If 21st century learning is about inquiry, problem-solving and real-world application of academic content, then interdisciplinary teaching and learning are essential. Rarely are the significant issues in our world addressed through a single disciplinary lens. The field of social studies is inherently interdisciplinary—combining the lenses of history, geography, political science, sociology, economics, and the arts. Adding the richness of language, literature, and composition through English classes can further enhance the interdisciplinary humanities learning experience.
Traditionally, interdisciplinary social studies/English classes have utilized one of two approaches. The chronological approach largely follows the history curriculum and ties in literature from the historical period. This typically results in greater disruption for the English curriculum, as new readings are added, old ones subtracted, and others shifted to different times of the year. Alternatively, the thematic approach moves away from chronology and pulls together various literature selections and historical episodes organized around a set of themes. In this approach, both social studies and English curricula require an overhaul.
Is there an alternative approach? How can schools use an interdisciplinary approach without immediately revamping the entire English or social studies curricula and writing something from scratch? Are there themes that can be used to link the courses together, again without radically revamping either? What small steps can teachers take to make both courses more related, and ultimately more meaningful?
Following the principles of backward design can help teachers plan interdisciplinary English and social studies. In backward design, teacher-planners focus first on the macro-curriculum, then begin filling in the weekly details (micro-curriculum) from the big ideas, enduring understandings, and essential questions of the course.
10,000-Foot View: The Purpose of Humanities
To start macro-planning, begin with the most fundamental question of the disciplines. What is the purpose of this course? In Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, Sam Wineburg presents a succinct view of the purpose of the humanities: “What is history good for? Why even teach it in schools? My claim in a nutshell is that history holds the potential, only partly realized, of humanizing us in ways offered by few other areas in the school curriculum. … Each generation must ask itself anew why studying the past is important, and remind itself why history can bring us together rather than—as we have seen most recently—tear us apart.”
Wineburg’s quote reminds us why we teach social studies and English: to deepen and broaden students’ understanding of the human experience. We teach humanities to help students become better citizens, and better human beings, who make the world a better place. Students come to recognize the unity of humanity, but respect diversity and value different points-of-view. They learn to empathize with people, past and present, near and far. They learn critical analysis, reasoned judgment, argumentation and deliberation, and how to apply the lessons of the past to contemporary issues. The humanities disciplines remind us the STEM education is necessary, but not sufficient. Solving the world’s grand problems is not only a matter of engineering design or scientific discovery, but must also take into consideration aesthetics, culture, history, and ethics.
1,000-Foot View: Establishing Themes – Big Ideas, Enduring Understandings, Essential Questions
The major themes of the course (the big ideas) should flow from the purpose of the course. What themes will help deepen students’ understanding of the human experience? Look for themes that are broad enough to cut across multiple historical eras and wide array of literature. Some existing frameworks may be helpful guides for establishing course themes.
Colonial Williamsburg’s The Idea of America, frames American studies through the lens of four value tensions:
- law vs. ethics;
- freedom vs. equality;
- unity vs. diversity;
- common wealth vs. private wealth.
For more of a social justice approach, consider the four domains of the Teaching Tolerance anti-bias framework:
Another approach is to create themes that reflect the various disciplinary lenses of the course, such as:
- power (political science);
- culture (anthropology);
- change (history);
- perspective/expression (literature/arts).
The themes of the course will drive the enduring understandings and essential questions. Think of an enduring understanding as the “moral of the story.” These are statements that not only summarize the key ideas of the discipline, but are transferrable to other disciplines and to the real world—having long-term value beyond the classroom. For example, using the value tension of law vs. ethics, an enduring understanding might be framed as:
- Although the United States is a nation of laws, some of our greatest national heroes have practiced civil disobedience.
For the theme of identity, an enduring understanding could read:
- Individuals are members of multiple identity groups that interact to shape complex individuals.
An enduring understanding using the theme of power could be:
- Written constitutions establish the terms and limits of a government’s power.
Essential questions are critical to creating an inquiry-based environment. Essential questions should be provocative, open ended and arguable. These should not be questions with a simple or straightforward correct answer. Rather, they are designed to provoke further inquiry, debate, and deliberation. Here are a few examples that follow from the enduring understandings above:
- Should individuals break unethical laws, work to change those laws, or both?
- What role do cultures, institutions, and values play in shaping individual identity?
- How should governments balance majority rule with minority rights?
100-Foot View: Selecting Resources and Tracking the Themes
Once the course purpose, themes, enduring understandings and essential questions have been established, the micro-planning may begin. This is the phase that involves the selection and order of readings, projects, and assignments. With broad and meaningful course themes, teachers may find that many of the resources in their current portfolio simply need some tweaking or re-organization to work into the interdisciplinary macro-plan. It many cases, pairing course materials with course themes may be more a matter of the emphasis within particular resources, rather than the selection of all new ones.
It is important to keep in mind that course themes can be utilized in a chronological, thematic, or hybrid framework. It is not necessary to cover the themes individually as separate units, though this is one possible means of organization. If a chronological or hybrid approach is preferred, the course themes, enduring understandings, and essential questions can be introduced early on and reinforced throughout the year. Consider creating large posters on the classroom walls for each theme and adding to those posters throughout the course. Students could also track the themes in a journal or develop a set of theme-based notecards throughout the course.
Interdisciplinary writing tasks can also be an effective tool for linking both English and social studies courses to the broader course themes. Here are some prompt possibilities:
- Compare the conflict in x historical episode with the conflict in y literature selection. What were the long-term causes and consequences of each conflict?
- How did the quest for power shape the actions of individuals in x historical episode and y literature selection?
- What cultural influences were evident in x historical episode and y literature selection?
- In what ways was z “value tension” reflected in x historical episode and y literature selection?
Interdisciplinary teaching is not an easy task, but it is an achievable task that can be greatly enhanced by a focus on backward design and macro-planning. Here is another piece of good news. The National Humanities Center has already created an excellent set of lessons and primary source collections using this approach, all of which are available for free online at: http://americainclass.org/primary-sources/ and http://americainclass.org/lessons/.
Finally, here are some thoughts gathered from my Facebook friends, all veteran humanities teachers of social studies and English.