Janet Alleman and Jere Brophy
Strategic out-of-school learning opportunities (home assignments) can enrich social studies learning by providing for life applications of what is taught in school. These activities involve family members as well as other adult community members in meaningful and non-threatening ways, take advantage of students' diversity, and provide learning opportunities that are engaging and keep the curriculum up to date. Our conception of home assignments extends beyond traditional homework to activities that stimulate students to think and collect information about how social studies concepts apply to their community and family, as well as to examine firsthand how things work. Out-of-school learning can be engaging for K-3 students and enhance the meaningfulness and personal relevance of social studies instruction, and families can become active participants in their children's social studies learning.1
We draw examples from two field tests of second-grade units on cultural universals--basic human needs and social experiences found in all societies, past and present. We believe that if topics such as shelter and clothing are taught with appropriate focus on powerful ideas, students should develop a basic set of connected understandings about how social systems work, how and why they got that way over time, how and why they vary across locations and cultures, and what all of this might mean for personal, social, and civic decision making.
Home Assignments as Components of Curricular Units
In constructing curricular units, we have emphasized four principles for selecting and developing content. First, using contemporary and familiar examples, the unit should help students to understand how and why the social system functions as it does with respect to the cultural universal being studied. Our unit on shelter, for example, begins with the forms of shelter commonly found in the contemporary United States, especially in the students' own neighborhoods.
Second, each unit includes a historical dimension illustrating how human responses to the cultural universal have evolved through time due to inventions and other cultural advances. For example, shelters have evolved from caves and simple huts to sturdier and more permanent homes such as log cabins to modern, weather-proofed homes that feature running water, heat, light, and insulation.
Third, each unit includes a geographical/cultural dimension that exposes students to current variations in human responses to the cultural universal. Different forms of shelter exist in different geographical locations because of differences in climate and local availability of construction materials as well as cultural differences. Students learn that even today some people need portable shelters in order to accommodate their lifestyle (for example, nomads in the Sahara Desert).
Fourth, each topic is covered with an emphasis on its application to students' current and future lives. This is accomplished through critical thinking and decision-making activities designed to raise students' consciousness of the fact that they will be making choices (both as individuals and as citizens) relating to the cultural universal under consideration. The emphasis is not on inculcating preferences for particular choices, but instead on building knowledge about the trade-offs associated with the major choice options. Concerning shelter, for example, unit plans call for discussion of the trade-offs offered by different housing types and locations (urban, suburban, rural) and the problem of homelessness and what might be done about it.
Application to students' current and future lives is also emphasized through the home assignments. These assignments are developed using the principles for planning and implementing social studies learning activities that the authors have presented in previous publications.2
Out-of-school learning opportunities provide a natural mechanism for situated learning and the social construction of knowledge. They also provide for intergenerational discourse by allowing students to share and discuss with their families what they are learning in school, and challenge the students to apply this learning in real-world settings. The idea is to use these opportunities to provide a forum for application, not to get families to "teach" what was not accomplished in school. The assignments encourage students to talk with their families about what they are learning, take more responsibility for and truly "make sense of" their learning, and appreciate that learning is continuous and lifelong. The teachers model how to respond to the assignment, making sure that students understand the directions and how the information to be collected will be used during subsequent class sessions. The teachers also do each of the assignments themselves, generating information from their own home environment and incorporating this into the classroom discussions. This modeling of teacher as learner is motivating for students and supports teachers' efforts to establish their classrooms as learning communities. Student reactions suggest that such modeling helps them to realize that all of us can learn from our environments and link what is learned in school to out-of-school settings.
Purposes and Functions of Home Assignments
Coupling these principles, assumptions, and data with our ideas about some of the advantages of using a student's total learning environment as an information source, a learning laboratory, a forum for expanded meaningfulness, and a means of extending social studies to the home and community in authentic ways, we have identified several purposes or functions of out-of-school learning opportunities.
Provide for Expanded Meaningfulness and Life Application of School Learning
Home assignments offer daily opportunities to use what is learned in school in out-of-school settings. For example, home assignments called for students to compare homes of the distant past, the recent past, and today. They were asked to identify ways that their houses differed from the houses of earlier time periods, seek help from parents in writing their responses, and bring to school a list of differences accompanied by a paragraph that expressed which type of home they would most like to live in and why (e.g., cave or stone hut, log cabin, or modern frame house). Students were divided on these home preferences. About half favored the modern home because of the conveniences, but most of the others preferred the log cabin due to the adventure and curiosity associated with it. Two preferred caves due to simplicity and mystery.
Extend Social Studies Education to the Home by Involving Adults in Interesting and Responsible Ways
One of the goals of the shelter unit was for students to understand and appreciate the range of homes that have been created over time, the changes they have undergone, and the reasons for these changes. Students took home copies of a chart comparing the distant past, the recent past, and today, and were asked to identify differences between modern homes and those in earlier time periods. Older family members were asked to help the students write responses in the appropriate spaces on the chart. Another goal of the shelter unit was for students to understand and appreciate how technology, inventions, and discoveries have enabled people today to live in a controlled environment and to begin to grasp how these conveniences "work."
As a home assignment, parents were asked to assist their child in touring their home looking for ways that the family had taken advantage of modern conveniences such as heating, cooling, water, and lighting. They also were encouraged to show their children how utilities were made available to the home and routed and controlled through pipes, faucets, thermostats, fuses, circuit breakers, switches, etc. The drawings, photos, and explanations that this assignment yielded indicated enthusiasm and new-found knowledge. For example, one student shared his drawing and explanation of the furnace and said "Ours is always broken. I sat down with the furnace guy on his last call to our house and said, ëNow tell me how this thing is supposed to work!'"
Take Advantage of the Students' Diversity by Using It as a Learning Resource
Too often, differences among students are viewed as problems. However, these differences can be used as opportunities for students to begin with what they know best and to link their knowledge to the experiences of others. For example, one of the goals of the shelter unit was to develop an appreciation for the opportunities that people may have to exercise choice in meeting their shelter needs and wants. Students were encouraged to discuss with their families the choices they made regarding where to live and why.
This activity stimulated lots of in-/out-of-class discourse, and on follow-up surveys, family members indicated that the exercise got their children to think more broadly about why they live where they do, as well as where they would like to live and why. Students began to point out the trade-offs associated with renting versus buying. Parents also indicated that they had never before thought of explaining their choices to their children. One parent said, "The assignment gave me a forum for giving reasons for my actions. In fact, I could remove what I'd formerly called guilt."
Exploit Learning Opportunities That Are Not Cost Effective at School
One goal of both our shelter and our clothing units was to help students acquire a sensitivity for social issues that are embedded in the topics (such as homelessness), and a desire to practice citizenship as it relates to assisting others in need. Children's literature was used in the classroom to promote windows of opportunity for discourse on these topics. As out-of-school activities, families were encouraged to participate in community projects that helped others. Several families reported that their second graders reminded them of their social responsibilities and, as a result, they were collecting food and articles of clothing to be donated to local community agencies.
Personalize the Curriculum and Reflect on the Here and Now
The home assignments enhanced students' awareness and understanding of the contexts of their daily lives and the lives of their families. For example, one of the goals of the shelter unit was for students to understand and appreciate the need to pay for shelter and for modern conveniences such as purified water, energy/electricity, and fuel delivered to our homes. Students wrote paragraphs (at school) explaining why buying a house takes so much money, then shared their responses with their parents. Parents were asked to discuss the responses and to feel free to provide more specific information to be added to their child's journal entry. The returned responses reflected time, effort, and high interest. Several students voiced the need to begin being thrifty in their expenditures. One parent reported, "Suddenly, wants (as opposed to needs) took on a new perspective!"
Teacher and Parent Involvement
Daily class observations indicated that both the teachers and the students were active participants in the home assignments. Early in the first unit, one student exclaimed, "You are doing the homework, too!" The teacher explained that she also was learning about her community. From that moment, the norm was established that everybody had the opportunity to learn out of school--and home assignments were one way to do so.
Home assignments were given on most days. The parents had been alerted about this before the units began through letters from the teachers. Later they were reminded in the weekly school newsletter, and on occasion given specific instructions on notes that accompanied the assignments. The teachers modeled responses to the home assignments to ensure that students understood the goals and directions for accomplishing the tasks, and the assignments were always due for the next social studies lesson. Throughout the observations, the return rate ranged from 80 to 100 percent. The expectation was that the home assignments were vital to learning because they added meaningfulness and new perspectives.
Parent Survey Data
At the conclusion of each unit, all of the parents were surveyed. They were asked, "What did you think of the assignments?" and "Did you notice anything worth noting regarding your child's involvement in the unit?" In-depth interviews were also conducted with several parents.
Parents indicated that they thought the assignments were thought- provoking, both for the children and for the adults. Several thought that the assignments exposed the students to things they don't normally learn about. Representative comments included the following:
"It made my son think--and realize things. For example, he thought his dream house would cost a dollar. He was amazed at how many dollars we thought it might be. He learned to distinguish between modern conveniences and basics (a dishwasher vs. floors). The assignment regarding how much it costs to buy a house was especially timely as we are trying to sell ours--at least exposing him to the costs was eye-opening for him, even if he couldn't grasp all the terms."
"My daughter was eager to complete the assignments, had a good understanding of what was expected, and grasped all of the new ideas and terms. She began to pay attention to things around her such as the bill paying process--what we have to pay for--and the huge amounts it takes to live in a house. She was equally impressed--and at times a bit overwhelmed--with all the variables that need to be considered when buying clothes."
"Our son talked about things we had no idea he knew anything about. In fact, he probably didn't know much about shelters until the unit."
"The assignments produced a lot of interesting discussions at our house. They were easy to complete and didn't take much time."
"We can't go anywhere now without our child spewing out something like, "Now there's a duplex made of brick--and there's an apartment. I bet many people live in that building. One day we were at K-Mart and out of the blue my son read a shirt label, and said "See, this is silk--and silkworms are needed to make shirts like that!"
"The assignments were thought-provoking. It's good for them to realize that mom and dad's job is the way we pay for shelter."
"In our discussions, we brought to light different reasons why someone might be homeless--as well as in need of clothing. My son exhibited insight and empathy plus an understanding of other lifestyles. He developed an appreciation for his blessings and has expressed an interest in donating time, money, and clothing to area shelters."
While these comments from parents were overwhelmingly positive, there were a few suggestions regarding future homework assignments. These included advance communication about completion dates and more specific directions about expected amounts of input. A few parents also voiced a desire for more rationale for the home assignment, to help guide them in expanding their discussions. Finally, for some parents, daily homework for second graders was a new thing that took "getting used to"--although it came to be appreciated.
Parent Interview Data
In addition to surveying parents at the conclusion of the shelter and clothing units, we interviewed parents of six students (stratified across achievement levels). Three themes emerged from their responses:
1. family impact (e.g., focused discussions, interest in family stories, information from other family members, family as a learning unit, and family esprit de corps)
2. personal efficacy (e.g., "This is what I plan to do when I grow up," "I can contribute to decisions," reconsidering needs and wants, and making recommendations to others)
3. constructing meaningful understandings (e.g., making connections between real life and book learning; applying what we learned in school to a television program; and honing in on the "how things work" aspects at home in order to really understand them)
Parents' interview comments revealed both their genuine interest in being a part of their children's learning and the sense of empowerment it gave them. Parents liked the fact that the assignments were family-specific, and welcomed a chance to personalize learning by drawing on their own experiences. Suggestions included specific resources they would recommend: a CD-ROM on designing clothing; SimCity 2000 (a CD-ROM for the shelter unit), e-mail activities connecting children to other rural or urban areas for the purpose of sharing their experiences; field trips (to building sites, fabric shops, etc.); names of resource people that could be invited into the class; and recommended activities connected to TV programs their children watch.
Experiences with second graders and their families suggest that out-of- school learning activities can indeed enhance interest in content, promote meaningfulness, and engender applicability of major social studies understandings. The in-school social studies lessons can be developed in-depth by using the diverse responses provided by the students from their personal environments. Diversity can be addressed in natural ways, cutting across all cultural and socioeconomic groups. Equally important are the benefits that result when students and their families are given opportunities to come together and collaborate about school-related learning.
Home assignments can provide stimuli for enjoyable and relationship-affirming learning opportunities--non-threatening because the knowledge is personal and the depth of discussion is based on individual readiness. Furthermore, home assignments can provide windows of opportunity for parental mentoring, for cementing parent-child relationships, and for giving children chances to see family members as decision makers coping with life challenges, rather than only as authority figures issuing pronouncements or orders.
Home assignments structured around powerful ideas taught in school can enhance self-efficacy with regard to personal, social, and civic decision making. Students come to realize that individuals make a host of decisions; that these decisions are based on knowledge, life experiences, economic conditions, cultural values, and personal preferences; and that attached to these choices are alternatives and consequences. While young children lack the maturity for major decision making, out-of-school learning opportunities targeted within their zones of proximal development can be meaningful, engaging, and raise their levels of concern and caring to new heights.
Finally, strategic learning opportunities during out-of-school hours are worth considering for the qualitative impact that they can have on the learning of social studies content--helping to focus it on clusters of big ideas and connect these ideas to life applications. For all these reasons, we plan to continue featuring such activities in our unit.
1. J. Alleman & J. Brophy, "Taking Advantage of Out-of-School Opportunities for Meaningful Social Studies Learning," The Social Studies 6 (1994): 262-267.
2. Brophy & Alleman, "Activities as Instructional Tools: A Framework for Instructional Analysis and Evaluation," Educational Researcher 20 (1991): 9-23; Brophy & Alleman, "Planning and Managing Learning Activities: Basic Principles," in J. Brophy, ed., Advances in Research on Teaching: Vol. 3. Planning and Managing Learning Tasks and Activities (Greenwich, CT: JAI, 1992), 1-45; and Brophy & Alleman, Powerful Social Studies for Elementary Students (Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1996).
About the Authors
Janet Alleman is professor of teacher education and educational administration at Michigan State University.
Jere Brophy is distinguished professor of teacher education at Michigan State University.