Three Approaches to Teaching Social Studies


Ellis in his book, Teaching and Learning Elementary Social Studies, highlights three approaches to teaching social studies in the elementary classroom. He begins with the Learner-Centered approach. He gives the example of a teacher who features various centers around her classroom that the students are able to work independently in. The students choose the center they would like to pursue (content ranges from shop to art to theatre). The teacher facilitates, helps, and evaluates. Teachers are learners themselves in this model. We pursue new interests and hobbies and bring those new findings and passions to our classroom to share with our fellow learners. Students’ needs are met on a one on one basis. Teachers diversify their classroom learning centers to engage many different learning styles.

My personality gravitates towards this approach. I am a lifelong learner. Recently I have picked up the guitar, something I was quite intimidated to do. As I began my own guitar classes, I couldn’t help but want to share it with others in my life. I have not brought in my guitar to my school classroom yet, but I have been leading songs at my church with my Sunday school students there. I plan on continuing my education and integrating that as much as possible into my classroom. I also love how this approach highlights the individuality of the students themselves. I would not have been engaged in school by the same things as my brother. We are very different people. It makes sense that we should be given the opportunity to pursue different passions. This approach reminds me a bit of Montessori, but not quite as extreme. The chapter highlights the fact that students are held accountable to show evidence of their learning, and students who are less self-reliant may start out with more teacher guided structured activities and assignments and then move towards self-direction (pg. 104).

Next comes the Society-Centered Approach. In this type of classroom teachers place a large emphasis on real life societal problems, projects, and plans. Students are involved in community service projects to understand citizenship and community dynamics. Students problem solve real issues, both on the worldwide scale and on the classroom scale (through class meetings). They plan for new playground structures or simulated city plans. Environmentalism is addressed as a societal need.

I also plan on taking some cues from this approach with my classroom. It has a huge strength in that it makes the issues real for the students. They discover problems and then they get to help solve those problems in real life. Democracy and citizenship are very effectively taught through this method. A weakness of this is just the time needed to do something like one of these projects, but with a careful choosing, I’m sure focused efforts on one or two service projects in a year could be very worthwhile for the students, teachers, and community at large.


Ellis, Arthur K. Teaching and Learning Elementary Social Studies. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1977. Print.    Lastly is the knowledge-centered approach. This approach highlights content of social studies. It often starts with a text book, but then delves way deeper using artifcats, authentic texts, and many other resources linked to the item of interest. Projects are very deep representation of the students’ work, featuring art, displays, and drama. Students take quizzes and write essays to demonstrate accountability for their learning. A possible weakness of this approach is that it could be harder for students of a lower SES or who don’t have family support at home. Getting the projects done would likely take lots of time outside of class which would put them at a disadvantage. Otherwise teachers would need to devote a lot of instructional time to letting students research.

I like that this approach uses meaningful ways of assessment. As a student, I find that the deeper I go into any subject, the more I am pushed to produce a quality product of my learning, the more fully I understand the subject. I would love to feature a few projects a year that push and challenge students to go beyond the text, beyond a couple of Wikipedia searches, and to get into the meat of the subject. This approach really respects students as intelligent learners. Sometimes I feel we dumb things down for our elementary students, when we should be pushing them out of their comfort zone, even if it’s more work for us and them.

It’s good for me to remember teaching is often on a spectrum. I will probably borrow and cut and paste from many sources and methods of instruction to make a class that fits my needs and the needs of my individual students. I can bet from year to year I would progress and adapt and let go of things too.


About koharrington

My life is not my own. I am learning this a little more each day, as God reveals to me, my true purpose- to love as much as my heart possibly can. If we pass by a sprinkler, be forewarned that I will run through it. I collect leaves in the fall. If we are driving and I stop the car, you must get out and dance with me. I love the smell of old books, and I sometimes try to write. I'm a teacher, student, disciple, friend.

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