Posted in Secondary Education Preparation

How to Teach the Social Sciences

Occasionally, when I tell people that I plan on teaching history or government, they admit to me that they hated those two subjects in school. Upon further questioning, I discover that these people dislike the subject not because of some innate enmity toward George Washington or John Locke, but rather because they had a bad experience with a high school or college teacher. These teachers made social science an excruciatingly boring topic as they gave monotone lectures and ruthless exams.

Can poor teaching really make a good subject go bad? Ask any student at BYU that question, and I am certain you will get an answer in the affirmative! How, then, do you teach social studies so that they are enjoyable? I’ve dedicated this post to a few of my most memorable lessons from my high school government and history classes in hopes to give those in my same major some ideas for future classroom lessons.

Mr. Spears was my government teacher during my final year of high school. Other than the fact that Democrats and Republicans are political rivals, I didn’t know much about United States Government. I could tell that I wasn’t the only one in my class who had a lack of political understanding. Most students in my class had blank looks whenever Mr. Spears tried to get us to discuss the latest legislation in Washington.

In order to help us develop our own political opinions and to get us to simply enjoy U.S. Government more, Mr. Spears decided to hold a class debate. The class was divided into groups of six, and each group received a controversial government topic. One group got the topic of abortion, another was assigned the draft, and so forth.  Each group of six was then divided into two teams—one in favor of the topic, and the other against. We were given the charge to research our topic and create an argument to support our position.

I remember well my Catholic friends who were assigned the topic of abortion. At first, they were upset when they were assigned to argue for the issue. There was some strong protest from these students, but Mr. Spears explained that the best debaters had a view of both sides of an issue. He promised these students that if they developed a strong case for a topic they disagreed with, they would better know how to refute it in a real debate. To our surprise, on the day of the debate, when these students won, they admitted that they had indeed learned how to better defend their true position as pro-life supporters since they had mastered pro-choice rhetoric.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from this debate was the importance of becoming an informed citizen. Mr. Spears opened the world of government to our class simply by bringing the subject matter into a world that we already understood. We contextualized the material so that we could form our own ideas and beliefs, and that is what made me love U.S. Government.

It was during my junior year of high school that I discovered my fascination with U.S. History. Mrs. Gould, my teacher, helped facilitate my love for the subject. Of all the awards she had been awarded during her teaching profession, the one she cherished most dubbed her “the weirdest teacher ever.” Indeed, weird was a good word for her, but it was her unique style of teaching that made history come alive.

During lessons on pioneer migration to the west, Mrs. Gould dressed up like a cowboy and spoke in a western accent. When we learned about political machines and the gilded age, she threatened that she would call her brute squad to ruff us all up if we didn’t vote Republican in the next election. Our discussions on the age of exploration were even more interesting. She dressed up like a Spanish Conquistador, ran around the room with a flag bearing her name, and randomly yelled, “I claim this land in the name of Gould!”

It was the unusual things that Mrs. Gould did that I remember the most. Attached to these strange memories are bits of knowledge that I gleaned from the lesson. It would be accurate to say that Mrs. Gould’s way of presenting the information created ‘enduring understandings.’ These are historical facts that I have remembered long after leaving high school, and I believe I will always remember these fact.

I recognize that every subject matter has interesting ways of teaching its curriculum. I would love to hear from any education major. What are some of the ways to teach your subject curriculum so that students remember the lessons years down the road?


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