Press "Enter" to skip to content

SDEA’s First Impression: Proposed Social Standards Focus Too Much on Rote Memorization, Short-Change Critical Thinking

I am very eager to hear what professional educators have to say about Governor Noem’s proposed redo-revision of South Dakota’s K-12 social studies standards. Remember, 46 South Dakota educators produced a pretty good revision of the standards last year, but Noem threw them out and convened a new panel of mostly Republican, mostly non-educators to rubber-stamp a new batch of standards written by outsiders to satisfy her political agenda.

The first assessment from the professional educators of the South Dakota Education Association has nothing to do with politics. Instead, these educators raise a purely pedagogical objection: the new standards appear to focus on lots of rote memorization, which may be too hard for little kids and too basic for big kids:

From its initial review, SDEA is concerned about the age appropriateness of the standards as presented. The lower-grade standards call for a level of memorization that is not cognitively appropriate for our state’s early learners, and the upper-grade standards fail to challenge students’ critical thinking skills through standards that encourage analysis and evaluation of the world around them [Ryan Rolfs, executive director, “SDEA Questions Age Appropriateness of Proposed Social Studies Standards,” South Dakota Education Association, 2022.08.16].

Review Noem’s proposed redo standards, and you’ll see that nearly every one uses the phrases “demonstrates knowledge”, “demonstrates understanding”, or “learns the skills to complete the following tasks”, followed by expectations that students be able to recite back long lists of facts and concepts. The standards rarely mention applying, analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating, or other verbs that demonstrate the more complicated critical thinking that seems to be a greater focus of the existing social studies standards that Noem wants to replace.

SDEA says it is working with remembers to conduct a deep review of the standards to inform the comments it will submit to the Board of Education Standards to help the Board decide whether it should adopt this second draft or whether we need to go back to the well a third time to get our social studies standards right.


  1. 96Tears 2022-08-16 13:41

    Think of Kassidy Peters. Poor Kassidy suffered from the enforcement of a professional standard of knowledge to become certified as an appraiser. Boo hoo! And Mommy tried soooo hard to get that mean ol’ Sherry Bren (what does she know?!?) to back down on flunking little Kassidy. Boo hoo! Boo hoo!

    Well, all Mommy Noem is doing here is dumbing down and lowering K-12 education standards and expectations to simplified, dull rote instruction. Everybody gets an A!

    Perhaps Mommy Dearest has intentions to lower and dumb down professional certification expectations too so that future Kassidy tragedies can be avoided. None of us need to be smarter in Mommy Noem’s future. We just gotta be Republicans who let only one person do all of our thinking.

  2. Ryan 2022-08-16 13:42

    i’m starting to get the feeling that those hillsdale folks don’t actually care about a well-rounded education for the children of this great state…

  3. Eve Fisher 2022-08-16 13:59

    When in doubt, make them memorize something and claim that means they learned it. You can teach a parrot the Declaration of Independence, but that doesn’t mean they know what it means.

  4. Donald Pay 2022-08-16 14:01

    I think having a factual understanding of basic history is important, but sometimes these “facts” are little more than myths. For example, we celebrate Independence Day on July 4th, but Congress voted to separate from England on July 2nd. If we cared about our celebrations actually matching up with historical fact, Independence Day would be on July 2nd. What interests me is why and how that historical fact about one of the most important events and dates in US history got swept aside. Now that takes a deeper understanding of the simplification and mythologizing of history. It’s a problem. Rote memorization without the ability to question, analyze, think critically and propose a new way to think about some historic events is dead history. History should be as alive as we are today. Hey, in my era we all memorized the wrong facts, too. History came alive when we got old enough to question the history we were taught. Yes, thee are some things that need to be learned by memorization, but let’s not have that be the only thing schools can do in the area of social studies.

    We also get a lot of things wrong about another celebration: Thanksgiving. We tell kids lies about basic facts of history, as we demand they memorize “facts” that are questionable. Then there are the lies about not telling lies (ie., the myth of George Washington and the cherry tree). Maybe we can learn something from that myth.

  5. P. Aitch 2022-08-16 14:56

    Memorization of facts and timelines is from the bad part of twentieth century German history.
    American free thinkers apply, analyze, synthesize, evaluate.
    That’s what Cory did while reviewing the Hillsdale standards.

  6. M 2022-08-16 17:05

    Yikes, what type of evaluation tools are suggested?

  7. P. Aitch 2022-08-16 17:28

    Don Pay says, ” Rote memorization without the ability to question, analyze, think critically and propose a new way to think about some historic events is dead history.” Maybe that’s the crux of Hillsdale’s biscuit?

  8. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-08-16 17:38

    Ryan, you’re starting to get the right idea. Another right idea: Hillsdale people don’t really understand how education and education standards work.

  9. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-08-16 17:40

    Good point about Donald’s point, P. Dead history, dead Constitution—Hillsdale appears not to want the kids to go thinking new thoughts or daring to view the Constitution as a living document requiring new interpretations to make sense of life in an ever-changing, ever-renewing America.

    As Tom Joad said, “You’re bound to get idears if you go thinkin’ about stuff.”

  10. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-08-16 17:44

    M, these proposed standards, like the current standards, do not address assessment tools. Standards just say what we want the kids to learn; ideally, teachers remain free to come up with creative ways to assess how much of those things the kids have learned.

    I don’t think we have a statewide assessment for social studies… do we?

  11. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-08-16 17:47

    M’s question about assessment is interesting. Assessing Hillsdale’s rote memorization seems a lot easier than assessing real critical thinking. If the kids are just supposed to memorize a big list of facts, you give them a simple, objective test over those facts: fill in the blank, multiple choice, oral recitation. Easy. A real assessment of critical thinking requires a more complicated test allowing students to perform more complicated intellectual tasks.

  12. larry kurtz 2022-08-16 17:56

    How old is the Earth in the Hillsdale creation story?

  13. Brett 2022-08-16 21:11

    As someone who has been a social studies teacher for 25 years my first impression reading the standards is that it is full of trivia making this curriculum an inch deep and a mile wide. My second impression, and maybe the part the irritated me the most, is the deletion of Geography from the curriculum. While there is some Geography in the standards all it is is location and not really anything else. 3rd impression is that it is really repetitive and at time they just used the cut and paste function and stuck the same standards in 7th grade and in high school. Like there was no real thought in developmental levels of students.
    Finally, and this is a little picky bit it irritated me, in standard 7 ss.3a and 9-12 USH.4a it asks students to demonstrate knowledge of Pre-Columbian Native American tribes in North America and then goes on to mention the Inca. Guess maybe we need to keep Geography in the curriculum.

  14. O 2022-08-16 21:18

    Cory, no; there is no state-wide assessment for Social Studies. The Smarter Balance Assessment covers English, Math, and Science.

  15. DaveFN 2022-08-16 21:55

    Ryan Rolfs rightly recognizes the necessary distinction among differing age-appropriate abilities with regard to the memorization/ critical thinking dialectic, one which develops diachronically and cannot be expected from the get-go.

    With regard to criticisms of “rote learning” and “memorization” as somehow antedated, in this era of facts as anything goes, most of us would rather see more and not fewer facts. Granted, they must be conventionally agree-upon facts if they are to be worth learning, but if they are worth learning they are also worth memorizing. I have known many a university chemistry major in their senior year whose education clearly was lacking as they evidenced little mastery of fundamental facts they should have assimilated to memory much earlier in their education (eg., “chlorine at room temperature is a greenish-yellow gas”—gotta start somewhere if one is to build out an educated individual).

    Consider: how do children learn the alphabet? They MEMORIZE the alphabet song. Subsequent learning is an incremental process culminating in more complex associations, hopefully, just hopefully, culminating in what we like to refer to as “critical thinking” (ouch–almost sounds like ‘critical theory’). University educators of all disciplines continue to wrestle with just what “critical thinking” means, let alone how to assess it.

    In any case, the point is that critical thinking doesn’t start from the get-go, as Rolfs is clearly aware. There is most definitely a place for memorization in the armamentarium of learning objectives along the curriculum. It is an important element of any discipline, and also teaches discipline.

    [Those who have studied any foreign language realize that memorization of word, verb conjugations, and phrases is part-and-parcel of being able to accede to the mastery of any language].

    So when it comes to memorization, the caveat is to not throw the baby out with the bathwater as though memorization was less-than-critical to learning. Education doesn’t end with memorization but it must necessarily contain an important and embedded element that is memory-based. If not, it’s not education at all.

  16. All Mammal 2022-08-16 22:15

    This curriculum calls for what is known in the biz as the Suck & Spew Method.

    Social Studies wasn’t really about much history until 6th grade in my recollection. In k-5th, we learned about social concepts like: irrigation, navigation, farming, the cotton gin, the steamboat, trains and the railroad, immigration, emigration, migration, Oregon Trail, the 49ers, a bunch of taxes, laws, rebellion, slavery, labor, suffrage, disenfranchisement, pioneers, how all buffalo parts were used by our ancestors before the pioneers, population density, per capita, malaria, infant mortality, how the Sioux became horse people, drought, subsistence farming, clear cutting, famine, whaling, aviation, John Glenn, and Sputnik.

    Such concepts should be acted out, demonstrated, graphed, written about in fictional stories, discussed amongst peers, investigated, and debated. Cut teeth on the jargon and grasp the social themes, then tear into places and events, then chew on specific times and people.

  17. P. Aitch 2022-08-16 23:12

    Computers store all the facts needed beyond basic memorization of language, math, and science. What is sorely lacking in SD are innovation skills. Those skills need to be nurtured and rewarded starting in elementary school. They are where I live and then there’s also Montessori. Kristin and her Hillsdale cop out are rewarding anti-innovation and moving towards creating little sheep like citizens. Happy to just consider themselves better than nonwhites. Happy to label themselves a near continual victim of nonwhites and disciplined enough to just show up for labor on time.
    Innovative people embrace change and trust in their ability to adapt to whatever problems arise. You know. Like when we went to the moon and beyond.

  18. DaveFN 2022-08-16 23:27

    P. Aitch L.

    Innovate all you want but if it’s not grounded in facts it’s nothing but your subjective indulgence in wishful thinking.

  19. P. Aitch 2022-08-17 07:48

    @DaveFN – Did I say new things and ideas should be void of facts? You have a chip on your shoulder, DaveFN. That chip is keeping you from so much.

  20. grudznick 2022-08-17 08:05

    Please tell me the turkey and mashed potatoes with gravy is still a historically accurate Thanksgiving Day meal. and will be part of these new standards. If it’s not, grudznick will just eat them every day I can because you know there’s one day of the year out there where the Indians and Pilgrims feasted on that dish.

  21. Bonnie B Fairbank 2022-08-17 08:48

    Why is Noem involved in social studies standards at all?

  22. grudznick 2022-08-17 08:53

    Thank you for the blue link, Mr. Pay. That is interested. A three day feast, indeed.
    However this is disheartening.

    The Plymouth colonists certainly did not serve potatoes, which weren’t available to them at the time, and it’s unlikely they prepared the sweet cranberry sauce we know today—their cranberries were more likely a tart garnish. Pumpkin pie would have been impossible, as the colony didn’t have butter, wheat flour or an oven.

    I assure you I will continue to feast on potatoes and pies, nonetheless.

  23. All Mammal 2022-08-17 10:20

    P. Aitch- Don’t regurgitate! Innovate! I would love to open a Waldorf school. Montessori schools facilitate little minds to innovate beyond the confines of our conditioned, rigid understanding as well. I agree our traditional schools reward the obedient tikes who never ask why, never color the sky any hue other than blue. Those kids grow up to get the decent jobs and are put in charge. That stagnates everything.
    Historical facts are based on perspective. History is always changing and most early facts we were taught as kids are BS. Basically lessons taught to reenforce obedience and the whole ringing of the bell to end class and go to a new class is to condition the short stacks to become efficient workers on the assembly line.

  24. All Mammal 2022-08-17 10:27

    My dad always baked the pumpkin pie in cast iron on the grill. It was bomb dot com. We had smoked salmon from my bro in law in WA every T Day too. And lit fireworks to keep the tradition. I fast on T Day these days.

  25. Jim 2022-08-17 13:33

    Trump famously said “I love the poorly educated”. Noem seems determined to grow that class of people.

  26. Knitter23 2022-08-17 14:41

    Unless the state is willing to spend the money on a social studies assessment at a few grades, there won’t be any accountability for the standards. The state tests what is required by federal law since the only money used for the assessments is federal. Also, if there were to be social studies tests at selected grades, there has to be an assessment for students who qualify for alternate assessment based on their IEP

  27. Observer 2022-08-17 20:43

    So this is how the textbooks should read:
    Our whole universe was in a hot, dense state
    Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started, wait
    The earth began to cool, the autotrophs began to drool
    Neanderthals developed tools
    We built a wall (we built the pyramids)
    Math, science, history, unraveling the mysteries
    That all started with the big bang (bang)

    But the textbooks will only say:
    We built a wall.

  28. DaveFN 2022-08-17 21:09

    pH L.

    “That chip is keeping you from so much.”

    Twinkle twinkle little star. What you say is what you are.

  29. DaveFN 2022-08-17 21:11

    pH L.

    “That chip is keeping you from so much.”

    Well aren’t you the all-knowing.

  30. DaveFN 2022-08-17 21:13

    All Mammal

    “Such concepts should be acted out, demonstrated, graphed, written about in fictional stories, discussed amongst peers, investigated, and debated. Cut teeth on the jargon and grasp the social themes, then tear into places and events, then chew on specific times and people.”

    Depends on the level of the students. Please qualify such blanket statements.

  31. Arlo Blundt 2022-08-17 21:48

    Grudz..if you read Nathanial Philbrook’s excellent book, “Mayflower” you’ll learn that by the end of November the Pilgrims were starving to death. The waters around them were filled with Cod, but they literally did not know how to fish. The woods about them had been “hunted out” and what deer there were moved farther in land as the weather cooled. Their gardens had failed to produce much as they planted in sandy soil. The Wampeset Indians who lived further in land brought them venison, squash and gourds, various dried fruit, fish, and maybe a wild turkey. They had to replenish the Pilgrims food throughout the winter though about 30% of the Pilgrims died of disease and starvation during the winter. That spring, an Indian who had worked on English whaling boats taught them how to plant (the legendary Squanto, though that was not his name). They barely survived. Twenty years later, after they had been reinforced and had learned to fish and farm, they organized an Army and went on a campaign to seize the Indian land and wiped out 75% of the Wampeset.

  32. DaveFN 2022-08-17 22:10

    Arlo Blundt

    Way off topic but does Philbrook mention Mayflower passenger John Howland, my maternal 10th great grandfather? He was thrown overboard from the Mayflower but miraculously survived. He now has some two million descendants in the US. Contingencies and the vagaries of fate are the stuff of our mistaken, reified identities—identities that might not have been.

  33. P. Aitch 2022-08-17 22:55

    @DaveFN – heard

  34. All Mammal 2022-08-18 08:16

    DaveFN- I have no idea why kindergartners would not be qualified to do any of those things. What exceptional classroom educators do at all times is assess his or her pupils to determine whether the activities are engaging, who is where, to continue on or switch gears, etc.
    Have confidence in the remarkable intellect of school age shorties and their sly teachers.

    Can kindergarteners listen to a story and explain their opinions and feelings about what they heard? Can they ask and answer questions and make educated guesses based on the book? Are they capable of portraying they are a character from the book and act out some ‘what if’ prompts, such as, “ If you were Hellen Keller’s best friend, demonstrate on your blindfolded partner how you would communicate-without talking”? Have you no faith the kids would be able to procure the correct Alabama state quarter gleaming with Ms. Keller’s likeness? And be able to add up the sum of loot showing our heroine and list what things they could buy with it in the late 1800’s? Would you believe your eyes if you watched little fingers wrap a string around pins stuck into all the worldly locations on the map, connecting the places Helen traveled to throughout her amazing lifetime? Will 5 and 6 year olds put together objects that represent some of the things Helen Keller fought for, such as helping people with disabilities(braille book…), co-founding the ACLU(Statue of Liberty..), fighting for peace(make peace sign..) women’s suffrage(sash..) and workers(hardhat..)?
    -You bet they can.
    I’m not sure if that qualifies my statement.?

    Wouldn’t we rather have students able to predict outcomes likely to result from a sequence of conditions based on the past and what we have discovered from multiple sources and researching evidence, as opposed to students who can tell you what you and the McGraw-Hill textbook told them happened and why?

  35. Lamb 2022-08-20 17:29

    I have reviewed these standards and they are NOT age appropriate nor are they developmentally appropriate. I think educators have a better idea of what is educational appropriate than the governor, her chief of staff and the head of the SD Catholic Conference. I have an MEd in applied Arts in Education, an M.S. in Curriculum and Instruction, and an M.S. in Educational Leadership. My professional background qualifies me to say, ‘the consultant who peddled this crap is laughing all the way to the bank”. When I sat on the Fine Arts Standards committee I was paid $600 for about 80 hours of research, writing time, Zoom meetings and follow up and rewriting. Perhaps that is what the good people of SD should be paying him.

Comments are closed.