Throughout a student’s educational career, they will learn how to read, write, solve mathematical equations, conduct scientific experiments, and how history has shaped our civilization. Social studies is an important knowledge base for students to have because “students who are privy to political, social, and cultural knowledge have an edge over others who are not exposed to information about their rights and freedoms” (Winstead, 2011, p. 222). Students can use the knowledge they gain in social studies to advocate for themselves and others.
Even though both social studies and science are important aspects of a child’s education, the time used to teach these subjects is being decreased significantly to ensure that students are getting the required instructional time for English Language Arts and math. With the reduced instructional time for social studies, students seem to think that all social studies includes is reading and writing. However, if more hands-on learning were to take place in the social studies classroom students would enjoy learning and remember what topics they have learned about throughout the school year. Hands-on, interactive learning will help to foster the high-level thinking and analytical skills that are being focused on in the Common Core Curriculum Standards.
This literature review will focus on the effects that hands-on, interactive learning has both on student academic achievement and enjoyment, as well as focusing on using the hands-on approach in the social studies classroom. Student and teacher perceptions about social studies, and how social studies can be changed into a subject that is important, not just a filler activity will also be discussed.
The literature read for this review mainly focused on upper elementary classrooms, more specifically fifth and sixth grade. However, the information presented in this literature review can be modified and applied to younger elementary grades, as well as the middle school and high school levels.
Student and Teacher Perceptions on Social Studies
Many studies have been conducted in regards to both student and teacher perceptions about social studies. Unfortunately, many students view social studies as boring, or not applicable to present day. Even some elementary teachers do not feel comfortable teaching this subject and have to rely on the textbook to learn the content they are required to teach.
Winstead (2011) stated, “social studies as the base discipline can be integrated across the curriculum to raise students’ social awareness through application of this knowledge in social and political situations” (p. 221). Zhao and Hoge’s (2005) findings reflect students’ perceptions of social studies in their schools. The study encompassed students’ perceptions from an urban district, a metropolitan district, and a rural district. The findings from all three districts were uniform in that many students do not see the point in learning about social studies, because it is “not relevant to their personal life” (Zhao & Hoge, 2005, p. 218).
If teachers were to present social studies information in a way that students are able to see the correlation between that and their lives, they would be more likely to be interested in what they are learning. McCall, Janssen, and Riederer (2008) found through their research that “students find it interesting to learn about other cultures, and in discovering inequalities that children their own age have experienced in the past and may be experiencing today, they become passionate about their learning and what to help solve the problem” (p. 137). Many students feel that they can connect with someone their own age, even if that someone lived generations before them. When students are able to connect with the people they are learning about, their perception of that topic gets better because that can relate to that child in history and some of the problems that they faced.
Many students perceive social studies as a lot of writing and reading the textbook. As cited in Winstead (2011), studies conducted in the mid-nineties and in 2006 found that when social studies is taught in the classroom, teachers “utilize fact-recall as well as teacher-centered and textbook-centered approaches” (p. 222). Winstead’s (2011) findings were valid because the sample group was diverse (both in ethnicity and in teaching experience), and because Winstead included the survey questions used for this study.
The idea of working in groups in the classroom, rather than individually has been addressed in numerous studies. Johnson and Johnson (1999) found that when students work together cooperatively towards a common goal, not only do they get more work done, but they also turn in better work than they would if they were to work individually. Even though lecture style teaching can be very effective, Johnson (2006) found that “a classroom predominated by a teacher talking can stifle the capacity of students to be active learners” (p. 508). However, it must be noted that Johnson’s (2006) study had a very limited sample size as it only focused on African American students.
Even though social studies is one of the main classes that students take in middle and high school, many teachers at the elementary level do not feel that social studies is given enough attention. Many teachers are concerned about the low priority that social studies receives in elementary classrooms due to No Child Left Behind, and now with the passage of the Common Core Standards (McCall, Jansen & Riederer, 2008). In many elementary classrooms, a lot of emphasis is placed on English Language Arts and mathematics. Zhao and Hoge (2005) state that “most teachers attributed their students’ lack of interest in social studies to the subject not getting its fair share of effort in their schools and to the increased emphasis on reading and math” (p. 218).
Some elementary level teachers also feel that they are at a disadvantage because of their limited knowledge base in social studies, and limited professional development on how to effectively teach social studies. In one study, elementary level teachers “wrote about their limited access to professional development in social studies beyond textbook publishers’ overviews” (Winstead, 2011, p. 225). Winstead’s (2011) study had a very small sample size, as she only used nine teachers from the southern California region, so her findings may not be the same as other studies with a larger, more national sample size.
Change Needed in Social Studies Education
Duplass (2007) states that due to “the obvious technological changes and transformation of American society since [social studies’] adoption and with the advent of standards-based education, it is time for a new approach” (p. 137). This new approach, such as hands-on learning, is now also being affected by the creation and implementation of the new Common Core Standards. However, even with No Child Left Behind and the Common Core Standards, social studies can still be presented in a way that students find engaging, fun, informational, and in their preferred style or method of learning. Much research has been done on aspects of social studies education that need to be reformed to meet student and teacher needs. In 2007, Duplass wrote that “critical thinking should be at the heart of the new scope and sequence [of social studies education] by explicitly calling for teaching that is focused on big ideas” (p. 141); with the implementation of the Common Core Standards, social studies is finally taking a crucial step towards fostering critical thinking skills in students.
Since the Common Core Standards focus heavily on critical thinking, social studies teachers need to incorporate critical thinking into aspects of social studies that they might not necessarily associate with critical thinking. One such topic is geography and reading maps. Many students and even some teachers look at a map and never think about the layout, or why North America and Europe are at the center of the map (McCall, 2011). McCall (2011) states “social studies as a field has encouraged students to read critically various media, including printed texts and videos, by questioning their purpose, assumptions, values, and persuasive strategies” (p. 134). Even though critical thinking is an important aspect of social studies, for some reason, maps are not placed under a critical eye. If critical thinking were to be applied to maps, students would be able to explain biases of mapmakers, or lines of thought that went into creating a specific map.
Strand (2011) requires her students to build ancient civilizations “while engaging in discussions and debates on how best to solve problems ranging from identifying and protecting natural resources, to dividing the labor, mapping their parcel, or establishing a decision-making process for recovering from a natural disaster” (p. 13). Through this type of hands-on, interactive learning Strand’s students are not only learning about ancient civilizations and the problems they faced, but they are also learning mathematical concepts, cooperative problem solving, and critical thinking. If more topics covered in social studies were to be presented to students in this type of fashion, more students would become engaged in what they are learning.
The Effects Hands-on Learning Has on Student Achievement
Since many students view social studies as simply reading from the textbook, or doing homework, many students do not see the point of it. However, if social studies education were to shift from textbook-based learning to hands-on learning, students would begin to be academically benefitted from this shift.
The Common Core Standards focus on big ideas and critical thinking. Presenting social studies information to students in a hands-on manner would allow for students to explore a topic and the big ideas associated with that topic in a critical, thoughtful way. When students are taught social studies concepts in hands-on, interactive, and critical fashion, they would have the skills to examine the issues in the world around them (Duplass, 2007).
Hands-on, interactive learning will benefit students academically because it allows for the teacher to “provide for individual differences and [meet] the developmental level of pupils” (Ediger, 2011, p. 468). When students are learning subject matter in a way that is conducive not only to their preferred method of learning, but is also tailored to their developmental needs, they will be more apt to learn and remember the material.
McGrath Speaker (2001) discusses the academic benefits of using hands-on, interactive learning in her article. She states that “providing children with concrete learning activities, creating environments which enable children to learn through active exploration and interaction […] all enhance a child’s ability to learn” (McGrath Speaker, 2001, p. 611). While McGrath Speaker’ (2001) article is focusing on using interactive museum exhibits to foster student learning, her findings can easily be related to the social studies classroom. Hands-on learning appeals to all modalities of learning, whether a student learns better through tactile, visual, artistic, or any other of the numerous ways students learn. The experience of actually building a sarcophagus (Schroeder, 1995; Kirk, 2012), or using papyrus will help the students not only to learn about ancient Egypt, but it will help the students to connect the Egyptian way of living with the way we live today.
If you were to walk into a classroom where hands-on learning is taking place, you would most likely see students huddled in groups on the floor, or around desks; you would also hear chatter and discussions about what they are learning. While to an outsider this type of environment would seem chaotic, to teachers and students this environment would be perfect to learn about social studies. Many students learn and remember better when they are able to work in groups or with partners (Johnson, 2006). Johnson (2006) found that when African American students are able to work cooperatively with their classmates, the results are “more higher-level reasoning, [and] more frequent generation of new ideas and solutions” (p. 507).
Johnson (2006) also found that students can be interested in learning subject matter if that subject matter is presented in a way that is not only stimulating, but also allows for the students to work together with their classmates. Kakas (2010) found during her study that students are more motivated to learn when “more hands on [sic.] learning took place” (p. 81). Although, it should be noted that Kakas’ (2010) study had a very limited sample size, as it only included one sixth grade classroom in the mid-West region of the country.
The Effects Hands-on Learning Has on Student Enjoyment
Hands-on, interactive learning is not only beneficial to a student’s academic achievement, but also his or her enjoyment in class. Martin (1998) allowed her students to take part in an art enrichment program that aligned with their ancient Egypt unit in social studies. Through this enrichment program, Martin (1998) found that the students not only learned more about Egypt, but they also enjoyed working on their projects and even wished that they could have worked longer on them. Martin’s (1998) sample size was very limited since she only used this enrichment program with three classes, so more research would need to conducted to corroborate her findings.
Many students find that when art is incorporated into a topic, they not only have more retention about what they learned, but they also are excited to make their own renditions of period artwork. One such example is found in Liesa Schroeder’s (1999) article, in which she had her students break up into groups and create their own Egyptian tomb paintings. Schroeder (1999) noticed that her “students were eager to participate in a classroom art activity” (p. 26). In 1995, Schroeder also had her class create life-size, three dimensional mummies. However, in order to partake in this class activity, the students needed to do some extra-curricular research. Schroeder (1995) states, “with enthusiasm, students eagerly researched books about ancient tombs, burial chambers, and took a look at the sarcophagus of King Tutankhamen” (p. 24).
However, teachers must be careful that the fun, hands-on activity that students are completing is not only developmentally appropriate, but also has meaning to the subject matter being learned (Ediger, 2011). Through her research McGrath Speaker (2001) also found that “by involving the child a in concrete way with the act of learning itself, the children’s [hands-on activities] encourages the motivation to learn” (p. 613). When students are having fun in the classroom, they are more motivated to learn and to remember what they learned about in following weeks or months. When students are given opportunities to learn in hands-on, interactive ways they are more engaged with the subject matter (Wunder, 2002).
Hands-on Learning in the Social Studies Classroom
Whenever people hear the words ‘hands-on education’ or ‘interactive learning’ they automatically think about science, simple because science naturally lends itself to hands-on inquiry. However, social studies can and should be taught in a very interactive manner as well. As stated in Wunder (2002), “students need the evidence at hand to inquire into historical questions. That may and should involve artifacts, including primary and local documents, photographs, or art” (p. 159). Once teachers begin to see the benefits of using the hands-on, interactive approach, this method will begin to be utilized to a greater extent in classrooms than it is today.
As discussed above, ancient Egypt really lends itself to hands-on activities in the classroom, whether it is creating life-size mummies (Schroeder, 1995), tomb painting (Schroeder, 1999), enjoying some ancient Egyptian treats such as marshmallows (Kirk, 2012), or even creating museum exhibits (McGrath Speaker, 2001).
With the increase in technology in classrooms, there is also an increase in the activities that can be done with regards to social studies. Today many of the classrooms come equipped with multiple computers, which can be utilized by having the students complete WebQuests. A WebQuest is an inquiry-based activity completed by students one hundred percent online (webquest.org). These WebQuests would allow students to work independently, but still have that option of what order they would like to complete the components.
Since the new Common Core Standards have recently been implemented, there has not been much research done on its effect on social studies education in elementary schools. However, once the Common Core has been implemented for a length of time, researchers will conduct more research on its effects.
It appears that there is a paucity of research findings on the effectiveness of using music in social studies. Music is a big part of history and can help students to not only connect with the content they are learning, but to also become more interested in it. Educators would benefit greatly from research done about this topic.
There has been a plethora research conducted that shows the benefits of using interactive, hands-on learning activities in the classroom. These benefits can range anywhere from students being engaged in what they are learning and spending more time on activities, to students earning better grades and wanting to spend time outside of school learning more about a specific topic.
Social studies really lends itself to hands-on learning because there are so many different topics that can be covered with tactile learning (such as creating artifacts or examining real artifacts at museums), visual learning (such as looking at artwork from the time period being studied, creating tomb paintings or even creating papyrus), and auditory learning (such as listening to music from that time period or region being learned about).
This master’s project is focused on effectively teaching and learning about ancient Egypt in a hands-on, interactive fashion. However, there are many fun, engaging, and educational activities that can be used in classrooms across the country for any time period or region being studied. Although much of the research findings seem to be from the upper elementary level, it would appear that these findings may be applicable to other grade levels.
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Duplass, J.A. (2007). Elementary social studies: Trite, disjointed, and in need of reform?. The Social Studies, 98(4), 137-144.
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Johnson, L.M. (2006). Elementary school students’ learning preferences and the classroom learning environment: Implications for educational practice and policy. Journal of Negro Education 75(3), 506-518.
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