Problem-Solving: Our Social Studies Standards Call for Deep Engagement – Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence
Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence

Problem-Solving: Our Social Studies Standards Call for Deep Engagement


We want Kentucky students to be increasingly able to “Think and solve problems in school situations and in a variety of situations they will encounter in life.” Yesterday’s post looked at how our science standards call for deep work to meet that expectation from our 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act. Now, let’s turn to social studies, where our standards value problem-solving that includes attention to diverse perspectives and sustained work to develop shared and democratic decisions.

Examples of our social studies standards

Problem-solving matters across all grades in social studies. To give just a small taste:

  • Kindergartners should be able to “Construct an argument to address a problem in the classroom or school.
  • Third-graders should be able to “construct an explanation, using relevant information, to address a local, regional or global problem”
  • Seventh grade students should be able to “analyze a specific problem from the growth and expansion of civilizations using each of the social studies disciplines”

Diverse perspectives get special attention in understanding social studies problems. As they work, students are also expected to discover that people all around them (and in all periods of the past) can see issues quite differently, and the standards expect students to grow steadily more skilled in understanding those varied views, Kentucky is working to equip:

  • First graders to “identify information from two or more sources to describe multiple perspectives about communities in Kentucky”
  • Fifth graders to “analyze primary and secondary sources on the same event or topic, noting key similarities and differences in the perspective they represent”
  • Seventh graders to “Analyze evidence from multiple perspectives and sources to support claims and refute opposing claims, noting evidentiary limitations to answer compelling and supporting questions”

Shared decisions on solutions required intensive work in social studies, where the overall goal is to equip young citizens. Thus, our standards call for:

  • Second graders who can “use listening and consensus-building procedures to discuss how to take action in the local community or Kentucky”
  • Fourth graders who can “Use listening and consensus-building to determine ways to support people in transitioning to a new community.”
  • Eight graders who can “Apply a range of deliberative and democratic procedures to make decisions about ways to take action on current local, regional and global issues”

All three elements –problem solving, understanding perspectives, and building shared decisions—come together at the high school level. There students are asked to “engage in disciplinary thinking and apply appropriate evidence to propose a solution or design an action plan relevant to compelling and/or compelling questions in civics” and do matching work on solutions and action plans in economics, geography, U.S. history and world history.

Working within a cycle of inquiry

Those examples and others like them reflect an “inquiry cycle” built into our social studies approach. As you can see from the graphic illustration below (taken from the standards document itself, Kentucky expects students to deepen their skills each year through work on:

  • Questioning, which includes both developing major compelling questions that are “open-ended, enduring and centered on significant unresolved issues,” and smaller supporting questions for exploration on the way to answering the compelling ones.
  • Investigating using the content, concepts and tools of civics, geography, economics, and history to gain insight into the questions they study
  • Using evidence from their investigations to build sound explanations and arguments to support their claims
  • Communicating conclusions to a variety of audiences, making their explanations and arguments available in traditional forms like essays, reports, diagrams and discussions and also in newer media forms. The introduction to the social studies standards advises that: “ A student’s ability to effectively communicate their own conclusions and listen carefully to the conclusions of others can be considered a capstone of social studies disciplinary practices.”

Do notice that the second part of the cycle –the disciplinary investigation phase– includes robust detail on working with specific content knowledge each year. These are standards for focused inquiry, organized in thoughtful sequences that connect disciplines and build understanding grade by grade. The problem-solving skills are integrated into that framework of needed knowledge and understanding.

You can get a fuller sense of how these elements work together in each grade from the full standards document, which is definitely worth your close attention.

Problem-solvers now and years from now

Students who take on this kind of problem solving will be participating citizens right here, right now. To learn these capacities, they’ll have to explore varied experiences and understandings, listen to one another, and collaborate to complete big projects and assignments. Done well, those will be challenging, satisfying, memorable parts of each learner’s school years.

Students who solve problems in this inquiry-driven way will also be building skills that can last a lifetime. Imagine communities where many residents are good at this kind of exploring, listening, collaborating, and working toward shared decisions. They’ll be better at tackling local issues than we are today. They’ll be ready to take on bigger problems together and find bolder solutions, with rich results for each of them and all of us.


A note on organization: the science standards and the social studies standards took on a similar design challenge, trying to combine (a) high expectations for students engaging in key practices of scientists, historians, and other practitioners and (b) a lean statement of very important disciplinary content. In the science version, each performance expectation marries a specific practice with a scientific topic. In social studies, there are distinct (though tightly connected) standards for the major inquiry practices and for the investigations into content in each discipline. My take is that the social studies approach has a major benefit in inviting teachers to develop varied ways to apply practices to topics. The science approach could mean that teachers will only feel free to work on the specific practice/content combinations listed as our performance expectations. I support both, but I do think the social studies version invites richer learning opportunities.

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