Nearly all social studies lessons that I taught between the 1950s and 1970s contained at least one weekly lesson on “current events.” In these lessons, I tried to connect contemporary happenings to past events I was covering in my U.S. history and world history classes. Moreover, for at least five years, I used cut outs from Time magazine covers portraying world leaders in the 1950s–China’s Mao, Ghana’s Nkrumah, France’s De Gaulle–positioned on a wall ledge to link a particular event that occurred that week to those faces on Time covers.
By the mid-1960s, I had learned to incorporate national events (e.g., civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War) into U.S. historical topics such as slavery and Reconstruction and anti-war activism during the Mexican and Civil Wars. Even with those linkages, I still would set aside at least one weekly lesson to connect the past to the present by focusing on “current events” through newspaper articles, political cartoons, and local events in the city. And throughout those years, most other social studies teachers maintained a current events lesson (see here and here)
Looks like those kind of lessons, however, are waning. Except for those instances where national attention is riveted such as the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd, or sexual harassment allegations against men in powerful positions as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, current events (data are scant on social studies and other subject matter teachers teaching such lessons) appear fleetingly in classrooms except in traditional Civics and Government courses required for high school graduation.
Current efforts (see here) to increase media literacy across the curriculum and combat “truth decay” are underway. Also there is support for schools and teachers to analyze media included in Common Core curriculum standards. Such efforts may (or may not) help resurrect “current events.”
When did current events lessons begin in social studies classrooms and why?
The Progressive school reforms of the early 20th century including the teaching of “Civics” in addition to traditional history courses. By the late-1920s, Civic courses were geared to not only understanding local, state, and federal governments but also to social action and solving community problems. Civics became the study of current happenings in American democracy. Ninth grade Civics courses in what were then called junior high schools became the norm by the 1930s as did senior high school course called Problems of Democracy (David Jeness, Making Sense of Social Studies (Macmillan 1990), pp. 84-88).
As for its ubiquity in social studies classrooms, in one late-1990s survey of National Council of Social Studies members , 95 percent of teachers said that teaching current events ranged from important to essential (Mary Haas and Margaret Laughlin, “Teaching Current Events: Its Status in Social Studies Today,” 2000), p. 11
What problems did “current events” in social studies try to solve?
In the early 1900s, traditional history courses were divorced from contemporary issues. That was the central problem according to Progressive educators. They sought to solve that problem by creating present-oriented “social studies” courses. The introduction of “social studies” courses into the curriculum was a reform aimed at getting students to become civically engaged. Progressives of the day wanted children and youth to connect history to contemporary social, political, and economic issues in order for them to understand what the pressing problems were and then to not only learn about them but even go about attacking them as students and later as adults. These reform-minded enthusiasts for civic learning depended upon teachers and textbooks (and later community service) to link the past to the present and do something constructive about persisting local and national issues (see here and here).
What are examples of current events lessons?
Teachers wrote into the New York Times about their current events lessons:
Kellyn McNamara, Charlotte, N.C., Middle and High School
I am designing an Earth and environmental science class in which students will connect a current event or issue to each unit’s content. For instance, for Unit 1, Earth as a Planet, students will explore the history of space exploration (and its funding), and prepare for a Lincoln-Douglas-style debate in which they will argue either for federal funding of space exploration, or for privatized space exploration.
*Heidi Echternacht, Princeton, N.J., Elementary School
Our second-grade class explored community all year last year. First, we interviewed and drew portraits of each other in class. Then we interviewed people who worked at school and drew their portraits for a community art show. Next, we expanded into Princeton and toured the town, interviewing chefs, firefighters and the mayor, and had an art show in the town library featuring our interviews and portraits.
After that, the kids decided to invent their own town they called 2ndton. They wanted to have stores, use money and hold court to solve problems, so we did. They wanted to pay taxes, so we did that, too. We were going to have an election for mayor, but they decided against it in case people’s feelings got hurt. Finally, we started our own newspaper and wrote about topics ranging from biographies of people in the New Jersey Hall of Fame to national news about Donald Trump and the Women’s March. We reported world news, primarily through covering the Olympics. We had subscribers and delivery routes that were coordinated by students
*Elizabeth Misiewicz, Ridgefield, Conn., Middle School
Last year, my students wrote speeches on topics they were passionate about that they could tie to the Constitution and Bill of Rights. They delivered these five- to six-minute speeches while also managing a Google slide presentation (like a true TED Talk!) before an audience of around 100 people made up of parents, teachers, staff and administrators.
As middle schoolers, my students are growing into their identities and trying to find their places in the world. This project essentially said to them, “Your opinions are important, and you deserve to be heard.”
*Larry Bowler Jr., Warrington, Pa., High School
A textbook cannot duplicate the current nature of politics and the global economy. As often as three times a week, my students read articles culled from The New York Times and The Washington Post, among other publications. Traditional teaching via a textbook and testing does not engage the student of today with the tools they need to understand the ever-changing world. Students are into the now, and we as teachers must keep up with our charges, who are different learners from the ones we were as kids.
I hope to start the coming school year by letting my students know that the new normal of meanness and disrespect, from the president on down, is not, in fact, normal. Civility must be demonstrated in the classroom, if nowhere else.
Did teaching current events through civics and government courses and weekly lessons work?
Hardly. While there is scattered evidence that students who used magazines and newspapers in their social studies classes scored “significantly better” on the 1998 Civics National Assessment of Educational Progress than students who did not use such materials, that’s about it. Moreover, evidence is lacking for those students who have taken Civics and Government courses whether they were civically active either in school or after graduation.
While there is some evidence that education overall–that is, going to school for 13-plus years–may have such effects, no consensus has formed on the question (see here ). Finally, those periodic tests given to both students and adults about their knowledge of history, government, and civic duties over the past century continue to indict schools for lack of properly educating students about being civically engaged.
Why have current events lessons waned?
Beginning in the late-1970s and throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the movement to raise curriculum standards, increase testing, and hold teachers and schools accountable for standardized test results pressed U.S. educators to narrow the curriculum to what was tested (e.g., reading, math) and constrict other academic subjects including social studies (see Jennie Biser, “Current Events and the Classroom: An Investigation into Teachers’ Integration of
Current Events in the Secondary Social Studies Classroom,” in “Studies in Teaching, 2008 Research Digest,” Wake Forest University, Department of Education, pp. 19-24).
Another reason–and I speculate here–is that some current subjects are controversial (e.g., Black Lives Matter, Donald Trump Presidency, #MeToo) and many social studies teachers shy away from raising volatile issues in classroom lessons.