When I was an elementary school student, Social Studies was my favorite subject. I particularly liked history. When I was in elementary school in New Zealand, history was basically European (mainly English) history with a small dose of indigenous Maori history. I remember learning about other countries was during the Olympics when we all got assigned a different country. I know I also learned about Ancient Egypt but that might have been from a book that I read at home.

The curriculum at that time in New Zealand would have presumably set this narrow focus for teachers and this would have been narrowed further by the limited resources and knowledge that the teachers had access to. Now it seems that the New Zealand curriculum is a lot more inclusive of different cultures and histories. The advent of the internet and more specifically Google has resourced this shift to a more inclusive social studies curriculum.

But having access to so much knowledge presents its own challenges when developing an inclusive social studies curriculum. Having the resources to learn about every country and culture in the world does not make it possible. Time is limited and we still need to make decisions about which countries and cultures we should learn about.

As a new international school teacher, I found these decisions very difficult to make. I might have had 10-15 different cultures and nationalities in my class and I knew that I did not have the time to do justice to all of their histories. Ancient Egypt is very interesting but, beyond the enjoyment of it, how does learning about its history really benefit the students of other cultures and nationalities living in the 21st century?

A teaching colleague pointed out that it might be correct that learning all about Ancient Egypt is not of much benefit. He told me to shift the focus from what we can learn about Ancient Egypt to what we can learn from Ancient Egypt. This was simple advice from him but a revelation to me! 

To learn from something we need to connect it to something else. We also need to know about that something to begin with so I still taught interesting and important Ancient Egypt facts. My students enjoyed these mini-lessons just as I did when I was their age – young children love new knowledge. But as soon as I shifted my focus to seeing what we can learn from Ancient Egypt, I was able to guide my class to connecting what they had learned about Ancient Egypt to their own cultures and histories or even to what was happening that week in the news or to the plot of their favorite cartoon or book. Every lesson needs to start somewhere but it does not need to end there. By using one culture or history as a starting point, I learned that a lesson can still be inclusive of all of the cultures and histories in my class.

A mini-lesson on the Great Sphinx of Giza might develop into small groups of students researching the meaning behind monuments in their own cultures and sharing that research with others. Making these connections not only strengthens their knowledge of Ancient Egypt, it allows them to apply that knowledge to better understand their own cultures and histories. It also allows students to develop an understanding of big global concepts like community, change, justice, government or sustainability. The students can then take these conceptual understandings and apply them when they need to make sense of what happens in the future. And they will always have Google (or probably something better) to remind them of when the Sphinx was built!