By the time students finish a social studies course, what skills should they have gained?
Beyond knowing about important events and figures in history, students should understand why events transpired. They should be able to evaluate evidence, investigate history through multiple documents and perspectives, and measure the impacts of events on modern society.
By scrutinizing claims and evidence – a process core to the argumentative writing process – students learn how to assess the causes and effects of historical events, and thus draw conclusions about issues or events with various interpretations. Social sciences like history can help students learn lessons from the past and apply their learnings to a better future.
Unfortunately, as students learn about history, it can be easy to view it through one lens.
“Students often believe that history is comprised of predetermined facts that form a finished story,” notes Chauncey Monte-Sano, associate professor at University of Michigan and a leading expert on argumentation in social studies. “They may sift through contradictory evidence by simply deciding that one account is true and another false, rather than questioning accounts or offering contradictory evidence.”
By writing arguments in social studies, however, students go through a process that explicitly requires consideration of multiple perspectives and evaluation of evidence.
Through the CERCA method, you can see how students are coached to gather valid evidence and investigate counterarguments – rather than simply dismiss contrary interpretations as simply “false.”
Through this argumentative writing process, students evaluate multiple perspectives and evidence, which they can use to draw informed conclusions.
By practicing literacy skills – like analysis and communication – through writing, students also hone the abilities that will help them to become truly engaged members of society.
American students, Chauncey Monte-Sano notes,
“Face a complex, global society in which they will face such questions as how the United States should handle international conflicts or whom they should vote for in the next presidential election. Such questions imply a need for analytical thinking in which citizens consider evidence and come to reasoned conclusions. Learning to write supports the preparation of citizens who are capable of disciplined inquiry. In particular, written argument allows the chance to examine the nexus between claim and evidence, which can often be elusive in speech.”
Writing in social studies helps students develop the analytical skills needed to make informed decisions as citizens. This connection between literacy and civic engagement is emphasized by the National Council for the Social Studies, which developed the C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards.
“Reading, writing, speaking and listening and language skills are critically important for building disciplinary literacy and the skills needed for college, career, and civic life,” the C3 writers note. The four dimensions of the C3 Framework are aligned to literacy skills:
The C3 team notes, based on Monte-Sano’s research, that when students encounter complex historical questions – such as questions involving multiple perspectives and contradictory statements – "students who write about their historical understandings and are coached on how to gradually build sound evidence-based arguments demonstrate a deeper grasp of how to address the questions posed."
In an interconnected world, with many policy decisions rooted in historical context, students need practice building evidence-based arguments to make informed civic decisions.
“Learning to write historically is inextricably bound to issues of social justice,” notes Monte-Sano. “Without this capacity, the doors of opportunity often remain closed: Children will not make it to college or flourish once they get there if they cannot write or argue effectively.”