Scholars may find it rewarding to argue for the distinctiveness of their fields, and some educators may be seduced by the status that seems to derive from alignment with university disciplines and separation from other subjects. This distinctiveness has been a recurring theme in the scholarship on history education in recent years. However, in pre-university, general education, history shares a great deal of conceptual content with other social sciences, and these other fields emphasize many of the same elements characterized as central to “historical thinking”. Students’ understanding of each field—and of human society generally—would be enhanced if schools devoted greater attention to these areas of overlap. Students’ understanding of history rests on substantive concepts (sometimes known as first-order concepts), many of which are derived from other fields, and on ideas that are sometimes referred to as second-order concepts (i.e. perspective, causation, agency and evidence) that are so complicated students need repeated and coordinated attention to them across the curriculum.
Unfortunately, we have no clear empirical evidence of how the curriculum can most effectively address these areas of overlap. In recent decades, research on students’ thinking about the social world has largely taken place within the context of assumptions about “disciplinary thinking”, and thus most studies pay little heed to similarities across fields (Barton & Avery, 2016; Thornton & Barton, 2010). In addition, curriculum patterns are the product of history, politics and status considerations. As a result, attempts to significantly reform the curriculum by, for example, integrating history and other social sciences are likely to be met with significant opposition from teachers, disciplinary associations and the wider public. Efforts to rationalize the curriculum, however, could be put on a firmer foundation of evidence if more researchers investigated how understandings about causation, evidence and so on develop in different subject fields. For example, a comparative study of how students’ ideas about perspective develop when they study history, geography and sociology would provide important insights into how instruction in these subjects could become more synergistic. Studies of innovative or experimental attempts to integrate subjects, meanwhile, would contribute to our understanding of what is gained and what is lost from such attempts. (For one such example, see Crocco & Thornton, 2002.)
Despite this lack of research, and despite political and institutional barriers to curriculum reform, educators can nonetheless take important steps to capitalize on areas of overlap in history and other social science fields. At the level of ministries and departments of education, curriculum writers can develop objectives that explicitly address the kinds of shared understandings covered in this chapter. History, geography, government and other curricula should not be developed in isolation from each other; those who are responsible for each area should collaborate to make sure that each subject builds on and complements the others. (For an example of such an effort in science, see NGSS Lead States, 2013.) Even without such reforms, at local levels teachers of different subjects can plan how to best organize and sequence their instruction. If cultural geography is taught at one grade level and world history at the next, for example, teachers of those subjects can work together to make sure they have a shared understanding of “perspective”, so that geography can prepare students for history, and history can build on expand what students have learned in geography.
Whether implemented through official curricula or local efforts, any attempt to connect history and the social sciences requires substantial professional development for teachers. In many countries, teachers of history, geography and other subjects are prepared as part of separate programs, and they may have few chances to systematically consider the conceptual content of other fields. Even in the United States, where teachers of these fields are usually prepared as part of a combined “social studies” program, the distinctive content of individual subjects is stressed. Although US teachers typically learn how each subject contributes to preparation for democratic citizenship, they are less likely to explore other conceptual similarities among subjects. Only with sustained professional development, in which teachers have the chance to examine these similarities and consider their implications for teaching, are they likely to be willing and able to make meaningful changes in instruction—even if those changes are mandated by the state. These are not areas that teachers, researchers or policymakers have considered as deeply as they might, yet concern for the effectiveness of students’ education compels us to begin thinking about them more carefully.