studies education because we believe that through this work, students will gain the knowledge and skills they need to understand societal forces, grapple with complexity, and make a difference in the world.

A framework for relevant social studies curriculum

In 2013, the National Council for the Social Studies created the Framework for Social Studies Standards, which sought to redefine social studies education in the United States.

Now more than ever, students need the intellectual power to recognize societal problems; ask good questions and develop robust investigations into them; consider possible solutions and consequences; separate evidence-based claims from parochial opinions; and communicate and act upon what they learn. And most importantly, they must possess the capability and commitment to repeat that process as long as is necessary. College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies Standards 

Rather than prescribing the study of certain people, places, and times, this framework calls teachers to provide students with the inquiry tools they need to develop critical thinking skills and be in charge of their own learning.

According to the framework, social studies inquiry arises from social need, from the issues that confront us collectively in daily life. This is a challenge for educators and parents alike. Often, we would rather protect children from the challenges we face in our communities, nation, and world, but they have endless questions: Why did they put a police officer in jail?  Why won’t our country accept refugees?  What does the word n---- mean? Why are people angry about bathrooms?

Children want to understand and take action on significant social issues. It is our role, as educators, to help them formulate their questions—to narrow or expand them so that the search for information will be both manageable and meaningful. And we must engage with all of their questions, especially the controversial or painful ones. We have to teach our children, and ourselves, to accept discomfort (but not disrespect), because it is one of the conditions that leads to the deepest learning.


Civics, economics, geography, and history

The framework defines social studies as a complex interplay of civics, economics, geography, and history. Each of these four areas can be separated, simplified, and taught in isolation, but removing the complexity removes the power of the discipline.

In order for children to have the fullest possible picture of social issues and the best chance for effective action, these four threads have to be woven together into a tapestry of social studies understanding. When economics is taught against the backdrop of civics, geography, and history, students gain a framework for understanding and addressing privilege and discrimination in society. Likewise, when civics is taught against the backdrop of economics, geography, and history, students gain a framework for social change that enables them stand on the shoulders of those who went before and promote their own visions for a better world.

Turning learning into action

Once students have learned about relevant and meaningful social issues, the framework challenges them to take action to promote justice, peace, and prosperity in the world. In Seedfolk, the 6th grade summer reading book, Sid Fleishman writes: “Adults haven’t been able to solve this problem, so let’s let the kids try.” Nowhere are these words truer than in the challenges of modern life. If adults knew how address these issues, they would already be resolved.

Kids often have unique, creative approaches to the problems we face, and we should encourage them to bring their ideas to life. The Lowell faculty is committed to planning for meaningful action in ways that grow over time and through the curriculum, so that our youngest students are exposed to the early and necessary building blocks for action and our oldest students can independently carry off complex projects.

Enhancing our curriculum

In commitment to this vision of social studies for leadership, Lowell continues to evaluate and further deepen the social studies experiences it offers. Combining these social studies standards with the Teaching Tolerance Anti-Bias Framework enables Lowell teachers to identify and adapt lessons that are over-simplified or represent a single perspective. Exciting changes have already been introduced, and there are more to come.

In the 1st grade model town unit, we are studying ways students can investigate civics standards more deeply, such as the purpose and function of government and the roles and responsibilities of people in authority. Look for a new 3rd grade unit on elections this fall, in which each class will select a candidate from a variety of campus personalities and manage the campaign. This new unit will complement the already existing unit on immigration and citizenship. Fifth grade will lean into the industrial revolution for the first time and explore its implications for workers and the environment. A team of faculty and staff will also be looking at how to partner with students to bring DC Emancipation Day alive at Lowell.  

Responsible citizens and future voters

The fact that social studies is so hard to teach is exactly why it deserves a prominent place in K–8 education. As the social studies coordinator at Lowell, I think about each student in terms of the number of years until they will vote. Kindergartners vote in twelve years, 3rd graders vote in nine, and 8th graders vote in a scant four years. What do they need to know about the world in order to be responsible, informed citizens, and how will they learn it? Making a difference in the world requires an understanding of civics, economics, history, and geography, and the ability to question, evaluate, and act.


Working through complexity and discomfort thoughtfully and respectfully to gain deep understanding and take meaningful action is one of our community’s main strengths. By adopting this groundbreaking framework, Lowell is building on an already strong program to create a model of excellence in social studies education, one that provides students with the dynamic knowledge and skills they need now and in the future to make a difference in the world.

Natalie Stapert is a 5th grade teacher and the humanities coordinator at Lowell School. She earned her BSEd in elementary education with a minor in international studies from Shippensburg University and holds an MEd in independent school leadership from Johns Hopkins University. She is National Board certified as a middle childhood generalist and is also certified in DC to teach grades 1–5.


Looking for a school for your child?

Lowell School is an independent school in the Colonial Village neighborhood of Washington, DC, that offers Pre-Primary, Primary, and Middle School programs. It offers a rigorous and hands-on curriculum that nurtures each child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn, and supports the development of individual voice and self-reliance. For more information, please call 202-577-2000, email, or follow Lowell on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Topics: Teaching & Learning

Natalie Stapert

Written by Natalie Stapert