top of page

Subscribe to our blog:

  • Facebook Social Icon
  • Twitter Social Icon
Recent Posts
Choose By Tags
  • Patty McGee

Un-textbook Social Studies

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “social studies?” A globe, a map, a test on the names of continents? In its truest intent, Social Studies is an investigation of social relationships and how they impact the function of a society. It is the study of how people survive and thrive in the regions they inhabit. Social studies helps us draw conclusions about what leads civilizations to develop, and what causes their demise. By digging into earth literally and figuratively, we unearth—religious practices, governing, habitats, artifacts of war and peace. We discover the ways past societies functioned entirely differently (or shockingly similar) to our world today. We acknowledge and have gratitude for the the struggle and strife, the innovations in engineering, the inspiration of art, the spiritual traditions, and cultural celebrations that carried us is to the present. We reflect on the human capacity for violence, oppression, and corruption, as well as selfless activism. Social Studies is complex, multi-layered, and virtually endless.

And then there is the Social Studies textbook. (cue the womp, womp, womp wahhh trombone sound).

Social Studies textbooks are in the majority of classrooms, still on the pedestal as though they are the essential source telling us what to know about history. By design, the textbook is incapable of going deep into its content. As a result, students read watered down information poured like cement into intentionally predictable structures. Some students become engulfed and overwhelmed by the facts. Other students savvily know they just have to crack the code—skim those bold headings, find that fact, and answer the questions at chapter’s end. For all students, the net effect is the same: they have been denied the authentic study of history in all of its nuances, unanswered questions, and connections to who we are today. They have been denied the chance to be fascinated.

Side note: Don’t toss your textbooks in haste. There are a few redeeming uses for these materials that I will share a little later.

This begs the question: If textbooks are not conducive to developing social scientists, what are some other options? I discovered some stellar alternatives from Karen Vander Leest, Supervisor of Social Studies in the Ramsey School District in New Jersey. Karen co-designed curriculum that created opportunities for students to study the concepts of Social Studies through distinct lenses. Students took on the roles of various professionals who study history and our world. They translate beautifully into creating a study approach to Social Studies.

Donning the Many Hats of Social Scientists

A few of the roles that you may consider using to create this experience:

Geographer: Students study how the physical features of the environment impact a community and the lives of its people.

Economist: Students study how the wealth or resources of a community are used, how they are managed, and how they contribute to the levels of well-being for the people of that community.

Archaeologist: Students analyze artifacts and physical remains of a time period to uncover information about the people of the time.

Sociologist: Students study how people function and relate to one another in a society, and the opportunities and limitations this creates.

Let’s work through an experience together using these roles to study primary and secondary sources of the Colonial Era in the United States. I ask you to take on each of these roles as a learner, a social scientist, and notice any new learning for you about this era in history and any ways you may use this approach in your classroom:

Starting as a geographer, we begin with a map of the colonies. Geographers often ask themselves, how can the physical features create opportunities or limitations for the people at this time? How can these landforms shape communities? What must be essential for people of this time to do to live and prosper?


What you may have learned through the geographer lens: The guiding questions and study of this map may have lead you to discoveries about the abundance of water in the colonies. Between the proximity to the Atlantic coast and the many rivers that flow westward from the coast, people of this time have myriad opportunities for fishing and farming. The entire coastline is open for potential commerce between colonies and between the colonies and Europe. This much water provides a bounty of natural resources for colonists.

Let’s now move into the role of an economist, thinking about the wealth of a group of people and how it is used for their well being (or not). Here, we look at the economic growth of the colonies. Though I am sure you and your students may also discover other entry points into the economy of the day, we are studying colonial america’s dependence on slaves, using this resource:

What you may have learned from the economist lens: Perhaps you have come to the conclusion that deplorably, all colonies could not have prospered without the dependence on slave labor, that we would not be where we are today without slaves, and we are greatly indebted to those enslaved, even the colonies of the north, though much of this history has been forgotten to time.

Now let’s study Colonial America as an archaeologist exploring the question: What do these artifacts tell me about people of this time? Images of artifacts are easily found online and so you can choose those from different walks of life, locations, and age groups within the colonial era. Here are a just few of my favorite finds. See what you discover when studying them closely.

Lenape Arrowheads found in Warren County, NJ

A Commode Chair (and other diverse artifacts)

Dice & Toy Horse:

What you may have discovered via the archaeologist lens: People of colonial times were artistic, creative, innovative, and playful, much like those of our time, yet without the current technologies. That said, the artifacts imply a great social divide during colonial times.

Next, look at Colonial America as a sociologist. Click on the image below to learn more about the gender roles of the colonial era. Be sure to look at this time period with an objective sociologist’s eye and then perhaps a critical one as well.

Gender roles in Colonial America via Gettysburg University

What you may have learned from a sociologist’s lens: The social mores of that time were the framework that sustained communities and families. Gender roles, while limiting in so many ways that are unacceptable today, were essential to living day to day and therefore sometimes born out of necessity. In other ways, they were born out of oppressive power and human indignities which makes me want to explore more from this point of view.

What we have learned as social scientists and educators: Now that we have taken a simulated journey through studying the colonial era from different lenses, take a moment to reflect on what you have learned that you had never previously discovered from a textbook and how taking on various roles empowered your curiosity and built a multifaceted view of a time period that one resource alone cannot provide. Trust, too, that this simulated experience within this blog will only be richer and deeper when students are involved in this conversation. What lenses will you look through with students? What roles might spark a satisfying study?

And one last burning question: What to do with that darn textbook… My suggestion is to use the images, videos, artifacts, letters, and other primary and secondary resources that they have combed the world over to find in combination with some of your own found resources. Use these textbook resources to complement your learning goals and units, not as the curriculum itself. I also suggest trimming the fat: stop using anything from the textbook that does the thinking for budding social scientists. These parts are easy to find-- pinpoint what bores your kids or distracts them from digging deeply into Social Studies.

And, voila! We have un-textbooked Social Studies.

bottom of page