Social Studies

Why study Social Studies?

“What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be humane? The heart of social studies may lie in answering those two questions.” (Swan, Kathleen S., 2015)

According to the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS, 1992), “The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.” Social Studies develops and empowers active, global citizens through knowledge, inquiry, and engagement. Preparing students for the 21st century cannot be accomplished without a strong emphasis on the social studies.

In a culturally diverse society like Hawaiʻi, where the economy depends largely on tourism and developing international trade, classes such as World History, Ethnic Studies, Pacific Island Studies, Hawaiian Studies and Global Studies are necessary to instill cultural responsiveness, tolerance, and understanding in its young people. Those working in the business community, (including banking, finance, real estate and tourism), need a good understanding of economics and the effects of supply and demand. Global issues such as the availability of resources and environmental impacts affect those in the business and the building industry. Hawaiʻi’s entire workforce would benefit from an even greater understanding of sociology and psychology, and of the norms and values of different cultures.

Ultimately, beyond mere “facts,” social studies education fosters the written, oral communication, teamwork, ethical decision making, and critical thinking skills that come together for the larger purpose of applying knowledge to make a difference in real-world settings. Taking action that is informed by one’s learning is imperative to understanding how people generate problems, contribute to them, and solve them. Thus, if Hawaiʻi is to truly continue to hold its place in the global world, its citizens must embrace Hawaiʻi’s “glocal” (local and global) promise.

Core principles of Social Studies

Civic competence is first and foremost

The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world (NCSS, 1994). Social Studies develops and empowers active, global citizens through knowledge, inquiry, and engagement. Preparing students for the 21st century cannot be accomplished without a strong emphasis on the social studies. This nation’s founders emphasized that the vitality and security of a democracy depend upon the education and willingness of its citizens to participate actively in society. This level of participation requires civic competence. In other words, it is imperative that future generations gain an understanding of the core concepts of social studies. (Adapted from the Iowa Department of Education, 2017.)

In The Future of Democracy, Dale Allen (2016) argues that “citizens must judge whether their governments are meeting or failing to meet their responsibilities to secure the rights of its citizens. If a government is failing in its core purposes, its citizens have the job of figuring this out and of figuring out how to change direction. If this is the work of citizenship, what skills are needed to carry it out?” To make judgments about the course of human events, and our government’s role in them, we need, in its entirety, the social studies. (Adapted from Allen, Dale. 2016.)

It is imperative for college and career success

In addition to the citizenship skills that are of critical importance to our continued democracy, Social Studies provides students with the skills most valued by employers. According to a 2015 study commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities titled, “Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success, nearly all employers surveyed (96 percent) agree that “all college students should have experiences that teach them how to solve problems with people whose views are different from their own.” More than three-quarters (78 percent) agree that “all college students should gain intercultural skills and understanding of societies and countries outside the United States.”

It is both local and global

Think Globally, Teach Locally: The Importance of Place-Based Education (PBE)

To be an effective social studies teacher, educators must develop a deep understanding of the place they are were working in, and find ways to make that place central to their classroom practice. Knowledge of place, and the cultural competency that goes along with it is primarily gained through building relationships with students, parents, and the wide variety of people who make up a school and its surrounding community. It develops when teachers become critically familiar with the physical and genealogical landscapes of the schools and communities that they work. Going out and experiencing Hawaii's natural environment and learning about the various ways in which the history, geography, economics, and politics of Hawai‘i gives context to contemporary social studies teaching and learning. PBE does not insulate children from global topics but instead contextualizes topics into broader themes. (Adapted from Sarah Anderson’s Bringing School to Life: Placed-Based Curriculum Across the Curriculum 2017, and Makaiau, 2017).

Outdoor learning space at the Makaha Ahupua‘a at Makaha Elementary.
Outdoor learning space at the Makaha Ahupua‘a at Makaha Elementary.

One might ask if the mission of PBE is at odds with the effort to raise global citizens. In other words, might students who are only learning about their local area, grow up ignorant about the world at large and how they connect to it? On the contrary. PBE does not insulate children from global topics, but instead contextualizes global topics, and connects them to larger themes such as the environment, world trade, and human rights, etc. PBE projects give students hands-on experience with investigation and problem solving that they can apply both locally and globally, In the process, students clearly see how curricular topics relate to their lives. (Anderson, Sarah 2018.)

Where is Social Studies headed?

We are now firmly in the 21st century. It is imperative that, as Social Studies Educators, we generate new visions, new horizons, and new goals for future learning. The challenge is to teach children to cope in a world of shifting values; of rapid technological innovations; vast sources of multicultural information; political, social, economic, environmental and global interdependencies; instant yet remote communication; and a world that one can hardly envision but one in which children must be prepared to live.

As schools grapple with these challenges, standards-based curriculum, (created through such models as the Inquiry Design Model), takes on an even more significant role as it is foundational for what the students must know and be able to do to take their place in the worlds of college, career, and civic life. One needs to look at the broad patterns that have emerged in Social Studies education. These patterns involve a shift in how we perceive and interpret curriculum and instruction—about what we believe should be taught and how it should be taught. The educational literature on curriculum design suggests that this process is an opportunity to improve both teaching and learning in social studies. The comparison below summarizes the major shifts.



Narrow Perspectives: A narrow perspective tends to look at the world from a nationalistic viewpoint.

Global Perspectives: A global perspective views the world through the eyes and minds of other people of the world. It learns about the issues and problems that cut across national boundaries. A global perspective looks at America's relationship to the larger world systems.

A predominantly Western view: The Western view is less inclusive than a multicultural, multi-ethnic perspective.

Multicultural views: The inclusion of multicultural and other views fosters critical thinking. A multicultural view celebrates the diversity and commonality of our humanity.

Studying about Democratic citizenship: This paradigm leads to memorization of facts and knowledge rather than encompassing active engagement in civics-related activities.

Practicing Democratic Citizenship: The school community values and models thinking and acting for the common good. Connecting the classroom with the community provides opportunities for students to observe, advocate, and actively participate in civic affairs.

Coverage: Commonly refers to teaching social studies from a textbook, moving from chapter to chapter, usually providing a superficial treatment of people, events, and ideas.

Depth of Understanding: More instructional time is spent on inquiry into fewer and substantial topics. The time is used to take students beyond superficial exposure to deep and complex understandings, allowing students to develop their own questions and seek their own answers.

Emphasis on past: The past is not connected to present or current decisions, events, or ideas. Historical contingencies, historical empathy, and historical perspectives are not taught in relation to today’s world.

Connect past with the present: Students learn about the accomplishments and struggles of the past and their relationship to the establishment and perpetuation of justice, equality, and freedom today. Information from around the world serves as a framework within which local and global issues can be understood and examined.

Individualism: Students are taught to study, work, set goals, and engage in assessments by themselves.

Collaborative Spaces: Collaboration invites students to plan, organize, make decisions, take action, form communities, and practice patience and perseverance in working toward goals.

Memorizing Facts: Students are memorizing facts in a “chalk and talk, followed by test” fashion. Learning is primarily through a textbook.

Applying Knowledge: Base knowledge may be gained in a classroom, but it is always connected to application in a real world setting. Learning about poverty in general, for example, may lead students to work in a soup kitchen as part of a community service or volunteer project. Knowledge is gained through this application, as well as through the plethora of resources available beyond the textbook.

Social Studies Resources

Allen, D. (2016). The Future of the Humanities. Humanities, National Endowment for the Humanities.
Anderson, Sarah K. (2017). Bringing Schools to Life: Place-Based Education across the Curriculum. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield
Anderson, Sarah K. (2018). “Place-Based Education: Think Globally, Teach Locally.” Web blog post. Global Learning. ASCD.
Iowa Department of Education, Iowa Social Studies Standards. (May, 2017.) Introduction.
Makaiau, A. (2017) More on Place. Hawaii Hub, C3 Teachers. Retrieved from
National Council for the Social Studies. (1992). National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies: Executive Summary
National Council for the Social Studies. (1994) “What is Social Studies?” Expectations of Excellence Curriculum Standards for Social Studies.
Swan, K. (2015) “What is Social Studies?” Presentation to Hawaii State Department of Education.