Whatever Happened To Current Events Lessons?

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.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

7 responses to “Whatever Happened To Current Events Lessons?

  1. David F

    Hi Larry–thanks for this. I’ve been teaching a 2 semester civics class with juniors since 2007, and usually incorporate current events into the course. Right now we’re working through the foreign policy unit, so I’m using news articles about Ukraine and Taiwan to highlight this. What always frustrates me is the students lack of knowledge of recent history. We do cover this in their World and US history survey classes in the previous years, but often they are encountering this history for the first time–some sinks in, and some doesn’t. I blame K-8 social studies that tries to do too much and is often driven by “active learning” ideas–most of my students had to make a poster about a country or state in middle school, but never actually learned about things like WWII or the Cold War.

  2. Laura H. Chapman

    Current events teaching is unwanted in many states and it may be illegal in many states. This runs long..
    Consider “The school curriculum linked to the New York Times’ 1619 Project— an initiative intended to reframe U.S. history by giving attention to the legacy of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans. Republican lawmakers in Iowa, Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, and South Dakota want to ban these materials. The Arkansas and Mississippi bills call the 1619 Project “a racially divisive and revisionist account;” the Iowa bill claims that it “attempts to deny or obfuscate the fundamental principles upon which the United States was founded.” These bills propose that school districts choosing to use the curriculum lose part of their state funding, in proportion to the time and resources devoted to teaching the material.” Source https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/lawmakers-push-to-ban-1619-project-from-schools/2021/02

    There are many reasons to be critical of the actual curriculum developed for the 1619 project. Those materials and activities are all tied to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) which assume, for example, that students in grades K-grade 3 are skilled readers and logical thinkers. Another irony: The CCSS were never “State” standards. They were paid for and marketed to states by billionaire Bill Gates, and are now pushed by thr Pulitzer Center. https://pulitzercenter.org/builder/lesson/activities-extend-student-engagement relevant to K-3 education. I have no idea why leaders of the 1619 project decided to privilege the Common Core standards. They are not now widely accepted without state-level modifications.

    Now consider recent Court rulings.. This report is from MARK WALSH, OCTOBER 21, 2010 EDWEEK. “Teachers have no First Amendment free-speech protection for curricular decisions they make in the classroom, a federal appeals court ruled on Thursday.”
    “Only the school board has ultimate responsibility for what goes on in the classroom, legitimately giving it a say over what teachers may (or may not) teach in the classroom,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, said in its opinion.”

    “The decision came in the case of an Ohio teacher whose contract was not renewed in 2002 after community controversy over reading selections she assigned to her high school English classes. These included Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse, and a unit on book censorship in which the teacher allowed students to pick books from a list of frequently challenged works, and some students chose Heather Has Two Mommies, by Leslea Newman.”

    A group of 500 parents petitioned the school board against the teacher, Shelley Evans-Marshall, calling for “decency and excellence” in the classroom. The teacher also had various run-ins with her principal. Despite positive performance reviews before the controversy, the principal’s evaluations afterwards criticized Evans-Marshall’s attitude and demeanor and her “use of material that is pushing the limits of community standards.” The school board in March 2002 decided not to renew her contract, citing “problems with communications and teamwork.”

    Evans-Marshall sued the Tipp City, Ohio, school district and various officials in 2003, alleging that her termination violated her First Amendment free-speech rights. In 2005, she won a ruling from the 6th Circuit that allowed her case to survive a motion to dismiss by the defendants. The court said at that time that it appeared that Evans-Marshall’s termination was “due to a public outcry engendered by the assignment of protected material that had been approved by the board.”

    “The suit proceeded to discovery until the school district defendants sought summary judgment last year. A federal district court granted the defendants’ motion on the grounds that Evans-Marshall could not prove a link between the community outcry and the school board’s decision not to renew her.
    In its Oct. 21 decision in Evans-Marshall v. Board of Education of the Tipp City Exempted Village School District, a 6th Circuit panel ruled unanimously for the school district and other defendants, but on other grounds. (The appeals panel said the teacher had clearly shown that “her teaching choices caused the school board to fire her.”)

    “But while Evans-Marshall’s case satisfied two earlier Supreme Court standards on public-employee speech (Pickering and Connick), she could not survive the court’s most recent decision in this area: Garcetti v. Ceballos. In Garcetti, decided in 2006, the high court held that public employees do not have First Amendment protection for speech “pursuant to” their official duties.”

    “In the light cast by Garcetti, it is clear that the First Amendment does not generally insulate Evans-Marshall from employer discipline, even discipline prompted by her curricular and pedagogical choices and even if it otherwise appears (at least on summary judgment) that the school administrators treated her shabbily,” said the 6th Circuit opinion by Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton.”

    “When a teacher teaches, the school system does not regulate that speech
    as much as it hires that speech,” Sutton wrote, borrowing language from a 7th Circuit decision in a similar case. “Expression is a teacher’s stock in trade, the commodity she sells to her employer in exchange for a salary. And if it is the school board that hires that speech, it can surely regulate the content of what is or is not expressed, what is expressed in other words on its behalf.”

    “Sutton questioned how a school system could operate if all teachers had First Amendment rights to make their own curricular decisions.
    “Evans-Marshall may wish to teach Siddhartha in the first unit of the school year in a certain way, but the chair of the English department may wish to use the limited time in a school year to teach A Tale of Two Cities at that stage of the year,” Sutton wrote. “When educators disagree over what should be assigned, as is surely bound to happen if each of them has a First Amendment right to influence the curriculum, whose free-speech rights win? … Placing the First Amendment’s stamp of approval on these kinds of debates not only would demand permanent judicial intervention in the conduct of governmental operations, but it also would transform (many) curricular disputes into constitutional stalemates.” https://www.opn.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/10a0334p-06.pdf

    See another case where criticism of school policies are front and center. https://mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/648/pickering-v-board-of-education

    • larrycuban

      Thank you very much, Laura, for the example of the 1619 Project and pointing out how teachers’ right to make curricular choices in lessons they teach get confounded with conflicts over teachers’ right to speak freely about school policies, district curricular choices, and public policy.

  3. Jim K

    I was reviewing my Masters Project “Using Current Events in the Middle School Social Studies Classroom” from 20 years ago in which I used some of your work as reference. I googled your name and ended up here. I also listened to some interviews with you about your book “Confessions of a School Reformer”.

    Are you saying teaching current events has no impact or it just isn’t being done effectively? I advocate teaching current events daily as way to work in economic, civic, and geographic concepts. Students can even connect historical lessons to current events if they have enough knowledge of various current issues.

    After some time, students are able to find current stories and connect them to economic or civic standards themselves. This ability to apply standards to new information is more valuable than simply remembering economic definitions.

    I feel motivated to share my ideas with more people, but your recent interviews make me think school reformers are beating their heads against the wall. I’m sure that’s not your intention though.

    Just curious if you feel my technique has merit. Here’s a link to a talk I gave about it.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you for taking the time to comment, Jim. For the 14 years that I taught high school social studies, I made connections between the past and present as often as I could. Whether these linkages increased student test scores, gave moments for students to make connections, or breezed in and out of the room , I do not know.

      I often turn to research studies to help me make sense of the questions I ask–in this instance, the value of teaching current events–but thus far, I have come up empty. If you know of such studies, please pass the citations on to me. Until then, I believe helping students make connections between contemporary events and the past remains an important teaching objective.

      • Jim K

        I taught for 33 years and came to the conclusion that the most important thing a social studies teacher can do is make the students like social studies. If we turn students off from politics, history, economics, and world events at 15 years old then the odds of them being involved in civic discourse as adults is low.

        I don’t mean we just play games with them, but we need to have some freedom in letting students find content that interests them. Current events seems to do this the best. When we are just checking events off the list to get through facts that may be on a standardized test we lose them and they do not see the value the subject. It’s not that these events don’t matter, but we are foolish to believe that this information they memorize for tests is remembered beyond that school year. They do remember being excited by learning and having a voice.

        What matters is if students leave school thinking SS is boring and has no relevance for them. We want them to become active citizens when they are adults – don’t turn them off when they are 15!

        I could even envision a social studies class that is graded solely on soft skills (on time/ prepared, effort, respect, and participation). When I talk to parents and business leaders about schools this is what they want to know – not whether or not they passed the Ancient Egypt assessment. But this idea is not looked kindly on it seems. People feel I’m suggesting SS does not matter and the competency based educators do not like it either (where my district was heading when I retired). I feel grading social skills in social studies isn’t crazy.

        I was curious if you knew of any articles or books that might be relevant for me to read. Not just about using current events, but also the importance of student attitudes about the relevance of SS, or using soft skills to motivate students and help develop good work habits.

        Thank you for responding to my earlier post. It feels good to get some ideas out there. I’m interested in learning about what is going on in the education field even though I’m out of the classroom and am trying to find avenues where I can get involved.

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