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Social Studies Teaching Reflection

This article is about a group planning experience I had in my Social Studies courses. We had to plan a social studies unit and incorporate the inquiry learning process.

The inquiry process is being emphasised in social studies because it gives children the opportunity to explore key issues in different settings, develop core concepts and skills as well as acquiring knowledge. It importantly encourages children to become curious and research becomes self-motivated and use higher order thinking skills . The inquiry process is being emphasised because children can think about the local community that can relate to them and beyond. The children take ownership of their research, including children of high and low abilities. I have outlined a few issues including choosing better quality questions and getting the children to do a process skill but not know them how – and these issues can be overcome. The group unit posed a few challenges that we as a group overcame. By using the readings I realised the importance of modeling, using critical thinking and considerations for grouping the children.

Before the children begin to formulate their ideas about how they fit into that larger world, they need to understand what that larger world consists of. As a result they are full of questions. The inquiry process is all about asking questions - children are encouraged to ask the questions that will motivate them to answer them (as mentioned before, to be 'curious'). Bond, T states if we want pupils to gain understanding, they must be put into situations where they have to make decisions, share understandings, apply ideas and concepts and also have the opportunity to reflect. The teacher helps ensure that the students ask good questions, questions that can be answered and will produce meaningful answers so the children achieve a greater understanding. An inquiry process gives children this opportunity, and allows them to experience the rewards that come from finding the answers to good, challenging questions.

One of most noticeable characteristics of an inquiry is that the children have more say, “not only what they learn, but how they learn it” (Church, N. 2002). Church, N (2002) has observed in her classroom that the extra responsibility that the children come across allow the 'leaders' in the classroom to grow, not only in their leadership, but their ability to work with each other. The inquiry process is also beneficial for the more 'reserved' children. Once children have the experience of their input being valued in a situation where they have an active role, they can become more confident and put more input in. This skill is a crucial skills in the New Zealand Curriculum Framework, under social and co-operative skills. Sewell. A & St George Allison states historically that this process was used as a means to challenge and enrich the minds of gifted learners. However it is now suggested that a range of abilities can benefit from inquiry, as witnessed by Church, N who has seen confidence grow.(2002).

One of the issues involved in implementing an inquiry process is the quality of the questions produced by the children. The teacher has to ensure that the children don't come up with the same boring questions that they tend to ask, for example, “what is ....., where is......”. The children needs to ask questions that will challenge their thinking. The teacher has to encourage the children to use higher order thinking, to ensure quality questions. Higher order thinking skills, such as, “compare, explain, analyse, predict, construct and interpret” are are heavily dependent on a variety of literacy skills and processes. For example in social studies, students must be able to understand specialised vocabulary, identify key pieces of information within text, determine what is fact and opinion, relate information across text, connect new information to prior knowledge and synthesise the information to make meaning. Teachers recognise that literacy problems can impede student progress and create barriers to understanding social studies context. To help teaching social studies, teachers need to integrate literacy strategies into their content area teaching, organise information about research based instructional strategies, construct separate lesson plans, activities and organise resources.

Gawith, G. (2002) states that there was very little evidence of teachers showing students HOW to shape questions and analyse information. His research shows that teachers assumed students would be able to go from a teacher-defined purpose to precise information. Sometimes when information was retrieved, there was often little evidence of analysis, or reflection on the ideas, contents, facts etc. He states that some children saw the purpose as finding the information and reproducing it in some way with little understanding and no critical analysis.

I quite enjoyed using the inquiry process as I planned with my group because after doing it I realised that I had just used some crucial skills that the children would use! First all deciding on our topic proved to be harder than we thought. We had to decide a topic that wasn't too confined yet a topic that was too broad. We wanted to relate it within a New Zealand context, and involve the local community. Firstly we thought of the police, but then we found it would be too difficult to break it into sub-groups. So we adapted the idea to important people in the community so children could also inquire about the fire service and ambulance service. We thought it would relate better to the children to start off with by relating the community service roles to current events. By doing this we would hope the children to achieve how important these people are in crisis. It was challenging to decide on which sub-lesson we would teach for the children to complete a task. For example, we decided the children were to write an e-mail to a member of a community service. To ensure that the children would obtain the information they would need need we thought it was important to teach the format of an e-mail to send. We thought it was also important to choose and inform the service they were e-mailing so they knew our purpose and to better answer the children's' questions. To prevent a 'gold rush' of children to one particular source our group thought it was a good idea to rotate around the different resources. If we went to the library, the children wouldn't all run to the computers! (I saw that happen in a few instances at an intermediate placement). Another challenging experience was deciding on an assessment for the topic. I've found on placement that the children have been really motivated once they have a goal to work towards. We brainstormed the possibilities and thought it was a good idea for the children to role play in groups their chosen community service.

To the address the issue of children not constructing 'beefy' questions, I would use the “key questions” instead of “WWWWH”. This would ensure more interesting questions. As modelled in our lecture, I would use a compulsory question that covers the curriculum. By having a compulsory, the children have a good example of what is expected. To overcome to issue of the children who have literacy needs I could have a short a sub-lesson on defining the beginnings of higher-order questions. I also would also integrate higher-order questions in all aspects of the classroom, especially reading. I remember in school I had the impression that social studies was the time for 'hard' question that I had not had a lot of experience at. Higher-order questions should be part of the everyday classroom - not just social studies. To overcome the issue of analysing information I would take a sub-lesson on finding relevant information within a text by highlighting, reading topic sentences of a paragraph, re-wording etc, and include that skill in the 'process skills' part of my unit. I've seen a few children's' research information where they have printed pages and pages of internet information because it looked good, and they did not even use it. I would ensure that children reflect on how useful a piece of information was. It's important to know the needs of your classroom and not to over-estimate their abilities, especially with e-mails and internet. I have also seen children copy information straight onto their good copy without even making sense of what the words means. On a previous placement I have observed my associate incoporate social studies into her spelling programme. This was as excellent idea as the children actually understood the words' meanings.

The suggested inquiry readings have had a significant impact on my views on the inquiry process. If I did an inquiry before this class without the readings I would of probably over-estimated the capabilities and not thought through sub-lessons on teaching the sub-skills. I found Bond, T's reading view on 'information literacy skills and processes' quite useful. It mentions how to extend the children from technical literacy to critical literacy. Critical literacy combined with reflection play a major role in the deepening of the children's understanding. Gawith, G (1991) speaks of the importance of modeling, especially before children do a brainstorm. I remember in primary school when the teacher said “get out your pen and paper and do a brainstorm”. Well of course I didn't know anything about the topic so I sat in silence while trying to peep at others' ideas. This reading has influenced my view on a 'simple' brainstorm, and will help me to “gaps in their knowledge”.This same reading has also influenced my view and given me ideas on grouping. Depending on the needs of the class, the teacher could set mixed ability groups so the more able could help the less able, swapping the different roles and using buddy systems within the group.

In conclusion, after planning a unit with a group, reflecting on benefits and issues, and examining the readings, I feel more confident to plan and implement an inquiry unit. Through this learning process I have taken into consideration what would make a more successful inquiry unit which starts from day one of choosing a topic, knowing the needs of the class, how to immerse the class before even planning the activities.

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