Thursday, August 4, 2011

Social Reconstruction for a Social Studies Curriculum

(While this post does not concern technology, it is a paper that I have been working on over the topic of social reconstruction. The Zuga article that is referenced is a great read over this theory and technology integration, however.)

Curriculum is much more than the mere passing of information or standardized content from the teacher to the student. It is the teacher’s role to prepare students not only by sharing valuable knowledge, but by guiding them to be healthy, active citizens in their communities. Acknowledging this encompassing and inclusive function of educators, it is important to adopt a curriculum that shares those intentions. Embedding a social reconstruction approach to teaching within a social studies curriculum is a good place for teachers to start when addressing the need for an education system that emphasizes the education of the whole child.

In the 1920s, George Counts began to closely examine curriculum, with specific note taken on the social disparities apparent within it. Not only was the curriculum not imitative of the real world and the problems the students would face upon completion of school, but it actually worked to continue those very problems. This realization caused Counts to advocate for a curriculum that taught students to take part in social reform. He believed that although the world in its current condition was in essence doomed, there was hope for improvement. A strong curriculum with a focus on social reform was the answer. Because of the social and economic state of the country during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Counts’ ideas began to gain support, though they were never adopted completely in very many schools (Kleibard, 2004).

Social reconstructionists believe the purpose of school is to help students become active citizens in a democratic society. Essentially, they see current society as flawed and in need of intervention. Those that agree with this particular curriculum theory feel it is the job of educators to empower students to understand that deficient society and then reconstruct it to improve it. Schiro (2008) explains this by stating that schools have “the power to educate people to analyze and understand social problems, envision a world in which those problems do not exist, and act so as to bring that vision into existence” (p. 134). Ultimately, the objective of social reconstruction is to continually move toward a more Utopian form of society. Dewey (1916) asserts that schools should work “to shape the experiences of the young so that instead of reproducing current habits, better habits shall be formed, and thus the future adult society be an improvement on their own” (p. 79). In this manner, curriculum should be more humanist in nature. Educators should shape their curriculum in such a way that its objectives are consistently striving for social reform.

Social reconstruction is an important theory to analyze and consider for our modern curriculum and educational system. Our society faces crises and issues of colossal impact to the people of the world every day. Discrimination and oppression are not new issues, but they are far from outdated. Racism, sexism, and marginalization of many different people goes on in almost every sector of society. In fact, Tatum (1997) discusses how some people will claim that racism is a thing of the past, but in reality “if you are paying attention, the legacy of racism is not hard to see, and we are all affected by it” (p. 3). Using racism as a specific example, although there are many illustrations of injustice throughout modern-day society, it will not simply disappear if we do not address it as a legitimate problem. To make a positive impact on key issues such as race, Gary Howard (2006), author of the book We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know: White Teachers, Multiracial Schools, tells us that a more active stance on discrimination is required. He instructs teachers to “actively seek cross-cultural and cross-racial interactions... [and to] engage their students in a continuous process of exploring multiple perspectives” (Howard, 2006, p. 111). A social reconstruction curriculum does just that in making the learning of prejudice and discrimination an active process where students can learn that they are capable of considerably impacting inequity and oppression and make life better for themselves and others.

The social reconstruction curriculum theory is especially relative to social studies education. The study of social concerns and reform lends itself to social studies curriculum. Our current social studies programs in schools are for the most part entirely ineffective. According to the most recent social studies results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress from the National Center of Education Statistics (2010), United States students on average performed extremely low, in the basic category, in all subjects including history, civics, and economics. It is arguable that this low level of performance in the area of social studies could be attributed to a lack of solid connection between curriculum and students’ lives. Diane Ravitch (2005) states in an open letter to Jon Wiener, “Students... need to be protected from plodding textbooks that give off a phony aura of encyclopedic ‘truth’ and that turn history into a deadly boring subject in which all the facts are already known.” A reform of social studies curriculum is imperative. Using a social reconstruction approach to social studies, students will be able to make connections between subjects like history to current social issues, identify multiple perspectives, and internalize social studies content more effectively. In addition to all of this, students will also be growing as responsible, aware citizens prepared to apply what they have learned in class to current social issues that are facing their communities and world.
There are many things to consider when setting up a social studies curriculum based on the theory of social reconstruction. For many educators, especially those incorporating a traditional approach to social studies curriculum, this change would completely alter the format and content of their social studies classroom. It transforms the learning in the classroom from a passive consumption of information from the teacher to an active and meaningful learning environment. Bode (1933) echoes this belief with the following statement:

This reconstruction of experience, if it is to have any significance, must take the form of actual living and doing. Consequently the school must be transformed into a place where pupils go, not primarily to acquire knowledge, but to carry on a way of life. That is, the school is to be regarded as, first of all, an ideal community in which pupils get practice in cooperation, in self-government, and in the application of intelligence to difficulties or problems as they may arise. In such a community there is no antecedent compartmentalization of values. (p. 19)

At the heart of social reconstruction is active participation. A classroom truly modeled after this theory would allow students to construct their own knowledge and apply that information to real world situations and meaningful contexts.

Creating a social reconstruction curriculum for social studies does not at all mean that important content knowledge cannot be explored. On the contrary, David Flinders (2004) expresses that this type of curriculum could help students understand core content better because of the connections they could make to their lives outside of school. He explains that “a highly academic curriculum can be enacted in ways that avoid some of the disadvantages typically assumed by those who argue that an academic curriculum is elitist as well as irrelevant to much of a student’s lived experience” (Flinders, 2004, p. 293). Topics that could be integrated into a social studies curriculum include, but are not limited to, poverty and hunger, racism, sexism, other forms of domination and oppression, power and human suffering, violence, economics, politics, terrorism, and war. Karen Zuga (1992) describes the teacher’s roles as being “more concerned about the social problem and creating a community with students and society and is less concerned about ‘covering the content’” (p. 54). A study of history and content related to these topics could easily be covered and used as evidence or support while the social themes remained at the core of the lessons.

Flinders (2004) expressed the concern that “school comes to be recognized as an end in and of itself” (p. 294). Our education system is for the most part based on answers. Our systems of accountability which is mainly standardized testing emphasizes students being able to recall information. As a country, we value the answer. This type of traditional approach to education is not appropriate for social reconstruction classrooms. When we expect students to provide a singular answer, then we are conveying that there is one right answer to each social problem our country faces. This does not align with the foundation of social reconstruction that relies on students discussing issues and identifying multiple perspectives. A more appropriate and progressive approach to this type of classroom would be a process-based emphasis. Instead of the answer being the most valuable part of an activity or lesson, the thinking and collaboration process would be revered above all else. For example, a class may not be able to come up with a viable solution to end world hunger, but that does not mean that learning and self-growth did not occur. Instead of supplying answers, a curriculum based on the ideas of social reconstruction provides students with the tools and critical thinking skills required to problem solve and apply strategies to new, relevant problems.

Another important feature that needs to be in place for a social reconstruction curriculum to be successful is the presence of inquiry. It is crucial for the classroom environment to encourage dialogue, discussion, and the identification of multiple perspectives. Paulo Friere (2004) discusses the importance of dialogue in education. He states that "without dialogue there is no communication, and without communication there can be no true education" (Friere, 2004, p. 128). Dialogue in this sense means more than just students having a discussion. The teacher has to be considered a learner, as well. It is the role of the teacher to learn and discover alongside the students. Friere (2004) continues his explanation of dialogue by describing how “authentic education is not carried on by ‘A’ for ‘B’ or by ‘A’ about ‘B,’ but rather by ‘A’ with ‘B’” (p. 128). Friere (2004) compares any other type of instruction to banking, where the teacher merely deposits information into the students with little interaction.

A social reconstruction curriculum in this context would also require students to look at social studies issues from multiple perspectives. To truly think critically about a topic, a well-rounded, unbiased view is required. In keeping with an appreciation for diverse viewpoints, in a rebuttal to the letter written by Diane Ravitch quoted earlier in this text, Wiener (2005) writes of the power of encouraging and instructing using multiple perspectives. He explains to Ravitch that when this strategy is employed, “students end up learning not just about what happened... but about how history itself gets reconstructed. The organizing theme... has intrinsic interest, whereas a mass of data and dates can quickly become meaningless” (Wiener, 2005). Encouraging students to view a problem from multiple perspectives helps to provide an awareness of potential biases and also allows students to actively practice empathy, which is a key characteristic of social change and reform.

If the purpose of the education system based on social reconstruction ideas is to create students who are ready to reconstruct society, then the students should be the primary driving force behind instruction. A social reconstruction classroom must be based on student-driven content. Friere (2004) reiterates this need by pointing out that “we must never merely discourse on the present situation, must never provide the people with programs which have little or nothing to do with their own preoccupations, doubts, hopes, and fears” (p. 129). In an ideal situation, the social studies curriculum in this type of classroom would either rise from discussion of students’ interests or the needs of the direct community. Once the topic is established, it is important to continue ensuring that the learning is constructed by the students and not simply passed from the teacher to the students. A genuine student-led “discussion allows students to expose their thoughts and values to each other, have their thoughts and values challenged, and reconstruct their thoughts and values in light of insights obtained from the discussion and any group consensus that might arise from it” (Schiro, 2008, p. 140). This is at the heart of social reconstruction.

A standard social studies unit in this type of classroom would typically follow a specific pattern. At the introduction of the social issue, the students would work to analyze the history of the problem to uncover exactly how society evolved to get to that certain point or social difficulty. Following this analysis and synthesis step, the students would work together and have a discussion of possible strategies that could be implemented to overcome that particular problem. Then finally, the students would participate in some form of meaningful field experience or action to set in place their new ideas. This important step in the process is a great way for students to get actively involved in their communities and practice making a real difference in the lives of other people.

Changing the traditional social studies classroom to one based on the ideas of social reconstruction is not without its flaws and potential obstacles. The first roadblock to social reconstruction is the obligation of teachers to help students master specific standardized content. The Indiana Department of Education has determined a list of standards and content that every social studies teacher is required to cover. Social reconstruction in its purest form asks teachers to forget about content and how they traditionally view education. It also requires more time to be spent on each unit. Tackling social reform is not a one day or even one week lesson. Students are asked to think critically and then participate in the learning. This cannot happen effectively with an extensive laundry list of standards to cover. Currently in Indiana, students are not tested as much on social studies content on standardized high-stakes tests. For this reason, the area of social studies is still the safest avenue for a social reconstruction curriculum. As accountability and testing change however, this might change as well. Unfortunately, this type of curriculum requires administration and those in charge of schools to put a lot of trust in teachers. Our current system of standards and high-stakes testing is not a system based on trust of teachers at all.

There is a lot of controversy surrounding social reconstruction education. This is another obstacle that teachers may face when trying to implement this type of instruction in their classroom. This particular form of curriculum requires teachers to bring controversy and a discussion of conflict into each lesson. Themes of social reform are generally very political and therefore can stir controversy easily. In terms of quality education, this may not be a bad thing in itself. Diane Ravitch (2011) agrees curriculum should “engage vigorously in discussion of controversial topics.” However, with controversy comes resistance. Community and parent support in a child’s education is undoubtedly important. Considering this well known assumption, do teachers have the right or should they teach social reform if the change the students advocate for is in opposition to the views of their home environment? This type of education unfortunately will sometimes walk a fine line between important social change and decreasing family and community support. Without a solid ethics guideline in which everyone can agree, there will always be some resistance. We experience dominance and oppression today because society as a whole has allowed it. For this reason, social reform education would be in direct opposition to what the majority has put in place.

A historical example of this inherent problem with social reconstruction education involves Harold Rugg and the controversial textbook series that he created. Rugg aligned himself with social meliorists or social reconstructionists. He created a textbook series called Man and His Changing Society “calling attention to the critical social problems that America faced” (Kliebard, 2004, p. 169). His textbooks focused on controversial topics such as immigration, sexism, and poverty. Because of the enlightening nature of his textbooks about American practices that cast the country in a negative light, his textbooks were eventually deemed un-American and lost popularity very quickly. The introduction of controversy, though essential to a curriculum based on social reform, was ultimately what caused the demise of this series and ended its use in the classroom.

It was mentioned previously that the curriculum in a social reconstruction classroom should always be student-driven. Zuga (1992) reiterates this statement saying “it is not determining what content a child needs to know in the future in order to be a successful adult, thereby limiting the potential of the child. It is not lacking the commitment to take a stand, one which will not be universally agreed upon, on issues, all issues, It is not discouraging students from taking a stand on issues” (p. 56). This is a key attribute of a true social reconstruction curriculum. However, without a strong, exact accountability system in place to ensure that the content is not being predetermined by the teacher, there is a strong possibility, if not a guarantee, that some bias or prejudice will be introduced into the classroom. With a strong government influence, there is the potential for special interest groups to push their political agendas on education. Also, if the curriculum remains tied to textbooks, then it allows those textbook companies to push their own agendas, as well. Without some way to guarantee that the content and the learning is completely constructed by students, then there is a large risk for corruption because of the political nature of a social reconstruction curriculum.

Even without a primarily government controlled education system and a reliance on textbooks as the source of curriculum, can education and teachers be neutral? The answer is no, and this presents an ingrained shortcoming of social reconstruction. Teachers are in some way subconsciously or otherwise pushing their own prejudices all of the time. Flinders (2004) asserts that “teaching itself is a normative enterprise; it seeks to foster something that the teacher considers worth fostering” (p. 287).

On the contrary, neutrality in education could be dangerous. If neutrality is expected, what happens when students present dangerous or unethical ideas? Remaining neutral in a sense also means remaining apathetic to the continuing of social problems such as oppression. Even though there is the potential for prejudice and bias in a social reconstruction curriculum, choosing to ignore the need for social reform is a political choice and bias in itself. Gutstein and Peterson (2005) explain this political choice in the following statement:

When teachers fail to include [content] that help students confront important global issues, or when they don’t bring out the underlying implications of problems... these are political choices, whether the teachers recognize them as such or not... [and they] contribute to disempowering students and are objectively political acts, though not necessarily conscious ones. (p. 6)

Basically if the curriculum is not slated toward social reconstruction, then it is supporting the perpetuation of the current society, “which is simply the opposite side of the political agenda” (Schiro, 2008, p. 153). This means that in making the choice to create a social reform based curriculum or to avoid it, an educator is making a political and biased decision. The fundamental question that educators need to face concerns whether or not our current society is in need of improvement. If educators can assume that we all share a basic ethics system that in general defends the right for people to be treated fairly and respectfully and if we can admit that there is still wrong in the world, then we cannot avoid including those discussions in at least the social studies curriculum. By refraining from doing so, we are subconsciously teaching students that the world in its current condition is just as it should be.


Bode, B. H. (1933). The confusion in present-day education. In W. H. Kilpatrick (Ed.), The Educational Frontier (pp. 3-31). New York, NY: D. Appleton-Century.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York, NY: Free Press.

Flinders, D. J. (2004). Teaching for cultural literacy: A curriculum study. In Flinders, D. J. & Thornton, S. J. (Eds.), The curriculum studies reader (285-296). New York, NY: RoutledgeFalmer.

Friere, P. (2004). Pedagogy of the oppressed. In Flinders, D. J. & Thornton, S. J. (Eds.), The curriculum studies reader (125-134). New York, NY: RoutledgeFalmer.

Gutstein, E., & Peterson, B. (Eds.). (2005). Rethinking mathematics: Teaching social justice by the numbers. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.

Howard, G. R. (2006). We can’t teach what we don’t know: White teachers, multiracial schools. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Kliebard, H. M. (2004). The struggle for the American curriculum, 1893-1958. New York, NY: RoutledgeFalmer.

National Center of Education Statistics. (2010). National assessment of education progress [Data file]. Retrieved from

Ravitch, D. (2005). Don’t know much about history. Retrieved from

Ravitch, D. (2011, May 5). Re: A pedagogy of practice. [Web log] Retrieved from

Schiro, M. S. (2008). Curriculum theory: Conflicting visions and enduring concerns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Tatum, B. (1997). "Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?" and other conversations about race. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Wiener, J. (2005). Multiple perspectives aren’t so hard to deal with. Retrieved from

Zuga, K. F. (1992). Social reconstruction curriculum and technology education. Journal of Technology Education, 3(2), 48-58.


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  3. Thank you very much for posting this. It really gave me a better understanding of applying SR into my teaching.

  4. If the curriculum is not slated toward social reconstruction then it is supporting the perpetuation of the current society which is simply the opposite side of the political agenda, see more on 6 Easy to Develop Habits with a Huge Benefit
    thanks for share this post i like it and have better understanding of applying SR in the classroom.

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