Social Studies Concepts for Elementary Classrooms

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will discuss foundational social studies concepts for elementary learning. We will address key concepts elementary students should understand: things like continuity and change, power structures, the impact of geography upon culture, etc.

Foundational Themes in Elementary Social Studies

Think back to when you were in elementary school. Think back to your social studies class. I'm guessing you probably learned about things like George Washington, the Civil War, maybe ancient Egypt. These are all great things for elementary students to learn about, but if we dig a little deeper, we realize that there are some broader, foundational concepts that today's elementary students need to grasp. That's what we'll be covering in this lesson. So, we won't be talking about specifics here; we'll be covering themes that apply to all eras of history. We'll be looking at things like change over time, continuity, geography, systems of power and authority, and other big picture concepts.


Social Studies Themes

According to the National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies, there are ten foundational themes students need to be aware of. The first one is culture. We know what culture is. It is the way of life of a particular group of people. Cultures are dynamic systems of beliefs, values, and traditions. Students should understand that human beings create, learn, and adapt culture. Students should be taught the specific traits of different cultures. For example, the culture in ancient Greece vs. ancient Egypt.

The second theme is time, continuity, and change. This refers to the way things change or remain the same over time. As human beings we seek to understand our roots and find an identity in space and time. Students need to know how things change over time, so that they can answer questions about the present and anticipate the future. For example, students should be able to understand how the abolitionist movement helped set the stage for the Civil War.

The third theme is people, places, and environment. Students need to be be aware of how people, places, and environment are related. Specifically, students should see how geography impacts culture. For instance, how did Japan being an archipelago affect their culture?

The fourth theme is individual development and identity. Students should understand how even individual identity is shaped by the culture around them. Human beings are impacted by their environment. For example, Karl Marx's economic views were shaped by what he saw around him.

The fifth theme is individuals, groups, and institutions. Students should understand the relationship between individuals and groups. They should understand how groups are formed based on commonalities, and what kind of influence groups and institutions bear. For example, students might be taught how the railroad industry rose to power in the United States during the late 19th Century.

The sixth theme is power, authority, and governance. Here, students should understand how systems of power are structured. They should realize the need for government and civic institutions as essential components for stable society. An example might be how democracy strengthened society in ancient Greece.

The seventh theme is production, distribution, and consumption. Students should be able to comprehend basic economic principles. They should understand society's need for the exchange of goods and services, and what that looks like across time. Teachers might discuss the rise of capitalism, or transatlantic trade during the Age of Exploration.

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