Social Education 57(6), 1993, pp. 287-291
1993 National Council for the Social Studies

Is Curriculum Integration a Boon or a Threat to Social Studies?

Janet Alleman and Jere Brophy
Curriculum integration is one of those ideas that is obviously good. Articles and in-service speakers extol its potential for enhancing the meaning of what is taught, saving teachers time by reducing the need to make as many preparations, reducing the need to rush to try to get everything covered, and making it possible to teach knowledge and skills simultaneously. For social studies and other content area subjects that suffered reduced time allocations as a result of the back-to-basics movement, integration is often pictured as a way to restore necessary content emphases. In general, integration is pictured as a viable response to problems of content balance and as a way to save time and make for natural, holistic learning.
These seemingly compelling arguments have predisposed most educators to view integration as a desirable curriculum feature. Indeed, the implicit maxim is "the more integration, the better." A few years ago, we shared this predisposition. Even now, we find it difficult to resist the notion of integration as a good idea in the abstract. In recent years, however, we have been carefully examining the best-selling elementary social studies series, looking not only at the student texts but at the questions, activities, and evaluation methods provided as ancillary materials or suggested in the accompanying teachers' manuals. We also have been observing classrooms and talking to teachers about integration practices. We have found some positive features of the integration activities suggested in textbook series or described by teachers; we have also found some undesirable ones. Too often, activities described as ways to integrate social studies with other subjects either lacked educational value in any subject or promoted progress toward significant goals in other subjects but not in social studies.

Rather than expanding the scope and enhancing the meaning and importance of the social education curriculum, these so-called integration activities disrupt its coherence. In effect, they amount to intrusion of language arts or other skills practice exercises into social studies time and, thus, are better described as invasion of social studies than integration with social studies.

Focusing on instructional activities, we will provide examples of what we consider inappropriate integration attempts drawn from curriculum materials, classroom observations, and teacher interviews. Then we will suggest guiding principles that can serve as criteria for distinguishing productive from counterproductive integration attempts, and we will present a checklist that can be used as a self-monitoring tool.

Forms of Integration
Worthwhile integration implies that a single activity accomplishes significant curricular goals in two or more subjects simultaneously. Integration comes in many forms. Sometimes the nature of the topic makes integration natural or even necessary. Some topics inherently cut across subjects (to teach about ecology, for example, one must draw content from both science and social studies). Other topics are primarily identified with one subject but require applications of another to be learned meaningfully (e.g., map and globe studies are part of geography and consumer education is part of economics, but both of these topics require applications of mathematical knowledge and skills). Problems with so-called integration activities usually do not occur with these more natural forms of integration, although we have seen map and globe skills exercises and consumer economics exercises that were more artificial mathematics skills practice than authentic social education activities.

Most of the problems occur with forms of integration that are not inherent in the topic and thus involve integration for integration's sake. Teachers can use these forms productively, however. For example, adding content drawn from a secondary subject can enrich the content in the primary subject (e.g., reading about and displaying the works of an artist as a means of enhancing the study of a historical period). And combining knowledge from a content-area subject such as social studies with processes from a skills subject such a language arts can be effective.

In the latter forms of integration, the focus of the instruction and the accountability pressures placed on students may be on the knowledge, the processes, or both. If students were asked to write to their political representatives about their legislative roles or policy positions, the assignment would be primarily a social education activity although it would include application of writing skills. In contrast, students might be asked to write about an imaginary visit to the White House as an exercise in descriptive writing. If the emphasis in structuring and grading were placed on the technical aspects of composition and form, the assignment would be mostly a language arts activity, not a social studies activity. Finally, students who were studying book reporting skills in language arts and the American Revolution in social studies might be asked to read and report on biographies of key Revolutionary figures. Such an assignment might promote progress toward important goals in both subjects, especially if the goals were made clear to the students and the reports were graded separately for technical features and for historical content.

Social studies series frequently seek to integrate subject matter by adding content drawn from other subjects (artistic or literary works or biographical inserts, for example) or by calling for use of language arts or other skills to manipulate social studies content. These so-called integration activities may or may not have educational value, depending on the nature of their primary goals. If an activity's primary goal is not an educationally significant one, the activity does not belong anywhere in the curriculum. If its primary goal is educationally significant but is not a social education goal, the activity may belong in the curriculum but should not be scheduled during social studies time. For an activity to be considered part of the social studies curriculum, its primary focus should be one of the social education goals that have been established for the social studies unit-a goal that would be pursued whether or not this particular activity were included.

Activities that Lack or Mask Social Education Goals
Unfortunately, many of the activities we have observed in social studies classes or discussed with teachers, as well as many of the activities suggested in or supplied with the manuals that accompany current social studies series, lack significant social education value. Some of these lack educational value in any subject and are just pointless busy work (alphabetizing the state capitals, for example, or counting the number of states included in each of several geographical regions). Others may have value as language arts activities but do not belong in the social studies curriculum, for example, exercises that make use of social studies content but focus on pluralizing singular nouns, finding the main idea in a paragraph, matching synonyms, or using the dictionary. Other activities are potentially useful as vehicles for pursuing significant social education goals but are structured with so much emphasis on language arts that the social education purpose is unclear.

For example, a 4th grade manual we reviewed suggests assigning students to write research papers on coal. Instructions emphasize teaching the mechanics of investigating the topic and writing the paper. The manual makes little mention of social education goals or major social studies understanding. It does not note that humans have unlimited wants and limited resources; nor does it discuss issues such as conservation of natural resources or the development of energy alternatives. With the task narrowly conceived and the focus on research and report writing, it is unlikely that the resulting individual reports would yield enough variety to allow students to benefit from one another's work. Consequently, the social education value of this assignment will be minimal and its cost-effectiveness will be diluted further because of the considerable time required to obtain and read content sources for content's sake, copy or paraphrase data, and make presentations to the class.

We observed similar masking of social education goals in a unit on families in which teachers ask students to recreate their families by portraying each member using a paper plate decorated with construction paper, crayons, and yarn. The plates were to be used to introduce family members to the class and then combined to create mobiles. This is another time-consuming activity, and the teacher structured it to emphasize the artistic dimensions rather than the social education dimensions. If it really served significant social education purposes to have students introduce their families to classmates (and we doubt that it does), they could do so more effectively through photographs than through paper-plate representations. We would prefer that the class spend the time learning about the nature of and reasons for variations in family configurations and roles in various cultures during various historical periods.

We observed a comparable example in a 4th grade unit on tropical regions in which students were asked to construct examples of homes in tropical parts of the world. Again, such an activity would take a great deal of time, especially if authentic building materials were used and the instructions emphasized artistic construction activities rather than social education concepts and principles. To address effectively social education content such as the influence of climate and local physical geography on living conditions, the teacher would do better to lead discussion of a collection of pictures selected to illustrate variations in shelters and ways that local conditions affect them rather than having students construct models.

Cost-Effectiveness Problems
Time-consuming art and construction projects are often labeled ways to extend or integrate social learning, but they often fail to focus on significant social understandings. Some of these projects develop (or at least allow) opportunities to use social studies knowledge or skills (for example, constructing models or maps of the home or school), but others simply lack social education value (for example, carving pumpkins to look like U.S. presidents).

Besides artistic construction, role-play is another frequent basis for activities that are either inherently limited in social education value or too time consuming to be cost-effective. For example, one unit on families we came across called for students to dress in costumes, play musical instruments, and participate in a parade as a means of illustrating how families celebrate. On the following day, they were to write about the event. This series of activities offers tie-ins with humanities and physical education and provides a stimulus for language arts work, but it lacks significant social education content. The emphasis will likely be on the doing rather than the knowing and understanding. Using pictures with structured discourse would provide a more cost-effective and focused learning experience.

Another activity, suggested as a follow-up to a lesson on jobs in the family, calls for the teacher to divide the class into groups of four and assign roles of mother, father, brother, and sister. Each age group acts out the following situations: a child wants to learn to ride a bicycle, a child wants to make a Halloween costume, or the children in the family want to do something special for a parent's birthday. Again, these activities appear to lack social education value, and no information is directed toward the teacher about structuring the activities beforehand or about leading debriefing discussions afterward to focus students' attention on important social education ideas.

Cost-effectiveness problems are also presented by collage and scrapbook activities that call for cutting and pasting many pictures, but not for thinking or writing about ideas linked to major social education goals. Instructions for such activities are often offered in ways that focus students on the processes involved in carrying out the activities rather than on the ideas that the activities should develop, and teachers often evaluate the final products on the basis of criteria such as artistic appeal. As a result, students may spend a great deal of time on such hands-on activities, yet fail to accomplish significant social education goals.

If activities are worthwhile at all, it is because they fulfill important curricular, and in this case social studies, purposes-not because they cut across subject-matter lines. We believe that the time teachers spend on activities that cut across subject-matter lines should be assessed against the time quotas allocated for those subjects in ways that reflect the cost-effectiveness of the activities as means of accomplishing each subject's major goals. Teachers should not divert classroom time allocated for social studies to activities that lack significant social education value. Thus, a teacher might justify a project for which students make puppets to depict U.S. presidents if the activity is planned primarily as an art project and assessed against art time. We do not believe, however, that this activity can be justified as a social education activity unless the students also spend time investigating and synthesizing biographical data. Even then, the teacher should ask "Does the constructing take precedence over the understanding?" and "Is this activity the best choice given the limited time allocated for social studies instruction?" Cognitive and affective engagement need not, and in some cases should not, be hands-on.

Content Distortion
Attempts at integration sometimes distort the ways teachers represent or develop social studies content. For example, a unit on clothing included a lesson on uniforms that called for a follow-up activity in which students would make puppets of people dressed in uniforms. The teacher set up situations in which two puppets meet and tell each other about the uniforms they are wearing. This activity was problematic because it was time consuming, because it emphasized art activities over social education content, and because it called for knowledge that was not developed in the lesson (which provided only brief information about the uniforms worn by fire fighters and astronauts). Most fundamentally, however, it was problematic because it resulted in a great deal of social studies time being spent on uniforms, a topic which at best deserves only passing mention in a good unit on clothing as a basic human need.

We also observed content distortion in a unit on pioneer life that included a sequencing skills exercise built around an illustration of the five-step process of building log cabins. The last three steps in the described sequence were arbitrarily imposed rather than logically necessary and did not correspond to the illustration. It appeared that the authors wanted to include an exercise in sequential ordering somewhere in the curriculum and chose this lesson as the place to include it, rather than seeing this exercise as important for developing key knowledge about pioneer life.

Developers often insert unnecessary counting and sequencing activities into social studies materials as a way to incorporate mathematics skills. Another lesson example called for students to read statements about various constitutional amendments and to identify the amendments by number. This already dubious assignment was complicated further by directions calling for the amendment numbers to be placed in the proper squares of a three-by-three-inch matrix which, if filled out correctly, would yield the same "magic number" as the sum for each row and column. As if this were not convoluted enough, the instructions called for the students to "put the number of the amendment in the box with the same letter as the sentence that describes it." This illustrates what can happen when integration is sought as an end in itself by materials developers or teachers who are focused on covering topics and skills rather than on accomplishing social education goals.

Difficult or Impossible Tasks
Ill-conceived integration attempts sometimes require students to attempt to do things that are difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish. A 5th grade lesson on the English colonies called for students to demonstrate their understanding of the joint stock company by diagramming its structure to show relationships and flow among the company, stocks, stockholders, and profits. Besides being a distraction from the main ideas in the unit, this activity seems inappropriate because the operations of a joint stick company, although relatively easy to explain verbally, are difficult to depict unambiguously in a diagram. Again, it appeared that this instructional activity existed because the curriculum developers felt the need to include a "making-a-diagram" exercise somewhere, and not because they saw it as a natural and appropriate way to develop understanding of key content.

Another activity, questionable for similar reasons, called for students to construct battle maps illustrating strategy and key events in a Revolutionary War battle. Another called for students to use pantomime to communicate one of the six reasons for the Constitution as stated in the Preamble. Even if one believes that exercises in pantomime belong in the social education curriculum (we do not), this is about as farfetched and inappropriate an application of pantomime as we can imagine. Finally, a lesson on feelings included an assignment calling for students to draw happy, sad, and hungry faces. In the absence of familiar and commonly shared cultural expectations concerning the facial manifestations of hunger, how are students supposed to go about the task of depicting a hungry face?

Activities should develop the key ideas in a unit and be difficult enough to be challenging and to extend learning, but not so difficult as to leave students confused or frustrated. Too often, activity suggestions call for students to display or use knowledge they have not been taught in the curriculum and they are not likely to have acquired elsewhere (e.g., having 1st graders role-play scenes from Mexico when all they have learned about Mexico is its location on a map, or having 4th graders debate state-level budgetary cuts when the only background information they have been exposed to is a single textbook page describing the roles of legislators).

Feasibility Problems
Activities also must be feasible for implementation within the constraints under which the teacher must work. Certain activities are not feasible because they are too expensive, require space or equipment that is unavailable, involve unacceptably noisy construction work, or pose risks to the physical safety or emotional security of the students. For example, a suggested follow-up to a lesson on following directions called for the teacher to post the four cardinal directions in their proper locations around the classroom, then to have the students line up and march around the room to music as the teacher called out directions ("March north. March east.") This attempted integration of social studies with physical education would not have much social education value even if it were conducted in the gym, but at least it could be implemented there. To undertake this activity in a classroom crowded with desks and other furniture is to invite chaos and injury.

Failure to be realistic about constraints led to rejection of an integration activity proposed by a teacher we know. She planned to take her class to see a small exhibition of art by Monet to illustrate how his work was influenced by the geographical features of France. This activity involved a two-hundred-mile round-trip, so the plan was rejected. A more viable alternative would be to acquire prints of the artist's work and bring them to class for observation and discussion.

Accomplishing Integration while Maintaining the Coherence and Thrust of Social Studies
Teachers cannot depend on the manuals accompanying contemporary social studies series to focus their efforts on activities that call for appropriate use of integration. In the name of integration, these manuals suggest a great many art projects, isolated skills exercises, and other activities that have minimal social education value and little or no connection to the main ideas developed in the units. The most recently published series have downplayed the insertion of isolated basic skills exercises into social studies units, but they have begun to emphasize new features such as literary selections and cooperative learning activities. Sometimes these new features are selected and used in ways that are well suited to development of unit topics, but sometimes they are not. Some of the activities that are based on the inserted literary selections are essentially language arts activities with little or no social education value, and some of the suggested cooperative learning activities involve artificially forcing the cooperative format into learning situations to which it is not well suited. Although its particular manifestations evolve, the problems of so-called integration activities that diminish the coherence and thrust of the social education curriculum persists.

The following guiding principles will help you determine if an individual instructional activity is appropriate for an integrated learning experience in social studies.

These notions about assessing activities that integrate across subjects for their educational value in general, and their social education value in particular, involve applications of a larger set of principles that we have developed for assessing, selecting, and designing learning activities that enable school subjects to be taught for understanding, appreciation, and application (Brophy and Alleman 1991). The most basic of the principles is goal relevance: each activity should have at least one primary goal that, if achieved, will represent progress toward one of the major social education goals that underlie and justify the social studies curriculum. This principle applies just as much to activities that integrate across subjects as to activities that focus exclusively on social education. Teachers who value social education and want to enact a coherent social studies curriculum will need to bear this in mind and make sure that the thrust of that curriculum is not blunted by significant time spent in activities with only marginal social education value.

In view of the kinds of problems noted here, we believe that it is important for teachers to stop thinking about curricular integration as necessarily a good thing and begin to think about it as something that is feasible and desirable in some situations but not in others.

Teachers will have to learn to assess activities not just for whether their students are likely to enjoy the activities and will be able to complete them successfully, but also for whether the activities offer sufficient educational value to merit inclusion in the curriculum. We offer a set of principles and guidelines for making such decisions in Brophy and Alleman (1991). For judging activities that purport to integrate across subjects, we suggest that social studies teachers also consider the following questions:

Brophy, Jere, and Janet Alleman. "Activities as Instructional Tools: A Framework for Analysis and Evaluation." Educational Researcher 20, no. 4 (May 1991): 9-23.Janet Alleman is Professor of Teacher Education at Michigan State University in East Lansing and a senior researcher with the Classroom Strategy Research Project. Jere Brophy, University Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University, is coordinator of the Classroom Strategy Research project and codirector of the Institute for Research and Teaching.