New focus on K-12 education in the behavioral and social sciences

Goals and challenges for expanding curricula are identified at NRC meeting.

By Howard S. Kurtzman, PhD

The National Research Council (NRC), a component of the National Academies, held a meeting on Teaching the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences in K-12 in Washington, DC, on November 17-18, 2011. This meeting was organized by the NRC in response to concerns raised by a number of behavioral and social science organizations, including the American Psychological Association (APA), about inadequate coverage of their fields in the NRC’s recent  A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (see summary (PDF, 6.1MB)). 

When a draft version of the Framework was released in July 2010, leaders of APA and other organizations met with NRC officials to express dissatisfaction with the total exclusion of behavioral and social science concepts from the proposed “core ideas” for organizing science education in kindergarten through twelfth grade.  In the final version of the Framework, which was issued in July 2011, some behavioral and social science concepts were added but, in the view of many, coverage was incomplete and these concepts were presented as subsidiary to those of the physical, biological, and earth sciences.  The purpose of the November meeting was to explore the current state of K-12 education in the behavioral and social sciences and how education in those areas can be improved and expanded. 

More than 80 scientists, educators, federal science agency officials, and representatives of scientific organizations participated in the meeting. Among the disciplines represented were psychology, economics, geography, linguistics, political science, and sociology. Speakers included Cynthia Belar, executive director for education at APA, and Nora Newcombe, professor of psychology at Temple University and chair of APA’s Board of Scientific Affairs.  Psychologist Christine Massey of the University of Pennsylvania co-chaired the meeting.

Through discussions in both small groups and plenary sessions, the participants reached general consensus on three areas for priority action over the next several years:

  • Make strategic efforts to incorporate behavioral and social science content into the learning standards that are currently being developed on the basis of the NRC’s Framework.  Development of these standards is being conducted by Achieve, an education reform organization established by U.S. state governors and corporate leaders.  It is expected that these standards will eventually be adopted as education policy by many state governments (the level at which many curriculum decisions are made).

  • Formulate a set of core ideas in the behavioral and social sciences to accompany those ideas that the Framework puts forward for other sciences.  These core ideas would not be tied to particular disciplines but rather be fundamental concepts that underlie knowledge across multiple areas of the behavioral and social sciences.  Ultimately these core ideas would drive the development of new learning standards to supplement those currently being produced by Achieve.

  • Identify places in existing K-12 curricula in which behavioral and social science content can be added or strengthened.  Such opportunities may arise in classes and units in biology, health, earth science (e.g., climate change), history, and social studies. 

Implementing these recommendations will require significant funding as well as collaborations among multiple organizations, such as the NRC, scientific and educational organizations, and federal and state government agencies.  Working with allies in scientific areas outside of the behavioral and social sciences will also be helpful.  In order for behavioral and social science topics to be actually incorporated into classroom activities, grade-specific teacher training along with teaching and testing materials will have to be developed.

It was noted that the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Project 2061 has produced resources that can guide much of this work.  In particular, its Atlas of Science Literacy recommends content and benchmarks for K-12 education for the entire range of sciences, including behavioral and social sciences.

Meeting participants also discussed larger issues to be addressed as these efforts move forward:

  • In order to advocate effectively for greater inclusion in K-12 curricula, it will be important to describe precisely the benefits of education in the behavioral and social sciences and to formulate a position on whether such education is necessary for all students at all grades.  Potential benefits of inclusion of behavioral and social sciences include: stimulating interest in science in a broader range of students, preparing students to understand major societal challenges, and promoting students’ understanding of themselves and their social worlds. 

  • Many have concerns about whether the behavioral and social sciences can be fit into an already crowded school day.  These concerns drive questions about whether exposure to these sciences should be part of all students’ education.  They also lead to proposals for infusing these sciences into other subjects rather than presenting them as separate classes or units.  For some, the importance of expanding coverage of the behavioral and social sciences is an argument for extending the school day or year.

  • Research is needed on effective methods for teaching behavioral and social sciences and assessing student learning, as well as on long-term impacts of exposure to these sciences.  Progress in developing teaching methods has been made at the high school level for some fields (including psychology and economics), but many questions remain, especially at the K-8 levels.  One suggestion was for the establishment of magnet or charter schools focused on the behavioral and social sciences, which could serve as laboratories for designing new methods that would eventually be adopted by other schools.

  • Some meeting participants argued for including discipline-specific concepts among the core ideas that will guide standards development, rather than focusing solely on core ideas that cut across behavioral and social science disciplines.  Further consideration should be given to the role of discipline-specific knowledge in behavioral and social science curricula at various grade levels.

Based on the discussions at the NRC meeting, APA will continue to work with other organizations in planning next steps for enhancing K-12 education in the behavioral and social sciences.  Work in this area falls directly within the goals of APA’s current strategic plan

Designated as a “planning meeting,” the meeting was not part of an official NRC project.  However, it is expected that NRC’s Board on Science Education will release an informal report of the meeting in early 2012.


See also:

APA National Standards for High School Psychology Curricula  [PDF version, 826KB] 

Howard Kurtzman is Deputy Executive Director for Science at the American Psychological Association.