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A highschool student sits at a desk and writes in a notebook in a classroom
A high school student sits at a desk and writes in a notebook in a classroom

Once we get back to a post-pandemic “new normal,” are we going to revert back to the pre-pandemic way of teaching?

Dr. Wayne Journell
Dr. Wayne Journell

To do so would be social studies malpractice, says Teacher Education and Higher Education (TEHE) Department Professor Dr. Wayne Journell.

“The pandemic is something the entire world is living through in some way, shape, or form. In education, we always talk about ‘teachable moments.’ If the pandemic isn’t a perfect teachable moment for social studies education, I don’t know what is.”

And according to Journell’s newest publication, there’s a lot to learn from this teachable moment. 

“Post-Pandemic Social Studies: How COVID-19 Has Changed the World and How We Teach” explores how K-12 social studies curriculum should transform now that the pandemic has exposed deficiencies in much of the traditional narrative found in textbooks and state curriculum standards. The book also offers guidance for how educators can use the pandemic to pursue a more justice-oriented, critical examination of contemporary society.

In the Q&A below, Journell expands on this transformation.

How does the COVID-19 pandemic offer a unique opportunity to transform social studies curriculum? 

The pandemic has put a spotlight on inequities and things in society that social studies educators teach as traditional, agreed-upon facts that might not be so black and white. For example, in social studies curriculum, the United States government is built upon this idea of federalism – that the federal, state, and local governments all work together, but also independently. And in general, we look at that uncritically within K-12 social studies education as a good system. The pandemic really made people rethink that a little bit. Federalism works great for certain things, but not necessarily pandemic responses where you’re dealing with a virus that has no national, state, or county boundaries. For example, a mask mandate may be in place in one county, but not another that’s 20 miles down the road. Or someone could live in a state with a mask mandate, but cross the border to another state for work and have to follow entirely different rules. I think this allows us to take a more critical look at topics like federalism that we’ve somewhat held as truisms in social studies education since the beginning of time. Another example is the fact that this virus that originated in China suddenly brought the entire world to its knees. It makes you rethink the importance of global education in social studies education. Social studies curriculum in the United States tends to be fairly U.S.-centric. That may have worked 100 years ago, but now, the world is so interdependent, and the virus shows that we need to start thinking about other ways to approach social education.

Your book explores how educators can teach students about the pandemic not only as a recent historical event, but also as a contentious public issue. Why is it important that educators take a more justice-oriented, critical approach to education, and how can this be applied when covering other historical events?

A lot of people think 50 years was a long time ago. For high school students, last week was a long time ago. But really, in the span of human history, 50 years isn’t a long time. So, I think there’s a tendency when we teach social studies in K-12 education to not make the connections from past to present. You can pick any topic in social studies education, and you’d be able to draw the lines from past to present and see the connections. The pandemic has shown that there are ramifications from our nation’s history that are still playing out today – all those inequities didn’t start with the pandemic, but they were amplified by it. And this provides an opportunity for teachers to make that connection from the past to the present. That’s one of the things that we hope that educators who read this book will be able to do – connect the dots.

​​Your book provides ways educators can help students understand race and class, cope with death and grief, and acknowledge some other crucial, but heavy topics one might not expect to be taught in class. How important is it now, especially in a post-pandemic world, that educators start incorporating these topics into their lessons?

One recent turn in social studies scholarship has been to acknowledge the fact that the present and past are not just something that we can look at from a sterile lens. There are emotions involved. And this is true, obviously, even today. You turn on the news and see the horrors of Russia and Ukraine, and it’s hard not to feel emotions about that. But imagine if teachers are having conversations with their students about what’s going on and helping them process those types of things, like war and the pandemic. We’ve gotten kind of numb to seeing all these deaths and statistics from the pandemic over the past two years, but each one of those numbers was someone’s parent, grandparent, or friend. At this stage of the pandemic, a lot of people probably know someone who has gotten seriously ill or died from COVID-19. So we can’t talk about the pandemic – or really any topic in social studies education – without attending to students’ emotions and these ideas of grief and difficult histories. We have a chapter in the book that discusses the homicide of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. Injustices such as police brutality were going on before the pandemic, but they were exacerbated during it because everyone was at home watching it unfold on their screens. As a teacher, you can’t teach as if it’s business as usual.  We have to understand that students are consuming not just what they’re being told in their classes, but also what they’re seeing on the news and social media. And there’s a lot of it – it’s constant, and it’s heavy. In a perfect world, students might be having these conversations with their parents or other adults in their lives. But we know as educators that a lot of students don’t get that type of support at home. So if they’re not getting it at home, where else are they going to get it? Teachers are no longer simply purveyors of content. They also have to understand the emotional toll of the curriculum that they teach.

Has this evolution of education happened ever before because of a major historical event? 

Education is always a product of the time that we’re in. The best example would be the Cold War because it was such a long period in our history. During the Cold War, the social studies curriculum extremely nationalistic. There was an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ situation with the Soviet Union. So, you couldn’t say anything bad about the United States. Now as far as school itself being disrupted, obviously the closest parallel would be the flu epidemic of 1918, but that didn’t last as long, and they didn’t have the benefit of Zoom and virtual instruction.

But in the aftermath of this major historical event that we are all experiencing, I really hope we don’t miss this opportunity to change education. Everybody says they “can’t wait to return to normal,” right? Sure, we want to be able to go places and do the things we used to do without having to worry about the pandemic. But at the same time, we want to make sure that this “new normal” is better than the normal we had before. And I think within education, it would be a mistake if we went back to teaching social studies – or teaching anything – the same way we did before the pandemic because the world has changed, and we should change along with it.

Story by Alexandra McQueen, University Communications
Photography by Jiyoung Park, University Communications

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