What We Learned Talking to District Administrators About Social Studies and Science

What We Learned Talking to District Administrators About Social Studies and Science

Educational resources and the way instructors use them may finally be changing. We are seeing a transformation across education as instructional materials move from printed to digitized, learning methods move from memorization to experience, and content selection moves from textbook adoption to curriculum curation.

These changes present incredible opportunities (and threats) to education marketers selling content or education resources into schools. Simba Information's new report, Lessons Learned: Selecting and Deploying K12 Science and Social Studies Content, provides a detailed analysis of how to approach the changing education market. 

Karen Raugust and I approached the State Education Technology Directors Association (SETDA) with the purpose of seeing how districts were teaching and selecting instructional materials for social studies and science. The SETDA directors put us in touch with district curriculum decision makers, and we conducted 37 interviews of between 45 and 75 minutes.

In 'traditional' education, instructors lecture the class, students read from textbooks and solve problems at the end of chapters, and take tests at the end of each learning unit. This pedagogy is sometimes supplemented with activities and worksheets. Digitizing educational resources are rendering this teaching method obsolete. 

In science, the administrators we talked with are focusing their acquisition of content and the application of classroom pedagogy on 3 Dimensional Learning, and in social studies on Inquiry Based Learning. Both practices revolve around engaging a student’s curiosity, letting the students’ desire to know (in order to accomplish some goal) drive their need to learn. Of the 37 individuals we interviewed, every one of them had already moved in this direction in at least a few grades in their schools, and was expecting it to spread.

How Are Instructors Moving Away From 'Traditional' Teaching?

Because these administrators' focus is on a new way of teaching, change is required in the ways instructors conduct their classes. Learning to teach using these newer methodologies requires: 

  • Varied lesson plans requiring prep work and planning
  • A more fluid way of interacting with the students and the content
  • Different methods of assessing student progress and intervene to facilitate student learning
  • Instructor's need for professional development that is critical to their success 

The instructional materials educators use also need to change. Students are more involved in learning by doing, which diverges from teaching methods that focus solely on printed education resources around which to plan lessons. Many instructors interviewed are choosing educational resources on an ala carte basis. There was a repeated preference for the ability to pick and choose exercises and instructional materials, including parts of textbooks from various publishers, OER (open educational resources), teacher-created materials, and supplemental resources. Having someone vet and curate education resources and provide a menu of options is attractive to districts.

Many interviewees also articulated that they wanted instructional materials that incorporated learning from multiple disciplines in the same activities. This is embedded in the Next Generation Science Standards and was especially noted in elementary education. Also cited was adaptability, providing teachers with the ability to take advantage of new developments and current events.

The Educational Resources Forecast 

In many cases, districts are using educational resources whose formats are a combination of printed and digital. Even when a district is 1:1, there are issues with a totally digital solution:

  • School bandwidth may make simultaneous use of instructional materials cumbersome
  • Some of the education resources may not work on the devices the students are using
  • Not all students have high speed access at home.
  • Students come to class without recharging their device batteries first, creating need for occasional print backup.

Challenges notwithstanding, many instructors mentioned the use of at least some high-quality open educational resources in their schools. A common advantage cited by districts that chose free or low-cost instructional materials was that they were able to funnel the savings toward professional development for the teachers and/or activity kits for students. 

OER, original source materials, and science kits were often stated as critical educational resources of 3 Dimensional and Inquiry Based Learning. The prime focus of the pedagogy was what the students were doing, and the content filled in what the students wanted and needed to know. 

--Mitch Weisburgh