Both Digital and Disciplinary: Imagining Literacy Practices with the C3 Social Studies Framework

Both Digital and Disciplinary: Imagining Literacy Practices with the C3 Social Studies Framework

post by Troy Hicks, 2019-2020 The Educator Collaborative Fellow

Both Digital and Disciplinary: Imagining Literacy Practices with the C3 Social Studies Framework

This school year, I’ve been invited to work with a group of social studies teachers here in Michigan, thinking about the shifts that the recent College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework, published by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) invites them to make in their teaching practice. As someone with a language arts background and a long interest in both digital and disciplinary literacies, working with my colleagues to develop this professional development series has been a learning experience for me, especially as we think about the uses of sources and evidence in historical writing. 


Echoing recent shifts toward inquiry that are evident in other major curricular reforms, especially the Next Generation Science Standards, the C3 Framework “intentionally envisions social studies instruction as an inquiry arc of interlocking and mutually reinforcing elements that speak to the intersection of ideas and learners.” As with the CCSS, there are critiques of the C3, such as this one by historian Alan Singer, though the NCSS prominently includes the tag line “Preparing Students for College, Career, and Civic Life” on their website banner, suggesting that they are still actively promoting the C3 through their work. 


With the C3 curriculum rolling out, professional development is underway, too. In their NCSS Bulletin describing the kinds of shifts that will be needed in teaching practice, Kathy Swan and John Lee, alongside Rebecca Mueller and Stephen Day, make the case that “[t]eaching within this inquiry model is ambitious and gratifying, but at the same time, presents some daunting challenges” (5). In addition to the ever-present challenges of being pressed for time and considering the breadth of content to be covered, there is “the complexity of inquiry itself” (6). 


In other words, the authors of the C3 framework and these leaders from the National Council of Social Studies have recognized the ways in which embracing an inquiry-driven approach will require — as my colleagues in Michigan and I have phrased it — “changing practices for changing times.” Still, the teachers with whom we are working seem eager to try this approach, and we having been thinking about the intersections of both the disciplinary and the digital as we work to to integrate literacy practices into this inquiry-driven work. 

The Disciplinary

With the disciplinary perspective, we have been thinking through some of the foundational work that Tim and Cindy Shanahan provided in their 2008 article, “Teaching Disciplinary Literacy to Adolescents: Rethinking Content Area Literacy.“ In this piece, they describe the kinds of “high-level skills and abilities embedded in these disciplinary or technical uses of literacy” and the fact that these literacy practices “are not likely to have many parallels in oral language use, and they have to be applied to difficult texts” (45). More than simply applying generic content-area literacy strategies, they conclude that 


Traditional efforts to encourage every content-area teacher to be a reading teacher by pressing them to teach general-purpose strategies have neither been widely accepted by teachers in the disciplines nor particularly effective in raising reading achievement on a broad scale. (57)


To that end, disciplinary literacy practices must be taught explicitly, and teachers need to model these thinking, reading, and writing skills for their students. 


From the historian’s perspective, we have looked at the work of Sam Wineburg in order to gain some perspective on the work. In his 2001 book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past, Sam Wineburg outlines a rationale for why this kind of disciplinary thinking is so difficult. In one key passage, he poses a series of questions that outline the dilemma that history teachers face when trying to help their students engage in disciplinary literacy practices: 


How do we navigate the tension between the familiar and the strange? How do we embrace what we share with the past but remain open to aspects that might startle us into reconsidering what it means to be human? … How do we approach this past so that it emerges as something more than a faded version of the present? (17)


And, while I am not steeped in social studies curriculum and methods, my introduction to these ideas this year suggest that questions like Wineburg’s remain relevant today, especially in an era where both mis- and disinformation fills our screens and the kinds of empathy that historical thinking can engender becomes even more important.

The Digital

With this background on disciplinary literacies, we have also been exploring the role of digital literacies. As described in my recent co-authored publication in the Oxford Bibliographies, a definition of digital literacy includes 


the complementary and interwoven skills, both technical and social, that people must employ when using Internet-based communication—including hypertext, images, audio, and video—to consume and create messages across a variety of academic, civic, and cultural contexts. (Online)


The ways in which teachers integrate digital literacies with disciplinary literacies are continuing to evolve. Wineburg, for instance, has noted the way that students consume information needs to change, making an argument for teaching students the kinds of “lateral reading” strategies that experts use when searching the web. For a student-friendly introduction to these strategies, John Green’s “Crash Course” video on lateral reading is particularly useful. These skills, while useful, are not enough, as we need to move students from being digital consumers to being digital creators. 


As I noted in my most recent Ed Collab post, Northwestern University’s Knight Lab for Journalism has produced a number of free and openly available tools including StoryMap JS, Timeline JS, and even one called Scene VR that allows storytellers to make VR stories. Additional tools that I have been and will be exploring with them include the multimedia authoring tools of Adobe Spark, a site for comparing contemporary and historical photos, History Pin, another timeline tool, Sutori, and infographic creation tools like Infogram, Piktochart, and Canva. And, as recently reported in EdScoop, I am interested, too, in thinking about the new affordances in Google Earth, which has released “a new set of new tools that enable maps to be customized and organized into visual narrative.”

The Results (So Far)

As social studies teachers move toward an inquiry-drive approach to teaching disciplinary and digital literacies, I am looking forward to seeing samples of their lessons as well as their students’ work. While we are still only a few months into our professional learning experience, I can imagine using more of the tools mentioned above as we continue our work this year, helping students represent their own historical thinking through timelines, story maps, videos, and perhaps even by designing their own VR or Google Earth stories. Moving beyond the thesis-driven essay, my goal is to help my colleagues experience both inquiry and interactivity as they move their students forward with both digital and disciplinary literacies. 

For more information, and to see/hear Troy’s work in action, check out his recent Study Series session which he co-facilitated alongside colleague and TheEdCollab Book Ambassador Julia Torres.