The Relevance of Social Studies in an Apathetic World

6 Min Read  •  Social Studies

As teachers, we encounter a lot of apathy in the classroom. Some even question the relevance of Social Studies. And for those of us who are Social Studies teachers, that apathy seems to be ten times greater. We are inundated with students asking, “How am I going to use this in my life? I don’t see why I have to learn this if I don’t even want to go into this field!”

It is difficult to believe that there are people who exist without a deep passion for Social Studies. But, the reality is that there are. So the question becomes, “How do we communicate the relevance of Social Studies to apathetic students?”

Here are four key strategies we will discuss:

  • The Building of Critical Thinking Skills
  • Making Modern Day Connections
  • Creative Engagement (Connections to Self)
  • Teaching Social & Civic Responsibility

The first of the four deals with the building of critical thinking skills. This is the first leg into what we call high rigor learning. Once we teach students how to think and move away from teaching students what to think, we will be much closer to Socrates’ philosophical dream for humanity.

When students ask “why do I have to learn this?”, this is the foundation of what I explain. I follow up with examples from daily life that detail how thinking critically could have changed a situation for the better.

Making Modern Day Connections

This brings us into “Making Modern Day Connections.” Of course, this is our bread and butter in Social Studies. Making connections to modern day events helps communicate to students that we are all the same, but are different only in the time period in which we live. Our time period helps dictate what options we choose when handling the events in our daily lives.

So, how could you communicate this idea in your Social Studies classroom?

Choose a current news story that students may be familiar with. Present the major points of the entire story. Then tell how this negative situation could have been avoided had the key players thought critically. That thinking could have saved a life and/or spared key players of a long-lasting consequence!

Once you are able to make this idea make sense in students’ mind, they will appreciate it and your class!

Additionally, the approach I take with teaching history is that of a storyteller. I humanize historical situations by creating educational experiences where students explore those historical occurrences and discover ancient peoples’ passions and desires, needs, and wants.


Because I believe students have more respect for history when they are able to learn that ancient people shared the same essential passions and desires, needs, and wants as we do today. The only difference? The time period.

The fascination comes with learning what choices ancient people made and delving into the consequences that follow. Additionally, it is fun to learn about how modern societies have borrowed cultural practices from ancient societies, and it helps these young students to make sense of the world.

Connections to Self

The third way to communicate the relevance of Social Studies to apathetic students is to engage students creatively. This does NOT mean that you are “entertaining the kids!” This means that you are using different modalities to help students reach your subject’s end goals.

We all know that students learn differently. If that is the case, we must know simultaneously we must engage them differently in the learning process. You may open your unit or lesson with a probing question that will encourage students to think about the bigger picture of your objective.

Consider the following probing question. (You may have to add context depending upon the age of your learners). I used this question with my eighth graders: “Is it acceptable to worship religious icons as a part of worship?” This should get students really worked up and they will try hard to justify their points!

Encourage students to substantiate their points with evidence. They will not have items at their disposal at this point, so they should base their opinions upon their own religious experience (or lack thereof); movies they’ve seen; news articles they’ve read, or conversations they have had or overheard.

Make sure to communicate probing questions along the way to help move the conversation further along and to present new ways of approaching the initial question.


After allowing students to engage in this oral discourse for 10-15 minutes (this is up to your discretion depending upon the length of your class), present them with textual information about the topic. By doing this, they are able to add historical detail and context to the original question.

By the last 10 minutes of the class, present students with an exit ticket that allows them to answer questions specific to the content. In this example question, make sure to ask questions that present perspectives from both sides!

The final way to communicate the relevance of Social Studies to apathetic students is to teach social and civic responsibility. Think: How will knowing this information help me help change the trajectory of my life and the trajectory of my fellow citizens?

We are preparing our students to become scholar-practitioners – not only are they bright and intelligent, they are able to put their intelligence to use in our communities. This is synonymous with “making the world a better place!” The world WILL become a better place if the students in our care not only cares about making the world the better place but are also equipped with the tools to make that better place a definite reality.

Making the World a Better Place

At pre-determined parts of the lesson, incorporate ways to have students engage students in social and civic responsibility in regards to that specific lesson. You could also have them consider their own career aspirations and blend that into the current lesson. How can they leverage what they have learned in this lesson into what they want to become in the future? Also, how can they use all of their skills and knowledge to turn around some aspect of the world?

For example, if you are teaching about the lack of access to adequate healthcare in periphery countries (or even in extremely poor areas of a core country), a student who wants to enter into the medical field may brainstorm ways to:

  • Increase access to healthcare by providing health insurance to poor, non-insured people
  • Decrease the range between clients and hospitals
  • Provide economic security by creating more jobs in underserved areas, therefore helping people pay for their own health insurance through their jobs

Implementing just these three factors could have boundless opportunities for those communities. Our task as teachers is to determine how to motivate our students to care enough about the world to want to save it. If you’re looking for teaching strategies, be sure to check out my article from May!

Communication of the relevance of Social Studies in an apathetic world is very key to pushing our students beyond where they thought they could be. When students see, and even feel, the connection, they will be more willing to ride the wave for the duration!