Using Social Studies as the Catalyst for Curriculum Integration:The Experience of a Secondary School

Richard Diem

As the end of the twentieth century approaches, American secondary schools are beset with a variety of environmental, socioeconomic, and literacy challenges. High schools throughout this country are being called on to devise new ways of preparing students both academically and vocationally for a technologically oriented society, while continuing, at the same time, to develop values inherent in maintaining a democracy. Many secondary schools are turning toward alternative teaching/ learning paradigms as possible solutions to the problems they face. One of these approaches is the integrated interdisciplinary curricular model.
The findings reported in this paper outline the effects of an interdisciplinary curriculum integration project that used social studies as its focal point within a high school environment. The project described is part of an effort by a local school district with a student population of nearly twelve thousand to implement strategies on individual secondary campuses that will increase student literacy levels and parental involvement in school activities while decreasing dropout rates.

There are various forms of integrated/interdisciplinary instruction. They range from parallel teaching, which leaves the disciplines intact but realigns the content of lessons so that related topics are taught concurrently, to an approach that blends the disciplines entirely into thematic or problem-based pursuits (Willis 1992). Schneider (1993), Doepner and Hooley (1990), and Kaltsounis (1990), among others, have reported on various models of curriculum integration that incorporate the social studies in such efforts. The project described here is slightly different from others noted in the literature, for it used social studies content as well as the development of social studies skills as the centerpiece of all curricular integration efforts.

The initiation of this program represented an effort by the school district to develop a local programmatic solution to a series of academic and sociocultural problems that impinged on its efforts to educate the student population. Before the project was started, this school district's curricular approach included a form of tracking, or class assignment, based on ability. One result was that only a small segment of the student population, less than 2 percent, was placed in honors or advanced classes, while a disproportionate number of students, more than 51 percent, were enrolled in basic or remedial classes. The existing system was characterized by unsatisfactory student academic and behavioral performance, parental support, and educational efficacy.

The new project was an attempt to move toward heterogeneous groupings that would provide a sense of equity in both instruction and motivation. It ran parallel to the National Council for the Social Studies (1992) position statement on ability grouping in social studies that supported heterogeneous grouping in social studies classes as best for all students.1

This study seeks to outline the effects of the project during its first year. In particular, the study examines the changes brought by the project to the classroom environment, and the responses of teachers and students to these changes. It also assesses the impact of these changes on the academic commitment and performance and school behavior of students.

The Field Site-Participants and Demographics
The field site for the project is a comprehensive high school in a lower middle class neighborhood in a large city in the southwestern United States. The school's student population is approximately 1,800. Ethnically, the school is approximately 96 percent Hispanic, 2 percent African American, 1 percent Anglo, and 1 percent other. These demographics are not reflective of the surrounding metropolitan community, whose population is 58 percent Hispanic, 35 percent Anglo, 6 percent African American, and 1 percent other.
The school's reported dropout rate is less than 4 percent. However, the number of entering freshmen who are "lost" and do not complete high school, as tracked over the past four graduating classes, is close to 46 percent.

Participants in the study included sixteen classroom teachers-eight in the experimental group who taught in the integrated curriculum classrooms and eight in the control group who instructed in traditional learning environments; 380 students who were initially divided equally between the experimental and control groups; school administrators; and other school employees who engaged in project activities.

Data-Gathering Techniques
The data-gathering techniques used in this study included both qualitative and quantitative methods. Among the qualitative methods were direct and indirect observation through both participant and non-participant modes; formal and informal interviews using open-ended questions; and the review of documents, such as school records, teacher and student products, curriculum materials, and other relevant data. The combination of these methods enabled a holistic view of life in the different classrooms (Marker and Mehlinger 1992).
In addition to the ethnographic data, the quantitative information that was collected included scores on standardized tests, records of achievement in individual classes, and pre- and post-tests in content and skill areas involved in the integrated curriculum and control group classes. Parallel data collection for both the experimental and control groups was part of the research protocol.

The Research Cycle
The research cycle began before the onset of the academic year. During this initial time period, student and teacher records were reviewed, administrators interviewed, and baseline demographic data collected. Observations, interview schedules, and study questions were also developed. Data collection commenced during the first week of September and continued through the school year.
The student participants enrolled in the integrated classrooms ranged from 14 through 19 years of age, were in grade 9, and had been selected through random number choice via the school course software for participation in the project. After a student was chosen, a parental approval form was sent to each student's home address with a request for its return. There were no objections from any of these parents to their child's participation in the project. A matched set of students was also selected as a control group in a similar manner. The size of both groups was almost identical when the study began (190 in each group). When the study was concluded, 164 remained in the experimental group and 133 in the control group.

Teachers were then invited to participate in the teaching of the integrated classes. A set of instructors who taught ninth grade social studies, English, mathematics, and reading were asked if they wished to join in the development of an interdisciplinary integrated curriculum project whose major goals were to improve student academic and social skills. They were told that randomly selected pupils would make up their class rosters for the academic year. After agreeing, the designated teachers were told that they would participate in a two-week long integrated curriculum training session prior to the start of the school year. During this time, they selected social studies as their curricular focal point.

The emphasis on social studies as the focal point was justified by several considerations, including the facts that all freshmen in the school have a social studies requirement (a course in U.S. History), and that the social studies academic skills incorporated in the U.S. History classes, as noted in state curriculum guidelines, overlap the skills required in all of the other curricular areas. These skill requirements focus on the student's opportunity to locate and gather information, observe for detail, translate information from one medium to another, organize and express ideas in written form, distinguish fact from opinion, analyze information, draw conclusions, synthesize information, develop criteria for making judgments, use problem-solving skills, sequence data and information, draw inferences, and perceive cause-effect relationships. In addition, it was noted that the literature on curriculum theory treats the social studies as a field of instruction that goes beyond mere content memorization and skills practice and encourages conceptual understanding, appreciation, and life application (Brophy 1990; Newman 1990; Resnick and Klopfer 1989).

The eight teachers involved in the project were next divided into two teams comprising each of the four curricular areas. Each team had parallel schedules, including conference periods, a team leader responsible for administrative duties, and a budget for various activities. During the summer training period, each team also began to develop integrated interdisciplinary units. Throughout the school year, each team met during its conference period to discuss administrative, student-related, and curricular problems.

The units encompassed by these lessons included ones on the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, Immigration, the Great Depression, the Holocaust, and the Vietnam War. As indicated earlier, the integrated classroom lessons emphasized the understanding and solving of problems, critical thinking skills, and the use of the inquiry method. Activities included learning how to solve problems, developing a series of skills that taught the component variables of problem solving, and applying basic content knowledge structures in a variety of problem settings.

Eight other teachers were asked to participate as a voluntary control group selected in a manner parallel to the experimental group teaching the integrated lessons. They were asked not to change their instructional patterns or schedules of previous years. The teachers allowed the researcher to observe their classes and collect data from their students in the same way as was done with the experimental group.

Data Analysis
The data analyzed by the study were both qualitative and quantitative. The method of analysis used was based on the "key incident" approach (Erickson 1977). In this process, the observer tracks events that seem to shape interactions, records repetitive instances, and looks at the totality of outcomes. At the close of the school year, all of the observational data that had been obtained throughout the study year were examined in terms of times of occurrence and cause/effect relationships.
Analysis of quantitative data included a comparison of the test scores of students in the experimental and control groups, attitudinal surveys of the reactions of both teachers and students to the project, comparisons of attendance and behavioral records, and an evaluation of the number and types of parental interactions with teachers and other school personnel.2 The quantitative and qualitative data were then compared and contrasted.3

For purposes of analysis, the data were grouped into three different categories: the sociocultural effects of the project, measures of literacy and academic performance, and the effects of the project on the types of lessons and methods used by teachers.
The first category, which encompassed the sociocultural effects of the project, focused on student and teacher attitudes toward school, attendance, behavior problems, and parental interactions. In each of these fields, the integrated experimental group performed significantly better than did the non-integrated control group. For example, attendance for students in the teaming classes was between 94 and 96 percent on a daily basis, versus 85 to 91 percent for students in non-teaming classes. This was statistically significant at the .05 level.4

Behavior problems, as recorded through counseling and administrative referral slips and teacher self-reports, were also lower in the teamed classes. In this instance, the total number of reported behavioral incidents was 25 percent lower for the study year in the teaming classes than in the non-teaming classes. This result was also statistically significant at the .05 level.

In explaining the positive results of the teaming classes, teachers compared the friendly relations that developed in the classes to those of a family. They believed that students found teachers concerned not only with their academic performance but also with their intellectual and behavioral development. According to the teachers, students felt that attention was given to them as individuals. Students responded well to this situation, and discussed school issues and activities beyond the boundaries of their classroom.

For their part, students indicated that they liked the teaming classes because they felt they were part of a "recognized" group. This was important in view of the heavy gang influence in their community. Being part of a team gave many of the youngsters a positive alternative when selecting a peer group with which to identify. They especially enjoyed the fact that special events were planned for them, such as field trips.

Positive parental interactions (e.g., calls to the teachers complimenting them on their efforts) were higher with the experimental group, averaging nearly two per month. Negative parental interactions, such as conversations and meetings with parents that focused on disruptive behavior and lack of academic effort, were higher among the control group teachers, averaging two per week as compared to one every two weeks with the experimental group. Here the difference was also statistically significant at the .05 level.

The teachers were especially impressed with the level of parental involvement that was achieved once the parents knew that more than one teacher was involved in the care and well-being of their child. They noted, time and again, that parents seemed to respond better when they met a group of teachers instead of having individual conferences. Teacher-parent conferences for the teaming classes evolved from confrontational experiences at the beginning of the school year into problem-solving exercises where remedies for student intellectual and behavioral problems were seen to be part of team efforts aimed at seeking academic and social change. The groundwork for these successful conferences was laid early in the semester when the teams held a parent-student-teacher orientation during which teachers were introduced, an overview of the project was presented, and classroom rules and expectations were discussed.

The second category of results from the survey included measures of literacy and academic performance. Those in the experimental group had higher grades, with yearly grade averages nearly four points higher, as measured by classroom test scores, on a scale of 100. This was statistically significant at the .05 level. In addition, the students proved to be more active learners and participated more energetically in class discussions, group work, and outside activities than did their peers in the control group.

In using the single conceptual framework of social studies to teach a variety of skills, teachers presented students with one intellectual schema. These students seemed to respond better to the consistent and recurring structure of this approach than to the variety of different approaches practiced in most secondary schools.

Students also began to see the relationship between one subject and another, as teachers planned units that required students to work across the disciplines. An example of this cross-disciplinary teaching was a unit on the Holocaust. Basic content information was provided through social studies and reading classes and assignments. In English classes, research papers were completed on the Holocaust, while a major emphasis of instruction in math classes was the graphic and statistical interpretation of data on the Holocaust. Students were expected to display both knowledge and analytical skill in their written presentations. This approach was typical of all the integrated units.

The third category dealt with the effects of the types of lessons and methods used in the project. Through the course of the academic year, the teaming teachers evolved into a group willing and eager to try a variety of instructional strategies in implementing the curricular model and social studies concepts they selected. They saw themselves as creating a new alternative to the traditional secondary curriculum they had previously used. Interestingly, the control teachers remained very much a "traditionaquot; group, despite the observed success of the teachers involved in the experimental project.

The use of a variety of teaching devices allowing students to move from teacher-centered to student-centered classrooms was instrumental in providing pupils with different ways to succeed. Both students and teachers benefited intellectually from this approach, and the pupils seemed to respond positively in their classroom behavior.

Teachers in the experimental group quickly became aware that the more interactive their classes were, the fewer were the social problems. The students seemed to respond better to group, collaborative, and performance learning and evaluation than students do to the more traditional formats used in most secondary schools. This may be attributed to learning style, teacher presentation, or enthusiasm for these new ways of doing things.

An illustration of the type of lesson that was used was an oral history project that was part of an immigration unit. In this learning sequence, students went outside the classroom to gather data from their parents and community members on a series of questions focusing on immigration to the United States in the late twentieth century. They then brought this information back to the classroom to discuss it, and presented their findings as a group report. As with other units, all parts of the curriculum were represented. Evaluation of this project was based, like other group efforts, on a portfolio that each teacher reviewed by content and skill area.

The project offered both students and teachers a framework in which concept and skills acquisition became more important than simple factual intake and recall. At the beginning of the project, the teaming teachers did not fully recognize the powerful learning and social tools available to them through integrative teaching, even though they were looking for an alternative to a curriculum that had failed both them and their students. As their instructional style and use of an integrated curricular approach evolved throughout the project, they felt that their pedagogical and behavioral interactions with students changed for the better.
The use of an integrated interdisciplinary approach is not a panacea for all of the problems this school and its community face. It did not stop students from becoming involved with alternative social behaviors such as gangs and drugs. It did not prevent those with poor academic skills from failing, and it did not make parents who were disengaged from their children active school boosters. It did, however, provide a successful alternative to the lockstep secondary curriculum that the experimental teachers had been burdened with since the onset of their teaching careers.

Even more important to the teachers was the recognition that they could have an impact on their students' affective domain. Many of these teachers noted that they could feel for the first time in a long time that they were making a difference in their students' lives, both inside and outside the classroom, through ongoing interactions with students and parents. Although all of the experimental teachers had worked in the school community for at least five years, this project provided the first venue for four of the eight teachers to engage in extended parental conferences that included school counselors and community social workers. This window into student life beyond school allowed these teachers to gain a better insight into the sociocultural realities of their pupils' lives.

The use of social studies skills and concepts as a unifying influence in this project proved to be highly successful. Although many of these had been part of all of the previous classroom exercises of these instructors, their constant inclusion and reinforcement in a variety of disciplines was a major force in student understanding of the relationship of the different parts of the curriculum to the whole of their educational experiences.

Whether or not this type of curriculum reform approach will work over an extended period of time has yet to be determined. Within this school district, however, all parties agreed that it had shown enough potential to be continued for a follow-up year in which the number of integrated interdisciplinary teams would be doubled. Continued follow-up and evaluation will be necessary to determine the long-term effects of these efforts.

1 In moving forward with this experimental effort, all financial and administrative support for the project was garnered from local sources. Although state curriculum, testing, and evaluation guidelines were followed, participants were encouraged to think beyond these mandates in pursuing programmatic goals.

2 One-tailed t-tests were used to determine if there were statistically significant differences. This was an appropriate measure as the researcher was studying randomly selected subjects in two groups that were measured on their performance on separate occasions (Cates 1985).

3 The purpose of this exercise was to triangulate the data while addressing differential forms of evidence that supported or confirmed initial observational impressions (Glaser and Strauss 1975; Goetz and LeCompte 1981).

4 A one-tailed t-test was used. The criterion for statistical significance in the results is p.05.

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Editor's Note
*The NCSS position statement "Ability Grouping in Social Studies" is available on NCSS Online at

Richard A. Diem is Professor of Education at the University of Texas at San Antonio and Vice President of National Council for the Social Studies.