Social Studies Pedagogy

My professional development sessions and resources are all based on research into best practices in Social Studies education. You will find elements of each of these embedded into everything I do:

Enduring Understandings –Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe believe that teaching for deep understanding must begin with planning the big ideas students should learn. Essential Questions are embedded into my resources to improve student understanding of key Social Studies concepts.

Nonlinguistic Representation –Research by Robert Marzano and colleagues demonstrates that teaching with nonlinguistic activities helps improve comprehension. Strategies include using graphic organizers, drawing pictures, and doing activities that involve physical movement.

Multiple Intelligences – Howard Gardner believes that all students are intelligent — just not in the same way. My resources and professional development sessions include strategies for addressing multiple Intelligences.

Cooperative Interaction –Elizabeth Cohen’s research shows that cooperative groupwork leads to learning gains and higher student achievement. Flexible Grouping is a cornerstone of Differentiated Instruction.

Quality Questioning – Jacki Walsh and Beth Sattes have researched the lack of wait time provided by teachers and the instructional implications of low level, limited response questions.  If good questions help students learn, then teachers need to take time to plan quality questions. Alternative response formats are scaffolds to help students develop complex thinking.  Observe how to use quality questioning in all of my professional development sessions.

Design Qualities of Engagement – Phillip Schlechty created specific elements of an engaging lesson. At least three of these elements should be included in every lesson plan to maximize student learning.  Social Studies is not boring! And it shouldn’t be in your workshop or classroom either.

Differentiated Instruction – Research by Carol Ann Tomlinson on Differentiated Instruction is embedded throughout the design of my resources and professional development.  

History Alive! – Dr. Bert Bower designed six Social Studies instructional strategies and refined the use of the Interactive Student Notebook. These strategies combine the elements of Differentiated Instruction and maximize rigor. These are the foundational strategies that influence many of my lessons.

Best practices in Social Studies teaching manifest itself into quality instruction.  You will find all of these elements in my workshops or resources.

The Interactive Student Notebook

The Interactive Student Notebook is a key element of transformational Social Studies instruction. As a learning tool, the Interactive Student Notebook invites students to become successful note takers, get systematically organized, and create a portfolio of individual learning for historical memory. The three key elements of the Interactive Student Notebook are:

Preview Assignments – (Hook) A short, engaging assignment at the start of each lesson helps students preview key concepts and tap their prior knowledge and personal experience.  

Graphically Organized Reading Notes  – (Line) Comprehensive graphic organizers are used to record key ideas help students obtain meaning from what they read. Graphic organizers help students to see the underlying logic and interconnections among concepts by improving their comprehension and retention in the subject area.

Processing Assignments  – (Sinker) An end-of-lesson processing assignment, involving multiple intelligences and higher-order thinking skills, challenges students to apply what they’ve learned. Processing assignments encourage students to synthesize and apply the information they have learned in a variety of creative ways.All of my professional development sessions and resources incorporate the Interactive Student Notebook.  Read more from my blog here.

Active Instruction

The best use of these instructional strategies relies on purposeful selection of strategies to Differentiate Instruction for the learner. Strategies should attempt to reinforce the concept being taught as closely as possible. Active note taking should be an intentional focus of every social studies lesson.  Teachers should avoid students transcribing information by simply copying notes off of a PowerPoint or other teacher centered model.


Content Literacy

Social Studies instruction should focus on building reading, writing and thinking skills to facilitate the acquisition of social studies content. Building reading and writing skills in content areas enables students to comprehend and retain Social Studies information. Content Literacy instruction recognizes that successful reading of expository text or primary sources involves three stages:

  1. Previewing the content through an open ended activity that “Hooks” into student’s prior learning or life experiences,  
  2. Reading expository text or primary sources with an active reading strategy and taking purposeful notes with a graphic organizer. This is the “Line” of content information students are required to master in their standards.
  3. Processing the content or reviewing and applying what has been learned. This step allows information to “Sink” into the brain and leads to long-term retention of knowledge.

As classroom instruction focuses on the increased demand of literacy to prepare students for college and careers, all Social Studies teachers should embed reading and writing instruction and practice into everyday instruction. Students require lessons to learn the skills of analyzing, inferencing and drawing conclusions. Content Literacy is more than just reading and writing; it is thinking.


Vocabulary Instruction

Targeted vocabulary instruction promotes content literacy and Social Studies instruction. Utilizing meaningful vocabulary activities reinforces and scaffolds vocabulary knowledge in the Social Studies classroom. Steps must be taken by the Social Studies teacher to design lessons that provide deliberate direct instruction in key Social Studies and academic vocabulary.

In addition to targeted instruction, teachers must be mindful of vocabulary on district and state assessments.  As the vocabulary required for mastery becomes more and more difficult, what steps are teachers doing to analyze release items to pinpoint instruction on key terms?


Social Studies Skills

Integrating Social Studies skills with Social Studies content is critical for students to learn skills in context.  Integration affords multiple opportunities for students to acquire Social Studies content and build complexity in their thinking skills. Teachers need to assist students with developing a systematic approach to implementing knowledge of Social Studies skills. In addition to direct instruction on Content Literacy, students should have frequent and systematic interactions with primary sources throughout their Social Studies course work.

Focus in the classroom should be on two key Social Studies skills standards –

  1. analyze information by sequencing, categorizing, identifying cause-and-effect relationships, comparing, contrasting, finding the main idea, summarizing, making generalizations and predictions, and drawing inferences and conclusions;
  2. differentiate between, locate, and use valid primary and secondary sources such as computer software; interviews; biographies; oral, print, and visual material; documents; and artifacts to acquire information.

The use of anchor charts can be key in these different elements of Social Studies instruction.  Teachers need to purposefully identify the skill paired with the content standards in order to teach it as they would a content lesson.


Common, Formative and Summative Assessments are keystones to successful Social Studies Instruction. Carefully designed common assessments should encourage students to use their various intelligences to demonstrate their understanding of key concepts while preparing them for standardized tests. Test design requires a rigorous analysis of the standard in addition to the combination of processing and content standards.

Essential Questions are embedded into resources. They focus on the most important concepts the students should learn from each unit.  They provide the teacher with a thoughtful approach to the course and to individual units.

Quality Questioning

The Quality Questioning model is a 3 step process: Plan, Wait, and Engage All. The first step involves planning the higher level questioning embedded into the lesson. The second step is for purposeful Wait Time 1 and Wait Time 2. The final step is to involve all of your learners through Alternate Response Strategies. Teachers can observe this skill in action in all of my professional development sessions

Global Citizenship

In our increasingly interconnected world, the actions and decisions of ordinary citizens are more likely to affect others across the globe than ever before. Teaching to Enduring Understandings and Universals are essential to understanding our complex world.  Teachers are given the responsibility of being social change agents and creating students able to function in a world increasing affected by global events.  “Education for living together in an interdependent world is not an optional extra, but an essential foundation.” – Audrey Osler, the director of the Centre for Citizenship and Human Rights Education.

Citizenship is defined by being a member with rights and responsibilities. Global citizenship needs to be taught from a critical perspective; creating students who are thinking, feeling, and doing. A sound Social Studies program stresses the understanding of the world as one unified system. Students will recognize the interconnectedness between global issues and events and their own lives.