It’s an unfortunate truth—social studies is a subject area that just doesn’t tend to receive the same attention as reading, math, science, coding, and other trendy topics. However, the concepts taught in social studies classrooms are key to shaping students into well-informed, engaged citizens.
With that as motivation, in the summer of 2015 the Edmentum Courseware team started working on a series of new social studies courses at both the middle school and high school levels. In prior years, our team had produced a year-long course in high school US History, a year-long course in World Geography, and a one-semester course in high school US Government. To extend our offerings further, we knew we needed to develop a high school world history product as well as products to meet the needs of our customers in the middle school grades. Now that we’ve wrapped up this project and officially released these new courses, we want to take the time to offer some insight into the development process.
Research and Design
The first step in the creation of any course at Edmentum is for our Courseware team to do research into the best practices for teaching the content in question. For the social studies team, this meant digging into materials from the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS), including the National Curriculum Standards. Though not nationally adopted by states like the ELA Common Core State Standards Initiative, the National Curriculum Standards provide a high quality, widely-recognized framework for social studies instruction in grades pre-K through 12.
Additionally, instructional designers from our Courseware team met with social studies teachers from a range of school settings to learn about the specific needs and challenges of their student populations, as well as effective strategies for meeting them. Many of our teachers suggested more “learning by doing” to minimize the “straight-up instruction time” that tends to be negatively associated with many social studies classes. Our teachers also stated that their most important need in any online educational program was alignment to their state’s standards. The need for active and engaging learning that gives students a chance to think critically and problem solve was a close second.
The findings from this research provided our Courseware team with the foundation to develop a pedagogical approach that blends direct instruction with more constructivist learning experiences that we used in all of our new social studies courses. In short, we want students to acquire new knowledge in the form of foundational skills and concepts, while being presented with opportunities to practice and apply the concepts they are learning.
Standards: Analysis and Alignment
From our teacher interviews, we knew that alignment to state standards would be one of our top priorities for the creation of our new social studies courses. The variations in state standards in social studies, however, presented us with a challenge—almost all states have their own, unique take on exactly what content to cover and when to cover it in both middle school and high school. For example, at the middle school level, Texas has a year-long course called “Contemporary World” in 6th grade, a year-long course covering the history of Texas in 7th grade, and a year-long course on US history in 8th grade. For those same grades, however, Ohio covers ancient civilizations in 6th grade, then Ancient Greece through the First Global Age in 7th grade, and US history in 8th grade. Another example: in high school world history studies, Indiana has a course that acts as a survey of world history, covering most of human history in one year. New York, on the other hand, covers roughly the same time period but over the course of four semesters or two school years.
Because there is such variation from state to state, our instructional designers looked through a cross section of state standards from around the country to find overarching trends in content coverage. Our findings revealed that many states generally cover the following:
- one year of world history in middle school
- one year of US history in middle school
- one year of world history in high school
- one year of contemporary studies, usually involving civics, geography, culture, and economics, in middle school
This allowed us to propose the creation of five “base” social studies courses aligned to the major trends that we identified during our standards analysis. From these courses, our Courseware team could then build customized courses to fit the needs of our customers throughout the country. The five base courses are:
- Middle School World History (Early Humans to Medieval Period)
- High School World History (Age of Exploration to the Present)
- High School World History Survey (Early Humans to the Present)
- Middle School US History (Pre-Columbian to Reconstruction)
- Middle School Contemporary World (Civics, Econ, Geography, and Culture)
Scope and Sequence
Following the research and design and the standards analysis phases of the project, our Courseware team then put together a scope and sequence for each social studies course that we needed to create. Think of a scope and sequence as the blueprint for the course—it includes all lessons that make up the course, lays out the learning objectives for each lesson, and groups the lessons into units and the units into semesters. The scope also indicates the alignment of each lesson to state standards and to the English Language Arts (ELA) Standards for History/Social Studies for the appropriate grade band. Each scope is put together by highly qualified subject matter experts before being internally reviewed by our Courseware team’s instructional designers.
With any new Courseware project, our team develops new features or finds new ways to use existing features to address challenges and help our product evolve and improve. For the social studies project, we knew we wanted features that would increase student understanding of the many different skills associated with the content, including chronological thinking, source analysis, interpretation of visual representations of information, and spatial reasoning. Here’s a brief overview of a few features from the new courses that address social studies specific needs:
Interactive Timelines—At the beginning of each history lesson, students will find a timeline that covers a few important events related to the time period they’re studying. Students can click through the timeline to see more information on each event. The timeline also features controls so that students can zoom in or zoom out to make time intervals between events larger or smaller.
Click to See—Students will be able to interact with many images in the new social studies courses thanks to a new feature: Click to See. This feature takes what would normally be a static image, be it a map, picture, diagram, or other type of visual, and embeds “hot spots” into it that students can click on to reveal more information. The Click to See interaction has a multitude of functions. It allows students to explore regions, cities, or geographical features on a map, learn more about artistic techniques or features in famous works of art, and dive more deeply into the working parts of a graphic organizer, to name just a few applications.
Glossary—We knew from our teacher interviews that domain specific vocabulary was important to social studies instruction. For this reason, the new glossary tool was vital to this project. On many tutorial slides, students will see underlined and clickable words. When clicked, a pop up box will appear with a glossary entry for that word.
These new high school and middle school social studies courses greatly expand our offerings in a subject that is too often overlooked. But, as any social studies educator will tell you, we know that teaching this subject is essential to giving students both the skills they need to succeed academically as well as the knowledge and tools they need to become engaged and active citizens of their city, state, and nation. And at Edmentum, we think both of those things are incredibly important.
We hope that you are as excited about Edmentum's new social studies courses as we are! Check out our Course Catalog to see a complete listing of our Social studies courses, or take a look at this blog to learn more about our commitment to developing quality online curriculum!