What are the Challenges (and Solutions) in Texas Middle School Social Studies?
Texas educators review the major challenges facing social studies instruction today and the innovative Exploros approach.
CHALLENGE: The amount of social studies content is impacting quality instruction
When asked to identify the primary challenge facing social studies instruction in the state today, Texas educators consistently pointed to the depth and breadth of the TEKS. According to Paul Miller, assistant superintendent and former principal at H.G. Isbill Junior High School in McGregor, “The biggest challenge we face in social studies is the amount of content. The number of TEKS has exploded, and teachers struggle with what to cover.”
At United ISD in Laredo, middle school social studies coordinator Blanca Ibarra echoed Miller’s concern, “There are too many TEKS to cover and not enough time to cover all of them adequately. Teachers need to constantly check for understanding, but they feel that if they do they’ll never get through the material. In social studies we are not truly measuring student progress.”
According to Cindy Nick, 8th grade social studies teacher and department chair at Bullard ISD, it is difficult for social studies teachers to go beyond the surface level of instruction because of the sheer volume of information. “If they try to cover everything thoroughly, they begin to sacrifice quality over quantity.”
At Weslaco ISD, Social Studies Strategist Adrian Cantu pointed out that kindergarten teachers must manage the same number of social studies standards as Algebra 1 teachers, “And they are multi-step standards, so teachers don’t know what to cover and at what depth.” Cantu also identified the lack of state investment in social studies as a major challenge.
Teachers’ understanding of the TEKS is another issue, according to Alicia Ebbeler, social studies instructional officer at Klein ISD. “Not only are there a lot of TEKS, teachers may not understand what the TEKS are actually trying to measure. For example, a teacher may want to teach all battles, but the TEKS only ask for four battles and one event, and students need succinct information.”
Exploros helps teachers cover the important information
The educators agreed that the Exploros Middle School Social Studies Curriculum supports both quality and quantity in social studies teaching. According to Miller, Exploros helps teachers prioritize the information so that they become more efficient in the classroom and can cover more content. “The Exploros real-time data helps teachers see what needs attention and what doesn’t. Exploros lets teachers know that the important information is not only being covered but understood.”
Ebbeler agreed that Exploros lets teachers focus on what’s most important. “With so many standards to cover, we really need to focus on the power standards. Because Exploros shows lessons by standard, it helps teachers focus on which lessons to teach.”
Several educators emphasized that the Exploros 5E model lessons are key to helping teachers manage the amount of content. “The 5E model lessons move teachers beyond the surface into the right level of depth—from engaging through exploring, explaining, and elaborating,” said Nick. And Ibarra pointed to the “chunking” of the lessons in the 5E model. “The teacher checks for understanding automatically before advancing students to the next part. This ensures that teachers can intervene immediately when needed.”
According to Cantu, Exploros makes up for the lack of investment by the state—with online access, correct pacing, interactivity, and adaptability to different teaching styles. “Exploros is a way to teach the content effectively.”
CHALLENGE: Student engagement in social studies is low
All the educators agreed that students lack engagement and motivation because 8th grade social studies is not a graduation requirement in Texas. And Miller brought up an additional point. “Materials in social studies have generally lacked innovation, and although textbooks contain valuable information, they don’t engage the teachers in the content and thereby don’t engage the students.”
Cantu pointed to a mismatch between social studies content and current demographics. “We are serving a population that is not represented in the history we are teaching. In our district, we have over 90 percent Hispanic students and 50 percent female students, yet early American history focuses on white males from a different part of the country.”
Exploros builds student engagement and accountability
Student motivation at Bullard ISD increased as students worked collaboratively with Exploros, according to Nick. “Exploros provides the engagement that is missing for most students in this content area. It lets students use the technology tools they like and interact with information in a format they enjoy.”
Student accountability improved along with engagement at Bullard. As Nick explained it, “The Exploros real-time data lets teachers monitor progress and time on task in a way that was previously impossible, providing a new window into accountability. Because students knew I knew what they were doing, their motivation went up. And the predictable lesson design was very helpful. For example, because assessment questions always appear at the end of the lesson, students were motivated to do well so they could demonstrate their understanding at the end.”
The educators consistently stressed that increased student interaction contributed to increased engagement. According to Miller, “Exploros forces all students to interact, even special populations, and when they interact they get engaged. They see Exploros as communicating and not as learning. The real-time data motivates them because they want to see their responses and progress against their peers. Exploros is the innovation social studies materials have been missing—it lets students feel a part of history, rather than just observing it. The activities get them engaged, and the learning is sticky. They get excited about the role-playing scenarios, the small group work, and the brainstorming.”
Cantu stressed that Exploros motivates all students. “Teachers get more feedback more quickly, so they can correct and reteach on the spot and engage all students, not just the ones who always raise their hands.” According to Ebbeler, Exploros improved engagement and motivation in Klein ISD by strengthening students’ connections with the content and with one another. “Exploros enhances collaboration because students respond together and create a visual of learning as it takes place. And the consistent structure lets them get used to maneuvering through the process.”
CHALLENGE: Teachers struggle with new instructional approaches
Several educators commented on new difficulties facing teachers in today’s classroom. According to Ibarra, “There has been an overall shift in instructional delivery from lecture to student-centered instruction, and this new way of teaching is a struggle for some.” Ebbeler pointed to the challenge of technology integration, “Technology opens a pathway for personalized learning, but not all teachers understand how to do this. Some try to differentiate instruction without moving away from teacher-driven lessons. Or they just put students on a device or a program where the teacher is not actively involved.”
An additional difficulty in social studies instruction, according to Miller, is that teachers are often generalists, coupling a teaching assignment with coaching positions. “When the content is not a teacher’s first or strongest area of expertise or passion, he or she may grab on to ineffective stand-and-deliver materials.” Jennifer Smith, Secondary Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator at Round Rock ISD, also pointed to the need for PLCs that truly impact teaching practice and student outcomes.
According to Cantu, it has taken some time for administrators to focus on social studies, although the focus is now coming back because social studies scores are low. “Content is not being taught in 5th grade because is it not tested, so students are missing the prior knowledge they need. And most current materials miss the opportunity to include reading and writing.”
Exploros supports and engages teachers
Ebbeler stressed that the adaptability of Exploros is helpful for teachers. “Exploros supports different teaching styles and different students. This is great for teachers who need help with preparation, are brand new, don’t know content, are coaches, or need structure and help, while the master teachers use Exploros for RTI and additional support resources.”
Nick echoed the same point. “The Exploros turnkey lessons give teachers who are less familiar with the content a seamless way to begin. Teachers can also use lessons and units in whole or in part to meet the needs of specific classes, students, or subjects, as well as easily integrate additional activities into lessons.”
An important byproduct of increased student engagement is teacher engagement, said Miller. “Exploros revives and invigorates the classroom teacher, because teachers like to look out on their classrooms and see students enjoying learning.” And the process is circular. “Exploros engages teachers, and the more teachers are engaged, the greater the possibility that students will be engaged. Anytime students see a teacher who is highly engaged in their subject, they are more interested.”
And the educators mentioned that Exploros helps teachers who struggle with technology integration or personalized learning. “Exploros shows teachers how to setup a 1:1 environment and best practices for personalized digital instruction that they can mimic in other contexts,” said Ebbeler.
Cantu emphasized that Exploros does not need to be used every day, since two or three times a week makes a tremendous difference. “Teachers guide and facilitate every lesson, and Exploros helps them by filling in any background information they need. It’s a flexible foundation that teachers can build on and a solid resource they can fall back on. It helps new teachers build knowledge, saves preparation time, and provides a focus for generalist teachers. It lets teachers work with colleagues on the same lesson to build alignment and understanding. And because Exploros integrates reading and writing, it’s easier for teachers to integrate technology and act on data.”
Smith agreed that Exploros provides an environment conducive to teacher collaboration. “Exploros brings teachers together around a common a common conversation and helps PLCs and grade level teams focus on data and progress. Exploros lets teachers in PLCs focus on the how instead of the what.”
According to Ibarra, teachers must understand the 5E model as a best practice for delivery of the curriculum. “With Exploros, the teacher is still very much the driving factor. Teachers need to maximize the data they are getting about the learner throughout the lesson, intentionally check for understanding, and respond accordingly.”