Inside the Social Studies Classroom
reviewed by Jane C. Chauvin - March 12, 2009
The search for the perfect methodology for social studies classrooms goes on year after year. With the major classroom emphasis on reading and mathematics, social studies is often relegated to a mere 40 minutes a day, three days a week, or less. Teacher education candidates receive at most one class in methods of teaching social studies content; and then, this one methods course is often combined with another subject area (social studies and science, social studies and literacy, etc.). This is totally inadequate to prepare new teachers for their roles as social studies instructors.
Many experts in the social studies field have attempted to fill this gap in the social studies education of new and not-so-new teachers. In the book, Inside the Social Studies Classroom, Brophy, Alleman and Knighton attempt to share the outcomes of research that they have conducted focusing on the analysis of exemplary methods of social studies instruction. This was a project that spanned several years, and the authors are quite honest about the trial and error process that they went through in developing their research and teaching strategies.
The first step in their project was to develop instructional units that were suited to the developmental stages and prior knowledge levels of primary grade (K-3) students. The design and development of these units of instruction were primarily the work of Dr. Jere Brophy and Dr. Janet Alleman. Both of these authors have a substantial professional history of conducting research that focuses on the analysis of on-going social studies classroom instruction.
The next step in the project was to find an exemplary teacher of young students who was willing to adapt the units to his/her students personal backgrounds and who was also willing to teach them in the classroom. The teacher chosen was an outstanding Michigan primary teacher in the person of Barbara Knighton. Ms. Knighton was willing to be observed in her classroom and gave her permission for the team to develop audiotapes, field notes and written transcripts of her classroom interactions. The research was conducted in the public school where she was a faculty member and where the student body was composed of racially and ethnically diverse students who belonged to a socio-economically midrange population.
In the authors own words,
This book focuses on principles of best practice in planning and implementing primary social studies. Its analyses are more fine-grained and extended than those found in social studies methods texts, because the material is drawn from thick description data collected over several years in the classroom of a talented teacher. (p. 9)
The data contained in their book was not derived from standardized tests administered to each student, but from the thorough and exhaustive manner in which the classroom interactions were examined. The student results obtained appear to more than adequately support the feasibility and the effectiveness of the curriculum and instruction that the students experienced.
The authors present a compelling argument for the need for a powerful content base in early social studies instruction. They argue for the inclusion of chronological sequences and age-appropriate representations of people and events from the past. Therefore, even the strange and abstract can be learned meaningfully if instruction emphasizes schemas that are concrete and familiar to the students. . . (p. 14).
With this idea as a driving force in their work, Brophy, Alleman and Knighton concentrate their efforts on cultural universals as unit topics and stress understanding, appreciation, and life application in the teaching methodology that they advocate. This is very evident in all of the chapters that the book contains, especially Chapter 5, Structuring the Curriculum around Big Ideas (p. 58).
The concept of Big Ideas in the teaching of social studies has been around at least since the writings of John Dewey, who viewed them as the basis for connecting subject matter to students prior knowledge in ways that make learning experiences transformative (p. 58). The authors use this theme of transformative learning as one of the central concepts around which the book is based.
Some chapters focus on developing Big Ideas about history and geography, as well as developing Big Ideas about social studies teaching in general. Additional chapters focus on instructional resources, scaffolding for individual students, and activities and assessments. The book is very complete and offers many suggestions and ideas for the current and prospective teacher. The authors are quick to state that the manuscript was not written as a textbook, per se, but rather an account of their research methodology and findings; but, the book could be used by a college or university professor in a methods course concentrating on the teaching of social studies in the elementary grades. While the research focuses on grades K-3, the outcomes lend themselves to valid generalization to older students as well.
Brophy, Alleman and Knighton structured their units, and hence their research and teaching, around the Cultural Universals of food, clothing, shelter, communication, transportation, family living, childhood, money, and government. Complete lesson plans for every unit are not reproduced in the book, although activities, assessments, and guiding questions are found in the later chapters and in the very comprehensive Appendix.
Every chapter that focuses on the units that were taught contains a very thorough explanation of what concepts were targeted, as well as a reproduction of actual transcripts from the teaching process. These transcripts allow the reader to see the actual verbiage that the teacher, Barbara Knighton, used to introduce the units; the comments and questions that students posed; and the manner in which the teacher structured and shaped the interchange to move the exploration of topics forward. It is really a window, in print, into an exemplary teachers classroom!
Each chapter is filled with multiple ideas and examples that would be helpful to an elementary teacher who is choosing content and methodology for her social studies classes. This book would also be an excellent resource for faculty development initiatives. The authors are very authentic in the presentation of their research efforts and discuss in a most candid manner the pros and cons of using certain methodology or including specific resources. It cannot be stressed enough how comprehensive this book is in its coverage of the research efforts of this team and the practical outcomes that resulted from their efforts.
The Appendix offers an array of tools to assist teachers in putting into practice the information that is found in Chapters 1-15. This alone could form the basis for an in-service program for teachers. Questions are presented for the teacher to ponder and to use to assess his/her social studies planning and instruction. Activities, which are both creative and practical, are suggested for the reinforcement of the core ideas. Finally, a section entitled Check Out Your Practice allows the teacher to actually put into practice the ideas and suggestions that were offered in this section and throughout the book.
Brophy, Alleman and Knighton have successfully described a very thoughtful, deliberate, and painstaking research process that spanned several years. They have faithfully recorded both the pros and cons of the outcomes of their work and the journey that led them to the methods that they advocate. This is a volume from which any teacher or prospective teacher of social studies could profit immensely.