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I have long been possessed of the notion that there's a way to teach social studies – typically history, but not exclusively – so that it addresses more, that it goes beyond its curricular boundaries. My experience of learning social studies (up to and through majoring in history) taught me that social studies is, as a curricular subject, entirely self-referential: you learn history topics to later reference other history classes. True, in an economics you need some math, and in civics you might need some persuasive writing/speaking skills, but these were always internal transfers – you bring other subjects into social studies; you don't bring social studies into the other subjects. As a result, social studies felt hived off from the rest of the curriculum. I knew that I loved social studies and felt it was vital and necessary...but most of my peers yawned and declaimed that they were merely suffering through it until they could get to study what they felt was useful (math, science) or lovely (English, art, music) or fun (languages, gym).  Social studies somehow felt expendable to them, and I didn't know how to argue against it. 

Before I go further, two caveats: 

  1.  I can hear, somewhere, a middle school principal saying, "Yes! Social studies is expendable! Let's replace it with literacy instruction! Social studies is just a vehicle to teach reading and writing in an applied context!" I couldn't disagree more. As stated above, I think social studies is vital, not expendable, and I think that burrowing into the literacy work inherent in social studies is misguided. True, social studies involves reading and writing...but it also involves maps and data and artwork and music – to turn it into a canvas for the Common Core's ELA goals distorts both the means and the ends of social studies and will result, in my humble opinion, in an even worse social studies experience for students. 
  2. Any student of the history of social studies will point out that I'm describing the terrible social studies that is (in many places but not all), not the vibrant social studies that should be, as described by the early acolytes of Dewey (and indeed as exists in some places). This alternate vision of social studies integrates current events, finds relevant connections to student interests, is inquiry-driven, etc. I'm a fan of this vision...but I find that it's easier to preach it than to live it. This version of social studies calls for incredible sophistication and courage from the teacher, and even I'm not always up to the task. I've been teaching social studies methods for ten years now, and I certainly don't hold myself to the same level of invention and re-invention described in this approach. So: I'm ultimately dissatisfied with myself when I advocate for this approach. I don't feel that I'm being honest with my students. 

In my approach to teaching social studies – and in my advocacy when teaching social studies methods classes – I have always found maps and data to be stimulating. This interest has fueled my work with GIS (and other geospatial tools) in social studies. I knew that putting topics in geospatial context added value, and that being able to visually represent data made topics far more accessible to students than if presented in more textual and/or numeric formats. If you can manipulate the data – as you can in GIS – then the lesson can become far more dynamic and interesting and engaging to students. When it all clicks, it's magical. I describe it as "history class leaning forward" – the student is leaning in to see the map, ask a question, share an observation, etc. The differences among students – reading ability, English language mastery, prior social studies knowledge – become flattened out, or at least re-shuffled, because of the dynamic, visually-accessible presentation. 

However, I knew that there was a weak point in my understanding of what was going on: the data. I knew that maps were useful / interesting / engaging / accessible / relevant...but how to approach the selection and manipulation of data? My experience was always very hit-or-miss: sometimes it came together beautifully and I saw the thread of inquiry right away (for example, Yad Vashem's data on Jewish populations circa the Holocaust) and other times it fell apart as a confused jumble of maps and disconnected data layers, a collapsed souffle (an attempted lesson on gerrymandering Congressional districts in Pennsylvania). I knew that I could keep working a confused jumble towards a clear line of inquiry (an analysis of Lehigh Valley school district's using Rawl's 'veil of ignorance' thought experiment), but it still felt altogether too haphazard. 

Over time, I have latched onto computational thinking as the missing piece. I have long observed the Computational Thinking SIG at the SITE conference, thinking, "Either they need to merge with the Geospatial SIG or we need to merge with them." I've always been excited to run into computational thinking presentations at other conferences, such as ASTE. In the past year, however, thanks to two doctoral students, I have decided that computational thinking provides the frame for getting to students to think about the data that I love to put on maps. 

Accordingly, I argue that there is a way to teach social studies – typically history, but not exclusively – that incorporates spatial reasoning and computational thinking. (Insert snappy acronym here – I seriously can't think of one.) This approach will simultaneously achieve several objectives

  1. It will provide students with an engaging, stimulating, interesting, and fun social studies experience. It will be hard fun, but it will be fun – students will have a chance to argue, to construct counter-interpretations, to re-shape and re-think the past, present, and future. 
  2. It will allow social studies to go beyond – the skills developed in social studies (specifically spatial reasoning and computational thinking) will be novel additions to the K-12 curriculum. Some students experience these already in computer science class or art class...but most don't. Social studies' universality – which I've always felt but haven't been able to bring to light for others – will be visible, established, and accessible. 

History Education, Enhanced

Spatial reasoningComputational thinking

Understanding & interpreting spatial data

  • Place & location (data definition)
  • Distance vs. proximity
  • Boundary & containment
  • Density vs. dispersion
  • Outlier vs. trend

Problem-solving strategies that integrate with computational tools

  • Data definition
  • Decomposition
  • Abstraction
  • Generalization
  • Algorithms (rules)
  • (Automation)
  • (Recursion)
  • (De-bugging)


Decision-focused social studiesU.S. History curriculum

Per Engle, 1960: decision-making is "the heart of social studies"; takes place at "two levels:

at the level of deciding what a group of descriptive data means…

[and] at the level of policy determination” (p. 301).

...Partially-worked examples include:

  • European Settlement of the Lehigh River Watershed (1739-1818)
  • The Whiskey Rebellion (1791-94)
  • Civil War - Eastern Theater battles (1861-65)

Elements of the instructional design model: 

  1. Engaging, decision-focused history instruction in alignment with the existing curriculum; 
  2. Explicit instruction on both spatial reasoning and computational thinking; 
  3. Application of these thinking skills in the context of learning a curriculum-aligned history topic; 
  4. Student examination and/or manipulation of accessible data; and 
  5. Guided note sheets and other learning materials that integrate the critical thinking skills, the history education content, and the decision-focused framework.

Theory of change model

The ask from BASD – will pay for time, subs, etc.

  • Time to work with a collaborating teacher during Year 1-2-3. 
    • Develop instructional materials
    • Develop assessments
  • Feasibility study with 1 teacher in Year 2
    • Implement instruction, conduct assessments
    • Participate in fidelity of implementation development
  • Pilot study with 2 or more teachers at Freedom, 2 or more teachers at Liberty during Year 3
    • Professional development with participating teachers; open to others as interested (summer)
    • Implement instruction, conduct assessments – note that this include data collection from control classrooms
    • Participate in fidelity of implementation measure

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