When I was in elementary, middle, and high school, my history teachers helped me gain a better understanding of how the past created the contemporary world we lived in. We memorized great figures in world history, got inundated with key dates that shaped societies, and familiarized ourselves with empires of past eras.
But that approach prevented my classmates from understanding how the past informed the future. Sure, we knew about the Mayan Empire or King Tut, or remembered the date of the Emancipation Proclamation, but we were clueless about how all of this connected to the world we lived in, and how history is really a continuum (and not fragmented).
This wasn't just limited to history, as civics, government, geography, and other social studies classes faced similar challenges in empowering students to think forward. Moreover, social studies education today continues to be hindered by the question, "What are we doing to get our students prepared for tomorrow?"
My friend Craig Perrier's piece on 21st century social studies education hits the nail on the head when it comes to how social studies teachers should approach the profession. He notes:
Teaching for tomorrow allows us as educators to reflect on our profession and the experiences students are having. It also emphasizes students' exploration and understanding of how past events continue to impact the ever more globalized world of today, and how they will continue to shape the future. ...By using a combination of knowledge, skills, and dispositions, we can teach for tomorrow and help our students navigate the world with open minds.
He adds that social studies teachers should "use practices that address global citizenship: a combination of knowledge, skills, and dispositions, all of which put the focus on students' futures." This is especially important as we live in an increasingly interconnected world, and previous ideas of nationality and borders are vanishing before our eyes. Preparing our students for that future is of critical importance; otherwise, they are doomed to be tethered to the past and encumbered by outdated ideas and worldviews.
A student-centered approach to learning, as Perrier notes, is vital to shaping social studies education as we enter into (or continue) a dynamic and turbulent period in our global history. Critical inquiry is of the utmost importance, but teachers must also work to challenge their own preconceived notions. This allows for greater reflexivity in teaching approaches, and an openness to changing with the times.
We must adapt to the changes in the world around us, and prepare our students for what's in store. Even as we strive towards safe learning environments, we can't insulate our students from the world around them and create conditions in which civic (and civil) discourse is pushed to the side. A proactive and forward-based approach to social studies will be key to helping future generations learn lessons from the past as a means of being informed, engaged, and aware global citizens.