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Archived Information

History and Social Science
Curriculum Framework

VII. History and Social Science in
Pre-Kindergarten and Elementary Grades

By the terms of Guiding Principle One, history and social science education is the work of all grades without distinction as to age.

Research findings corroborate the Framework expectation that young children can absorb and use engaging history content in their thinking and learning. This section is intended to assist primary grade teachers to explore and use the Framework, considering their particular concerns and responsibilities for presenting substantive content in developmentally appropriate ways and for providing the best beginning opportunities, upon which later learning will build to meet the specific learning standards at each level.

History instruction in the lower grades has a distinct elementary form dictated both by considerations of children's developmental levels and by considerations of where and how study and learning in history begins. These considerations are implicit in the Framework selections of Core Knowledge and choice of Learning Standard components in Section VIII. It is important to make explicit some of those considerations and to anticipate questions teachers will have as they begin to work with the Framework to refine existing history/social science curricula or implement new programs.

The Key to History Learning: Historical Narrative. The Framework's selection of core knowledge is based on a collaboration of historians and teachers that aimed to determine what is historically significant matter for study, and accessible in some ways to young children. The basic work of the primary grades in history is devoted to hearing and reading about what happened in the course of human history and why, who was involved, and why they thought and acted so. The ability to follow and absorb historical accounts so as to reflect thoughtfully upon them must be the focus of the history/social science program, with activities planned to support and reinforce this work.

It should be kept in mind that it is by following the logic and the evidence presented in good narrative accounts that children begin to form for themselves the fundamental thinking habits of the disciplines. Such study will require enriched academic content in many school programs, not to produce scholars in the disciplines but to serve all children in learning to sort out what is real and valuable from what is neither.

To succeed in history study through thoughtful learning, young children need to acquire a mental picture of history from the language of storiesfictional, and increasingly non-fictional, narrative accounts of increasing subtlety. The mental picture a modest store of facts and their arrangement and significance grows from repeated and varied telling of stories and overlapping accounts of especially significant historical events, persons, and ideas.

Expression of Understanding. Concrete exercises in expressing understanding are developmentally appropriate means of assisting young children to grasp the historical importance of persons, ideas, and events. Writing is the primary way into concentrated learning and study of history; it can, of course, be undertaken in very simple ways, from children's dictated summary sentences in the earliest grades to "newspaper" articles covering late-breaking (historical) events. Also important is oral discussion, prepared by teachers' thoughtful questions about significance and interpretation, so as to direct attention to evidence in the narrative. Other good ways into history include illustrations of the narrative for the youngest grades, simple map-making and timeline construction for historical periods, memorization of poetry and portions of speeches and documents, and choral reciting. Primary teachers are well-prepared to conduct such exercises; they need only keep in mind that effective expression stays close to the topics and texts under study rather than wandering into activities that merely add color or fun.

Getting Started. For teachers with little historical knowledge of their own on which to draw for the design of classroom history curricula, a textbook is essential. It will assist the teacher to select Core Knowledge subject matter from the Framework and arrange it for class study in proper narrative sequenceusually chronologicalso as to suggest historically significant themes and turning points that address the Learning Standards. Teachers can compose an effective and engaging course of study for class presentation by filling in this textbook outline with good readings that go beyond the one-thing-after-another style of too many textbooks. Teachers know that many of the best readings are not textbook accounts but are found in good children's literature and sometimes in work specifically produced for young people by historians. These would be read aloud in earliest grades, using class globes and maps where possible. Thus, teachers using the Framework to introduce history study, perhaps for the first time, can lean heavily on available resourcestextbooks and children's literatureto both plan and present it.

Time for History. Proceeding as suggested above will also help primary teachers, of lower grades especially, to solve difficulties of finding time for history study, when all acknowledge that the central pedagogical objective of the earliest grades is and must remain language literacy, along with mathematics. Where well-chosen texts are routinely read aloud, an important opportunity opens to employ in the classroom somewhat more complex and richer language than children's own, providing badly needed language models. And as children use good texts for history study, following the story and looking for themes, drama, turning points, and evidence, they have at hand the material for writing exercises which may build in sophistication of style and content. Where the same texts can serve both English language arts and history programs, history is transformed from a time competitor to an ally of English.

Developmental Considerations: First Things First. Historical narrative is to be distinguished from the abstract discipline language of conceptstheories of causation, patterns of challenge and conflict, change and continuitythat have no real meaning for the young child when separated from the story that tells it. Moreover, it is from a narrative structure imposed on the selection and arrangement of facts that the themes, patterns, and general ideas, or concepts of history will begin to emerge for older childrenor will not in the absence of a strong narrative. Without a story to tell it, an abstract concept is grasped by young children only as a formula. Formulas do not help children learn to make sound judgments about history. The favored "similarities and differences" exercise, for example, will indeed amount to only a meaningless formula unless it is based on well-studied, historically significant similarities and differences.

History learning cannot begin or advance by leading children into premature attempts to identify, describe, explain, analyze, research, hypothesize, problem-solve, or predict. History learning begins by direct, thoughtful questioning of clear narrative accounts which may lend themselves to the above abstract discipline techniques as children mature and simultaneously acquire systematic thinking habits.

The lack of fully developed capacities in young childrena sense of time, sequence, and space, an ability to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction, myth and reality, literature and life, unsupported opinions (personal preferences) and opinions supported or confirmed by evidence (informed opinion or reasoned knowledge)is no obstacle to history study and learning. Teachers can do much to coach students as students practice and refine those skills over time in encounters with and responses to engaging narrative texts and globe and map study.

Integration of Subjects. The most difficult task initially imposed on teachers by the Framework will be the integration of its separately expressed learning standards for each social science discipline. The direct study of well-arranged historical narrative is still the general answer. Within the narrative are the geographical and economic shaping forces and chosen effects in civics: geography in explorers' distant travels; economics in the trade born of prized or newly discovered goods; civics and government in the Mayflower experiment in securing the common good by compact. Narrative provides the occasion and interest for an elementary introduction.

For example, in one elementary classroom, students read The Discovery of the Americas by Betsy and Giulio Maestro, and then I, Columbus: My Journal 1492 - 1493, edited by Peter and Connie Roop. Learning the historical chronology of explorations leading to the settling of the Americas provides a context for simultaneous study in geography of oceans, continents, and directionality on a globe or map. The Discovery of the Americas invites students to apply concepts of geography such as human migration as a result of dwindling resources and adaptation to the geography of regions for survival.

I, Columbus is an engaging study, based on primary sources, of an early European voyage to North America, and the purposes and intentions of the voyagers and their sponsors. Early technology and navigational terminology mentioned in the journal enrich the historical detail of the journal entries. Attitudes of the sailors toward each other and their leaders during the voyages make for lively discussion. A timeline construction of the events studied in these two pieces of literature provides a vivid representation of the chronology of this time period and graphically illustrates key events representing concepts in geography, history, and economics.

Pre-Kindergarten-Kindergarten A curriculum designed to meet the learning objectives of this Framework will be distinct on yet another level, in PreK and K. There, the focus will be on setting out and practicing the general learning conditions of formal schooling rather than on going forward in a straight history line. First, like other curricula and more than most, history/social sciences education requires an introduction to the world, pushing out the boundaries of the observed world in all directions by the broadest spectrum of stories and materials. Young children's natural propensity for asking questions accords perfectly with, and should be an integral part of, learning about the world outside the home setting.

Second, history like other curricula requires the ground rules of learning to be established. The pursuit of common learning objectives requires habits of group listening, turn-taking in expression, and attending to the opinions of each. In PreK and K, children acquire such habits through practice in listening to stories that we want them to absorb and possess. This is a comprehensive and demanding task that requires very little in the way of formal expression. Where the substance is engaging, expression will naturally emerge in drawing and painting, acting and singing, making things, and games. Acquiring the broad habits of listening is not only essential for undertaking formal learning but invaluable for expanding and refining the language capacities.

The Next Step: Implementing the Framework. The work cut out for primary grade teachers by the History and Social Science Curriculum Framework is primarily:

  • across-grade planning with grade span colleagues (to avoid gaps and repetitions) of an integrated and sequential course of study following the Core Knowledge topics (although PreK and K curricula are distinct, as above, teachers should be included in planning groups);
  • individual grade level planning using Learning Standards and Examples as guides to the selection and sequencing of grade Core Knowledge topics and reading.

The Development Of Selected History and Social Science Learning Capacities PreK-4

History: learning capacities in chronology and causality; historical understanding; Research, evidence and Point of view; Society, Diversity, Commonality, and the Individual; Interdisciplinary Learning: Religion, Ethics, Philosophy, and Literature in History; Interdisciplinary Learning: Natural Science, Mathematics, and Technology in History

PreK-K students canGrade 1 students canGrade 2-3 students canGrade 4 students can
  • practice and acquire habit of listening to and following stories
  • learn to recognize narrative story elements:
    • chronology ("now," "long ago")
    • narrative order (first, next, last)
  • attend with teacher assistance to causal factors in stories:
    • character, ideas, family/social/ economic settings
    • geography, seasons
    • accident, etc.
  • dictate sentences about story elements of character, event, setting
  • memorize historical poetry, songs portions of documents and speeches
  • recognize and describe more complex story elements of chronology and narrative sequences
  • describe story elements of character, event, setting
  • with teacher assistance, draw simple inferences from story:
    • about character, events, or setting
    • about causal factors
  • with teacher assistance, identify/seek evidence for inferences
  • with teacher assistance, make comparative oral connections between stories, between stories and life experiences
  • write properly sequenced descriptions and summaries
  • memorize historical poetry, songs, portions of documents and speeches
  • refine sense of time ("now" and "in the past") and recognize in discussion existence of changing historical periods ("other times, other places")
  • begin to construct historical timelines
  • with teacher assistance, begin to recognize similarities and differences of character, action, and setting: between now and period depicted: between periods depicted
  • with teacher assistance, begin to discuss causal factors of narrative, actions, events,
  • incorporate these capacities in simple writing exercises
  • continue memorization
  • identify events by date and historical period and begin to associate period with chronological order in time
  • construct timelines
  • use reading skills for independent study on historical topics, attending to chronology, causality, and evidence
  • begin to understand that historical inquiry employs a variety of sources and identify, with teachers assistance, primary and character secondary sources
  • dictate sentences about story
  • with teacher assistance, begin to understand that narrative accounts of historical events, ideas, and people vary in emphasis and point of view according to author's understanding of cause or significance
  • begin to understand that good evidence requires consulting multiple sources
  • develop versatile means of expressing understanding: oral, written, dramatic, artistic
  • continue memorization

Geography: learning capacities in Physical Spaces of the Earth; Places and Regions of the World; The Effects of Geography; Human Alteration of Environments

PreK-K students canGrade 1 students canGrade 2-3 students canGrade 4 students can
  • practice being careful observers of natural surroundings,* with teacher assistance, note regular changes/patterns:
    • length of day/night
    • seasons
    • features of local topography, geology, biology
  • with teacher assistance, notice connections between geography and the way people live "now" and "in the past" as depicted in stories
  • follow as teacher traces stories on large globe
  • learn basic global features (continents, oceans, poles, axis)

*regular "tours" of school grounds or local park

  • continue regular observation "tours"* and record changes:
    • ecology (plant and animal)
    • sky, weather
  • with teacher assistance, begin to understand effect of geography on the way people live "now' and "in the past" as depicted in stories (effect on shelter, diet, arts, technologies)
  • continue to learn global features (hemispheres, rivers, mountains)
  • with teacher assistance, follow stories on globe and maps
  • begin to learn map-reading vocabulary
  • enlarge globe and map-reading skills (following narrative accounts on globe and maps)
  • make simple maps on paper and relief maps
  • begin to identify and express understanding of geographical effects/cause in history under study (effect on shelter, diet, arts, technologies; cause of event)
  • continue to learn global features (latitude and longitude) and local features in conjunction with history under study (political units, natural resources)
  • practice skills by making maps from memory of basic global/continental/select nation and state shapes and features
  • use proper globe and map vocabulary
  • continue to learn geographic features of areas under study
  • use reading and writing skills to identify/describe geographical effects/cause in history under study

Economics: learning capacities in Fundamental Economic Concepts; Economic Reasoning; American and Massachusetts Economic History; Today's Economy; Theories of Economy

PreK-K students canGrade 1 students canGrade 2-3 students canGrade 4 students can
In Conjunction With StoriesIn Conjunction With History Stories And Geography StudyIn Conjunction With History Stories And Geography StudyIn Conjunction With History Stories And Geography Study
  • notice with teacher assistance:
    • basic needs of people "now" and "long ago" for food, clothing, shelter
    • their resources, plentiful and scarce, to satisfy needs
    • the family "economy" for meeting needs (family tasks)
    • the community "economy" (mutual assistance and exchange)
  • begin to notice, with teacher assistance, changing and developing resources depicted in narrative accounts:
    - gathering/hunting and fishing/exchange/agricultural production/trade and money commerce/manufacturing/service
  • begin to notice, with teacher assistance, complexity of needs:
    • leisure for practice of religion, arts and sciences, sociability; community security
    • accumulation of wealth, individual and community, to provide for these needs
  • continue to note and identify, with teacher assistance, individual and community needs, as distinguished from wants
  • with teacher assistance, begin to develop an appreciation of changing and developing resources--and their distribution--specifically connected with historical event/period under study
  • with teacher assistance, notice varied global distribution of resources
  • use reading, writing, and geography skills to begin to incorporate basic economic questions (needs, resources, accumulation, exchange, distribution) in considering causality in events/period under study
  • begin to notice, with teacher assistance, basic economic questions as factors in community responsibilities for security and the general welfare

Teachers should also recognize that student acquisition of an early grasp of events, ideas, and words of economic import is not limited solely to the context of study in history and geography. Historical narrative and geography study disclose economic effects as well as ideas; so do many other instances of early learning in economics:

  • Giving students a word problem in mathematics constructed around the value of coins might equally lead to more than superficial discussion of the concept of money.
  • Having students compile a list of materials to purchase in order to make a gift for a friend might frame questions and discussion of specific economic terms, such as "consumer," "producer," "buyer," "seller," "cash," and "credit."
  • Helping students learn to be respectful of the rights of others usually requires some attention to the ideas of ownership and property.

Civics and Government: learning capacities in Authority, Responsibility, and Power; The Founding Documents; Principles and Practices of American Government; Citizenship; Forms of Government

PreK-K students canGrade 1 students canGrade 2-3 students canGrade 4 students can
  • learn and practice rules and precepts of the learning community:
    • respect for persons and property (courtesy and consideration, taking turns)
    • take part by being cooperative and helpful to others
    • share responsibility for keeping classroom in order
    • work with diligence and honesty
  • begin to understand reasons for following rules at home, in the classroom, on the playground
  • be touched in their aspirations by stories of good, just, noble actions
  • observe and practice rules and precepts of the learning community
  • begin to work in groups with defined tasks and responsibilities for the work of classroom
  • from stories, myths, narrative accounts, biographies, learn more about qualities of character to emulate or to avoid
  • be introduced in story and narrative to ideas of liberty and justice
  • observe and practice rules and precepts of learning community
  • begin to assume leadership for specific class responsibilities
  • undertake community service within the school (participate in school "buddy system")
  • participate in appropriate all-class decisions and abide by majority decision; begin to learn that they will sometimes be in and sometimes out of the majority
  • explore in stories, biographies and historical narrative the character of historical figures
  • begin to distinguish acting justly, for the common good, or acting unjustly, for selfish ends
  • begin to learn from stories, biographies, and narrative accounts about high value we place on liberty and justice for all
  • observe rules and practice precepts of learning community and participate in community responsibilities
  • begin to understand that rules/precepts of learning community are connected
    • through habits of observing rules and participation- to laws which secure human and civil rights and confer political and civic responsibilities
  • use reading skills to learn about high value we place on liberty and justice for all; begin to learn about how these are secured by limited government (representative democracy and constitutional government)


Last Updated: September 1, 1997
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