In the final chapter of Larson and Keiper’s Instructional Strategies for Middle and Secondary Social Studies they write that one way to “meet the educational needs of all students in the classroom is to focus on curriculum that both promotes understanding and engages students” (Larson and Keiper, 235). One of the most important ways of accomplishing this in the classroom is student-directed investigation. While there are different types of student-directed investigation, they all share a few characteristics. They offer meaningful challenges to students, require active learning, provide opportunities to solve and answer problems, allow for student ownership and responsibility over learning, and offer students opportunities to act as “experts” (Larson and Keiper, 236).
There are a handful of common variations of student-directed investigation, below I will briefly describe each one and offer up some examples for some:
- Problem based learning actually has two main types, inquiry learning and discovery learning.
- Inquiry learning focuses on pursuing questions, making hypotheses, investigating, forming theories, and then taking action upon what students have learned. Inquiry learning activities can be guided, open, or structured. Regardless, inquiry learning requires planning on behalf of teachers to give structure to students that can allow them to succeed in inquiry learning activities.
First, let’s imagine we’re in an American History classroom studying the Vietnam War. To begin the inquiry there needs to be a question that either the teacher creates or the teacher creates with the students. This question should not be one that can be answered by a yes or no response, instead it needs to be open ended. Perhaps the question determined was, Should Lyndon B. Johnson have escalated the conflict in Vietnam? After this we must then create a chart that asks what do we know, what we need to know, and what we need to find out. The second step involves investigating, in this case it will involve students or the classroom as a whole, exploring primary and secondary sources for evidence and information which relates to the question. The third step involves interpreting, where the students analyze information to draw conclusion. Here, students will take what they have read or found out about the beginning of the Vietnam War to draw their own conclusions to the question. The fourth step is reporting, where students report what they have found and their conclusions to their group and to the class. The final step involves some way for students to reflect upon the process, this could be simple, like an exit card activity, or complex, like a journal or an essay. But this type of process would yield more complex information than an answer of “No, LBJ should not have went into the Vietnam War.” With this process students will probably have found out that most major politicians agreed with going into Vietnam and that there was little disagreement with it in 1964.
- Discovery learning focuses on finding solutions to particular problems. As Larson and Keiper write, the solutions to problems will “deal with settled rather than controversial issues” (Larson and Keiper, 238). An example provided by Larson and Keiper is one where a history teacher uses discovery for a lesson on the Salem witch trials where students discover that students find out that the trials resulted from racial, religious, and personal factors.
- Project-based learning asks students to develop some kind of product or creation related to a specific topic. The types of projects can rang in detail and complexity, but can offer students the opportunity to make choices and to be more creative. For example, when I was in 6th Grade, my US History teacher asked us to create a project on World War One. She created a list of topics that we could choose from and a list of ideas for us to use. Project ideas included making models, making large informational posters, or partnering to produce a skit about a topic. I chose to make models of WW1 era airplanes, while other made models of trenches, or partnered with somebody to do a skit about the Christmas Truce. All students spent the same amount of time on their projects, but the options gave us the ability to diversify and to pick a topic we wanted and present information about it in the ways that most appealed to us.
- Experiential learning involves learning through experiences not usually associated with a traditional classroom. In a social studies classroom an example of this might be taking a government class on a short field trip to the local court house for a tour and to meet with local attorneys and judges. Instead of learning about the court system in a classroom, this type of experience would let them learn about the court system in the physical court space and from court officials.
- Service learning focuses on learning through community service. This type might be the most logically difficult one to require of students, but can perhaps be the most valuable in helping students learn civic values and responsibilities.
Reflecting on my Field Study
As a student intern over the last few months I’ve been able to gain a new insight into the roles of a social studies teacher, much more of an insight than I gained when I was a full time substitute teacher. My experiences in the classroom have shown me the many roles teachers are asked to play within their classrooms.
One of the most important things I’ve taken away from my experience relates to what the Wong’s wrote in the First Day of School, that “The most important day of a person’s education is the first day of school, not Graduation Day.” From that first day of school the teacher sets the mood of the classroom, the tone of the classroom, lays out expectations, defines goals, and exhibits behavior. Establishing this is crucial to creating a positive classroom atmosphere and it can head off classroom behavior issues before they become a problem.
From my field experience I would go a step further than the Wongs and add that the most important part of the day for every class are the first few minutes they step into class. While in the classroom I observed my teacher stand near or outside his door for every class to greet them and to prompt them to look at the board for instructions for their warm-up. My teacher, from the first day of school, established a routine that he expected students to follow. Once in the classroom students would go to their assigned seat and then read the board for instructions related to their daily warm-up. By the time the bell run for class to begin students were almost always deep into their warm-up activity and my teacher was easily able to transition from that into the lesson. Those first few minutes of class always determined what the class would be like the rest of the day.
As an intern I realized that within the classroom teachers are teachers, friends, coaches, principals, experts, learners, and collaborators. And all of these roles are usually assumed in one day. Teaching is a craft and, as the Wongs say, it is a skilled craft that can be learned. As such, I’ve learned through my field experience that teachers need to work with each other to become better. I’ve talked with my teacher and with others about strategies, about classroom management, and about choices they make. Learning this attitude has been the most valuable thing for me in my field study and is one I hope to use and build upon as I continue into next semester and my career.