“Life is integrated. Why isn’t learning?” —Tom Vander Ark
Charlie Perryman, Director of Professional Development with Studies Weekly, posed this question in a recent webinar with curriculum coaches and district personnel.
“Can you think of a single job in the world today our students are going to enter, that doesn’t require integrated knowledge and thinking?” Perryman said.
The word “integrated” can be used to describe many processes — integrating technology, integrating in-class and remote learning, integrating cross curricular subjects and topics, etc.
But effective integrated learning is the experience of making connections between different curricula.
Perryman explained that there are also a lot of different reasons schools and districts choose to integrate. And all of them are good. But most importantly, research suggests that integrated learning is more effective. It’s the way the brain learns.
According to Eric Jensen in his book, Brain-based Learning, “The brain learns best in real-life, immersion-style multi-path learning … fragmented, piecemeal presenting can forever kill the joy and love of learning.”
Using social studies as part of an integrated elementary learning environment can drastically improve student learning in all areas. Social studies may not always be a state-tested subject, but it is quite often used to test students on state reading tests and other standardized assessments.
Social studies knowledge and concepts are embedded in every standardized reading assessment. Additionally, social studies vocabulary is essential to succeed on standardized assessments.
Social studies is tested constantly in many subjects.
But how do you start in your school or district?
Above all else, Perryman said, you must start with a standards-based curriculum based on deep learning strategies.
“If the resources you’re using are designed to get kids to memorize and regurgitate basic facts and information, you’re killing social studies. And you’re definitely killing integration,” he explained.
In society today, with facts from all over the world stored in the phone in our pockets, students need analytic skills that help with critical thinking, collaboration and communication.
These are the skills taught through social studies. The skills that lead to success in reading and writing literacy. The skills that lead to success in examining and solving problems in mathematics and science. These are, quite literally, life skills.
Additionally, your teachers need resources that provide primary sources so your students can learn to analyze and think deeply about events and issues. As you evaluate curriculum, standards-based materials that support deep learning are essential.
Then you must identify the teaching skills your teachers need and develop those through effective professional development training. According to the work of Linda Darling-Hammond, this training must:
- Be research-based
- Focused on the content
- Incorporate active learning
- Support collaboration
- Model effective practice
- Provide coaching and support
- Provide time for feedback and reflection
- Be of sustained duration
“It isn’t just two hours of a ‘Sit and Get,’” Perryman said, adding that you must continuously train teachers while also allowing them to cultivate their own knowledge with your direction.
Finally, you must have a well-developed action plan for implementing this, Perryman said. He used the phrase, “Go slow to go fast,” a principle he learned from his experience as a triathlete.
“Don’t blow yourself up in that first mile, or you won’t make it to the last mile,” he said.
When implementing integrated learning, don’t roll this out across the whole district all at once. You have to start slow with early adopters who are willing to try new things. Once the majority of teachers see the early adopters succeed with this new process, they join.
You must start with a small group of hand-selected teachers. The majority of your teachers will not be willing to embrace change until they see a few early adopters succeed with it.
Speaking from experience as a former teacher and curriculum coordinator, Perryman said, “As we all know, teachers listen to other teachers way more than they listen to us.”