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How to Practice Student-Centered Learning in Social Studies

Creating Student-Centered Social Studies & History Classrooms

While student-centered learning is possible in any grade level and in any discipline, it can be tricky to contextualize student-centered learning in social studies. Ensuring you cover important, objective material while making that material engaging is a balancing act. It can be easy to let the scale tip toward a model that relies heavily on teacher-led instruction rather than creating space for students’ experiences and perspectives.

However, the skills that students develop in social studies — such as critical thinking, collaboration, and empathy— in fact lend themselves very well to a student-centered environment! A focus on those skills helps balance the scales between teacher-driven and student-driven learning. Social studies is all about giving students the information they need to understand their world, and the tools they need to navigate and thrive in it. Putting them at the center of instruction will ensure that the experiences they have in the classroom are truly reflective of the experiences they’ll have as citizens, leaders, and fully-grown humans!

What does a student-centered social studies class look like? While every classroom, teacher, and group of learners is different, there are a few core principles that are universal across every student-centered social studies and history classroom. Here are a few to help you navigate your journey to student-centered learning:

Focus on Inquiry

Inquiry is a natural space for social studies to be student-centered. Asking questions is fundamental to social studies instruction — and in a student-centered social studies classroom, students should be the ones asking many of the questions. Students can practice close reading and critical thinking skills as they ask and answer questions about primary and secondary sources. Generally, experts encourage social studies teachers to integrate both compelling and supporting questions into instruction, where compelling questions are content-based and supporting questions guide student discovery in complex concepts. In student-centered social studies classrooms, students continually seek answers to questions set by teachers, develop their own questions as they read, and apply their growing inquiry skills of observing, analyzing, seeking answers, and communicating to models of civic spaces.

For more, read Dr. Emily Schell’s blog about using primary sources to encourage inquiry in social studies:

Make Room for Student Voice and Choice

Student-centered learning in any classroom is closely related to student agency, or creating a space where students can be owners of their own learning and can make choices about their personal learning path. In social studies, teachers can prioritize student voice and choice while fostering communication, collaboration, and critical thinking skills through project-based learning. Project-based learning is a natural fit for a student-centered classroom, because it allows students to apply knowledge through discovery, investigation, and exploration of complex questions. Allowing for flexibility and innovation in the format of the projects — such as creating graphic novels or recording podcasts — can also help students connect their personal experiences and perspectives to the lesson.

Prioritize Social and Emotional Learning

Social and Emotional Learning is increasingly present in every classroom — to ensure your SEL social studies practices are in the service of student-centered learning, place SEL in context of equity. Consider transformative SEL, which encourages us to be mindful of when SEL is reduced solely to an “intervention to address the perceived deficits of students of color or students living in poverty while ignoring the impact of inequities in our systems” and leverage SEL as a force for developing “student agency to lead positive change in their own communities” (Chatmon & Osta, 2018). Through this lens, SEL in social studies is only student-centered when it is thoughtfully implemented and considers the context in which students learn, grow, and will ultimately become active citizens and leaders.

For another perspective on the role SEL in social studies, read this blog by educator Meena Srinivasan:

Implement Culturally Relevant & Sustaining Practices

You can also put students and the center of social studies instruction by recognizing, understanding, and celebrating the cultural, academic, and social experiences and needs of every learner. Culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogies is a framework for instruction that takes into account those needs and experiences, and positions both students and teachers to learn and grow through social and cultural awareness and consideration of many perspectives. (For more on culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogies, be sure to read the foundational work of Gloria Ladson-Billings and Django Paris). Culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogies can aid in creating a student-centered classroom when students have access to culturally relevant content, rigorous tasks, and instruction differentiated to suit their needs.

Arm Students with Digital Media Literacy Skills

Student-centered learning takes into consideration the context in which students learn and the context in which they apply what they learn outside of the classroom. Today’s social studies classroom must prepare students for a rapidly evolving digital media environment that requires the application of higher-order critical thinking skills than many adults can employ. A student-centered approach to digital media literacy prioritizes arming learners with the skills they need to evaluate an overwhelming amount of information for basis in fact — which will become increasingly difficult as students grow up in an environment of evolving technology that can produce alarmingly convincing misinformation, even “deep fakes”. Students’ ability to make informed decisions about their own lives and about their communities relies on their digital media literacy skills.

Prepare Them to Grow into Active Citizens and Leaders

Finally, student-centered social studies classrooms are environments where students are challenged to someday become the types of citizens and leaders that they admire today. Put students at the center of instruction by helping them build awareness of their position in their communities at a smaller scale, and in a larger, connected global community. You’ve given them a safe space to ask questions, analyze sources, hone their voices, and build relationships. Social studies also opens the door to helping students understand how they can apply all of those skills to life outside and after the classroom.

For more on civic participation, read this blog by Dr. Peter Levine:

History and social studies classes offer a unique opportunity for student-centered learning: Students can be both at the center of history as they learn about the past and derive meaning from it, but they’re also at the center of history in their everyday lives — as they use their voices, participate in their communities, and make history by shaping the world around them.

🌏 Inspire students to experience history through multiple lenses and inquiry as they learn to practice civil discourse on their way to becoming future-ready citizens. Explore our new 6–12 U.S. and World History programs:


Chatmon, L. R., & Osta, K. (2018, August 20). 5 steps for liberating public education from its deep racial bias. Education Week. Retrieved from



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McGraw Hill

McGraw Hill

Helping educators and students find their path to what’s possible. No matter where the starting point may be.