Developing Conceptual Understanding in Social Studies Using Technology and Discussion


Social studies concepts are tools for understanding our experience, the past, and the social world. They are broad, organizing ideas that can be expressed in one or two words and they are defined by key characteristics or attributes. They help us think about groups of objects, actions, people, issues, or relationships in the social world and can be applied to make sense of new situations and information that we encounter in our experience. Concepts help us learn by organizing new information and experience into mental constructs or schema. In social studies, concepts like trade-offs, identity, integration, and interdependence serve these purposes.

Important concepts that structure Issue One in Singapore’s new Social Studies syllabus include citizenship, trade-offs and governance. For example, to understand the concept of governance students are expected to understand the functions of governments, such as rule-making (i.e., laws) and the role of government in working for the good of society by maintaining order and ensuring justice (with each – the social good, order, and governance – also core social studies concepts necessary for students to understand). By understanding that governance consists of these common attributes – rule making, maintaining order and ensuring justice – no matter which society or government they are examining, students will be better positioned to think about governance, how different governments function, and analyze the role of government in making laws, maintaining order, and ensuring justice. They will be better able to think about the role that government plays in their own experience, the laws that affect them as young people, and what various levels of government do to help provide order and fairness in their community and even at school.

In this article, we share the experience of one Secondary Social Studies teacher, Michelle, in having her students investigate the question of whether or not the Singapore government has done enough to ensure progress in Singapore. Although initially taught prior to the introduction of the new syllabus, we believe it serves as an example of a Social Studies lesson focused on conceptual understanding. To understand the concept of governance and the role of the government in society, she asked them to consider another core social studies concept – progress. The concept of progress is central to the discipline of sociology. It is essential for understanding contemporary society and in developmentally-minded Singapore, the notion of progress is central to thinking about governance and the effects of government policy to support personal well-being, social improvement and economic growth. As the sociologist Robert Nisbet (1980) argued, “no single idea has been more important than…the idea of progress” (p. 4). The Social Progress Index provides several attributes that might help teachers and students consider different facets of social progress, such as well-being (e.g., healthcare, housing, social connection, etc.), whether or not basic human needs are met in society (e.g., clean air and water, safety and security, etc.), and opportunity (e.g., social mobility, inclusion, economic opportunity, etc.). In determining whether government policies had “done enough,” students might consider the extent to which they think policy adequately promoted these aspects of social progress.  

We outline Michelle’s lesson in having students consider different attributes of progress by examining different perspectives through source work, class discussion, and the use of technology. After providing this short lesson vignette, we conclude by highlighting Michelle’s takeaways from the lesson and the shift in her thinking about teaching Social Studies.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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