E Pluribus Unum: What Social Studies Taught Me About Teaching

October 5, 2016 Douglas Petrick

477915133.jpgAs teachers, we have the opportunity to not only learn from history but to apply what it teaches us to our classroom environment. Taking a cue from social studies, we can encourage students to speak up and actively participate in class, an approach that will undoubtedly transform the room into a more dynamic, collaborative space.

The following tips can help you increase class participation and facilitate student dialogue:

We the People

 When you speak in class during a lecture, discussion, or activity, refrain from using the terms “you” or “I.”

Instead, start using “we.” This change in pronouns puts everyone (instructors included) on an even playing field. The switch in pronouns also signals a resetting of the power structure to which students are accustomed. "Teacher vs. student" becomes "us vs. the content of the course."

You can incorporate inclusive language by saying something like, “We have an assessment on Friday. Here are the learning targets for us to refer to during the next chapter.” Tone can often be more powerful than content in spoken word.

Grouping the Countries of the World

Changing the desks/seating in your room away from the traditional geometric rows can make an immediate impact.

Clustering desks encourages discussion and collaboration. Utilizing a “workstation” approach to seat placement makes students use each other as resources, calling you over only once they have exhausted their group knowledge. As a result, their questions to you are much better because they’ve spent time together with the material. Plus, it’s easier for you to manage and spend time when visiting clusters of three to four students rather than talking with individual students. If you are concerned that this configuration will invite students to talk to each other when not prompted, remember that you control the groups. Wait about a week or so after the first day of school, and then group students in clusters to get the dynamics right. It’s also a good idea to switch up the groupings once every nine weeks or so to keep things fresh.

Political Debates: Time Restraints and Clarification of Questions

Set time restraints on tasks and activities being performed in class. Be specific when giving your students a task to complete in the confines of class.

Students work more efficiently when they know how much time they have to complete a task. Time restraints signify that the teacher knows how much effort needs to be exerted to complete the task. I have found that posing a specific question, instead of just a general task to focus on, provides clarity for the students. This specificity allows the student to zoom in on a particular part of learning—the aspect you, the instructor, deems essential.

Example of a general directive: “Spend the last ten minutes of class reflecting on today’s workstation activity in your notebooks.”

Example of a more powerful, specific directive: “For the next three minutes, individually identify one item from today’s activity that you felt was unclear to you. Write this unclear concept down in your notebooks.”

After three minutes have elapsed, you can ask students to spend five minutes discussing with their workstation groups which parts of the activity were unclear. After each student has shared an individual item, the workstation group will use the remaining time to select one specific concept to share with the class. You can then address and clarify these concerns with the class as a whole.

Cabinet Roles

Assign each student a specific role during group work activities.

Group work activities are a great way to incorporate content and group work skills that are essential to the workplace. However, most students struggle to assign group work roles on their own. Many times, in groups, the same students will gravitate towards the same roles throughout the academic year. A better way to ensure that students diversify their roles is to assign them. Assigning the following suggested roles along with clearly defined expectations helps to hold every student accountable during group work:

Scribe: responsible for writing down all the details on a dry-erase board or piece of paper

Timekeeper: makes sure the group stays focused on the task at hand within the time constraints

Librarian: uses class notes, the textbook, and the Internet as resources

Diplomat: represents the group and solicits the instructor or other groups when needed

Remind students that no matter their role, they should be an active group member, versed in the decision making and discussions taking place during their activity. Keep an accurate record of the roles assigned within each group. This enables you to shift roles within the groups for the next activity, encouraging each student to expand his or her group learning toolkit throughout the year.

Visiting the Heartland

During student-centered activities, move through the room and model the same behavior you want to see in your students.

During group activities, don’t be passive (i.e., sitting at your desk grading papers, detached from the task at hand). Instead, move around the room and be engaged in the work that students are doing. Ask questions that show you value their work. If you model engagement, students will reflect your behavior in their collaborative group work.

As you and your students practice each of the new teaching and learning methods through varying activities, you will find the routine becomes natural, resulting in a classroom environment that is more intellectually stimulating for everyone involved.

Have you tried something similar, or are you currently doing some of what I have outlined? As always, I welcome the opportunity to hear your story and learn from your experiences. Drop a note in the comments section. I monitor the feedback and respond to all who take the time to write me.

Learn more from Doug on this topic by listening to his Wiley Network Podcast here.

Doug Petrick holds an Architectural Engineering degree from Pennsylvania State University and a Masters of Arts in Teaching from California University of Pennsylvania. He is currently a high school Physics teacher at Upper St. Clair High School in Pittsburgh. Doug is a regular contributor to a series for educators offering practical advice and instructional strategies.

Image credit: CastaldoStudio/Getty Images


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