ERIC Identifier: ED268065
Publication Date: 1985-12-00
Author: Hendrikson, Leslie
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education Boulder CO.

Community Study. ERIC Digest No. 28.

Social studies programs are most often based on an expanded horizons approach, in which students focus on the community only in the early grades, with cursory references in the following years as the focus of social studies moves to a "larger and seemingly more significant world" (Schug and Beery l984). While the local community is usually studied at some point in the K-12 social studies program, it is not often a central organizing theme.

This Digest will examine a rationale for major themes of community study, including community-based education; community participation as a means of improving student motivation; common obstacles to implementing community study; and specific suggestions for implementing community study throughout the K-12 curriculum.


Schools have long functioned as if they were a separate rather than an integral part of the community and, thus, have failed to draw upon the many available resources in the community. Muth and Senesh (l977) argue that existing social studies programs, unfortunately, "separate schools from the realities of their own communities." For example, civics courses in many schools focus on state and national political institutions without providing students with opportunities to examine the political processes of their own communities.

Among approaches to using the community as a tool for developing citizenship and other social studies competencies are (1) community study, in which students examine the social systems of a specific community (usually their own) and (2) community-based education, a component of community study, in which students view the community as a source of information about a wide range of topics. Grounded in participation, community approaches can proide students with opportunities to apply, extend, and examine knowledge, skills, and values they have been exposed to in the social studies classroom.

Even when focusing on historical and political developments at a national and global level, examples from the local community can give national and global events a greater immediacy. If we consider education not only as preparation for more education, but as a preparation for life, community study is well justified as a low-cost means of providing an immediacy that textbooks lack and as a way of making academic activities more relevant and motivating.


Using the community as a valuable resource can provide opportunities for young people to become engaged in public life and learn essential participation skills. Research has shown that student motivation in social studies is low, in part because teaching modes in most social studies classrooms rarely, if ever, include inquiry, discovery, simulation, and experiential or community-based strategies (Morrisett l982; Goodlad l983).

Thus, students view social studies as lacking in variety and opportunities for participation. Schug and Beery (l984) suggest that one way to improve student interest in social studies may be to increase student participation by strengthening community study as a component of the curriculum. Parker and Jarolimek (l984) comment on specific ways in which participation experiences in the community can enhance student learning:

Participation experiences are by nature public and interactive. They can expose students to a rich variety of people, values, ethnic and religious identities, and problem-solving approaches. Consequently, participation experiences demand communication and encourage taking others' perspectives.


The idea of using the community as a laboratory to enhance the teaching of social studies, although frequently recommended in the literature, is unfortunately seldom implemented. One of the reasons is that community-based education requires more preparation by the teacher and student than other approaches to social studies. Hence, greater time demands make it difficult to integrate community-based activities into an already busy school day.

Another reason community-based experiences are not encouraged more often is that teachers do not feel that building supervisors and district administrators will be supportive of students leaving the school ground for community-based projects. Well-stated objectives, based on current research in the social studies, parental and community support, and documented successes can be used to persuade those doubtful of the values of community-based projects.

Even when going out into the community is impossible, the community can be brought into the classroom. Inviting community resource persons and using primary source materials are two options. In addition, more and more publishers (for example, Scott Foresman and Graphic Learning Corporation) and a number of school districts (for example, Arlington, Virginia; Wichita, Kansas; and Aurora, Colorado) are developing supplementary community-based social studies materials.


In CONSTRUCTING A COMMUNITY SYSTEM-BASED SOCIAL SCIENCE CURRICULUM, Muth and Senesh (l977) describe an educational tool known as "The Community Social Profile System," in which a set of documents known as Community Social Profiles (CSPs) are prepared jointly by faculty, junior and senior high school students, and local representatives of agriculture, labor, business, government, and education.

A CSP is a concise, clearly written description of the social system of a community--one that undergoes constant revision and updating by citizens, educators, and students. By focusing on five different dimensions of the community's life--its physical environment, history, economics aspects, political structures and processes, and culture--a Community Social Profile System places a particularly creative, intellectual focus on making social science knowledge useful for students.

Other ideas for using the community in social science education have been suggested by Schug and Beery (l984) in COMMUNITY STUDY: APPLICATIONS AND OPPORTUNITIES. Using a four-part model, they offer specific suggestions representing four dimensions of local community study.

Using the Community as a Source of Content

The local community can provide rich examples to illustrate many concepts from the social studies. History, economics, political science, geography, citizenship education, law-related education, values education, future studies, and global studies can take advantage of local community content and resources to illustrate important ideas.

Using the Community as a Source of Learning Experiences

Field trips and guest speakers are the most common elements of community-based learning experiences. Possible community field-trip sites include the local history society, a city council meeting, a public hearing, political party headquarters, human service agencies, and historical sights. One activity might include looking for and finding information about old buildings.

For example, students from Alexandria Public Schools in Virginia were introduced to the history of their community through a study of its buildings and urban growth. By examining factors which have changed the community and the relationship between the physical environment and lifestyles, students were encouraged to think about solutions and future problems of community development (Henes l983).

Other learning experiences might include block study (Eckbreth l983), using primary source materials such as old newspapers, diaries, and letters, and visiting pioneer cemeteries (Beery l978). Interviewing is another excellent approach in which students learn concepts about demography, roles, and social change, as they acquire skills in collecting data, testing hypotheses, and evaluating data (Meed-Mezetta l983).

Guest speakers might include public officials, people from the business community, labor leaders, members of civic groups, and public employees (Schug and Beery l984).

Community Service as a Dimension of Community Study

Recently the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (Boyer l983) identified, as one of "four essential goals" of a high school education, the involvement of all students in activities that "fulfill their social and civic obligations through school and community services." Parker and Jarolimek (l984) further recommend that students become involved in community service projects such as working in health clinics, serving on youth hotlines, producing a community newspaper, and painting low-income housing.

Using the Community to Enhance Skill Development

A final dimension of community-based education is skill development. Through community study the student can apply skills such as conducting surveys, doing anthropological and historical research, gathering data, developing interpersonal skills, and, as mentioned earlier, developing participation skills.


Beery, Robert. DOING HISTORY. Rochester, MN: Rochester Public Schools, l978. ED 221 413.

Boyer, Ernest L. HIGH SCHOOL: A REPORT ON SECONDARY EDUCATION IN AMERICA. New York: Harper and Row. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, l983.

Eckbreth, Catherine. BLOCK STUDY: LEARNING ABOUT YOUR LOCAL COMMUNITY. Arlington, VA: Arlington City Schools, l984. ED 239 956.

Goodlad, John. A PLACE CALLED SCHOOL: PROSPECTS FOR THE FUTURE. Hightstown, NJ: McGraw-Hill Book Co., l983.


Meed-Mezetta, Shirley. "Introducing Interviewing, a Sociology Tool, into a United States History Class." SOCIAL STUDIES REVIEW 23 (Fall l983):15-18.

Metcalf, Fay, and Matthew Downey. USING LOCAL HISTORY IN THE CLASSROOM. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, l982.

Morrissett, Irving, ed. SOCIAL STUDIES IN THE l980S. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, l982. ED 22l 449.

Muth, John, and Lawrence Senesh. CONSTRUCTING A COMMUNITY SYSTEM-BASED SOCIAL SCIENCE CURRICULUM. Boulder, CO: Social Science Education Consortium, Inc., l977. ED 153 884.

Parker, Walter, and John Jarolimek. CITIZENSHIP AND THE CRITICAL ROLE OF THE SOCIAL STUDIES. Bulletin No. 74. Boulder, CO: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education; the Social Science Education Consortium, Inc.; and Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, l984. ED 244 880.

Schug, Mark., and R. Beery, editors. COMMUNITY STUDY: APPLICATIONS AND OPPORTUNITIES. Bulletin No. 73. Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, l984. ED 252 452.

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