Many Connections. One U.

Theme Study in Elementary School Social Studies:

A Different Approach to Knowledge?

Sam Hausfather

(1998) The Social Studies, 89, 171-176.

Theme study is all the rage today in education circles (Lipson et. al 1993). Teacher education texts abound with step-by-step instructions for preservice teachers to create thematic units, theme immersion, or various types of theme studies. Remiss is the social studies methods’ text, which does not cover thematic integration through social studies units. Workshops throughout the country give us detailed instructions to guide us in changing our practice. The popular education journals now have sections devoted to teaching with themes. Teacher supply stores have stocked racks full of resource books to use with every theme from apples to zoo animals. Yet does theme study really involve new approaches to classroom instruction, or are the same old techniques put together in new packages?

I explored this question when I created a year-long curriculum within my fifth grade classroom. Theme study has had a range of definitions and meanings, including interdisciplinary approaches, project method, inquiry, and unit teaching. From the study developed in my classroom, three key aspects emerged as necessary components of my definition: (1) the use of broad powerful ideas for themes; (2) an inquiry-based approach to curriculum through student involvement in research and teaching; and (3) a community of inquiry that could break down barriers between student and teacher and between school knowledge and student experience. During that school year, different approaches to knowledge evolved within my classroom. In this article, I will share my experiences and discuss essential aspects of my classroom instruction.

As a teacher-researcher, I experimented with my curriculum in my fifth-grade classroom in a college laboratory school in the southeast (Hausfather 1994). My curriculum evolved as we explored six topics tied to social studies issues. Each theme formed the center of studies across disciplines as well as an opportunity for students to research topics in social studies or science. Student research gave me a chance to experiment with different arrangements of the learning and teaching process.

My class and I began the year exploring the question “Why are we here?” Through the study of geography, geology, and self-understanding we strove to see the meaning of our place in the world. Our geology studies progressed through group work that established learning and teaching groups. Geography provided the opportunity for a simulation involving group decision-making skills (Reese 1976). As we moved into research and reading about Native Americans, “understanding differences” emerged the key point of discussion. The clash of cultures between Europeans and Native Americans provided a backdrop for exploring our own feelings about those different from us. Our second semester found us “Exploring the Unknown,” as we studied the early exploration of America along with an in-depth study of astronomy. Classroom debates defined “discovery” through its impact on native peoples (Lacey and Bovberg 1987). “Taking off on Investigations” followed, uniting our study of the westward movement and pioneer life with investigations into the nature of heat. A pioneer simulation (Wesley 1974) again emphasized an understanding of human nature and the types of decisions people had to make. We concluded the year by looking at “Greed and Charity,” combining studies of slavery, the Civil War, the human body, and business math. A larger theme emerged as our studies progressed, unifying all our studies around the theme of “exploring stereotypes.”

Through our literature studies, we connected the issues revealed in our themes with human stories which touched our own experiences (see Table 3). Literature helped broaden the theme and make it more powerful as it connected with the lives of children. But it was not until our final studies that I saw how the power of theme study affected our approach to knowledge within the classroom. It is this last study that I will explain in detail, following its evolution within the classroom.

Greed and Charity: “Big” Questions Take Precedence

Studying the Civil War fit clearly within the year theme of “Exploring Stereotypes” as well as the progression of social studies topics surrounding United States history. I wanted the latitude of our studies, however, to be greater than just the Civil War, fitting into our science, literature, language arts, and mathematics studies as well. By asking the broader question, “Why do people act as they do?” I could involve my planned study of the human body in science and a business simulation in mathematics. Our literature study, The Slave Dancer fit in well with this theme in its view of human nature struggling with the realities of the slave trade.

Student research was an essential aspect of theme study in the classroom, moving students toward becoming experts in the classroom. In groups, students brainstormed their prior knowledge and directions for inquiry. They then became researchers, beginning to make decisions about their learning. Students created texts, taught their peers, and expressed their knowledge through various projects. To begin our studies of the Civil War, I devised four categories to discuss and then went through each with the class while they wrote down the questions the group generated.

As I classified and negotiated their questions into categories, I gave them chances to share what they knew and what they wanted to know. I tried to establish the problematic nature of simple questions which were asked, pushing them to think more deeply about what they might mean. As they became interested, my questions became a fertile ground to which they could add their own questions. They came up with twenty-five questions, many quite specific, which led to further study or questioning.

Slavery: How much did slaves cost? How were they traded? Why were all slaves black? Did slaves rebel? What was it like being a slave? How many slaves were in a house? Did most people have slaves? Were some slave owners nice? Can we have slaves in our class?
Causes of the War: Why didn’t the abolitionists buy the slaves? Did slavery cause the war? What was unfair about the states? Did Lincoln cause the war?
Fighting the war: How many people died? Where were the worst battles? Doctors then compared to now? Why did soldiers walk out in the open and shoot? What was it like to be a soldier? What did the soldiers eat? What happened if you were a P.O.W.?
Aftermath: How much of the South was burned? How long did it take the South to recover? Did the North help the South? Did the North ask the South to pay for the war? For how long did the North control the South? What happened to the slaves? What did women do? When did the states unite? What about the confederate flag? (Student questions list, 4/8/92).

Using the strong interest of the students and the questions they had generated, I presented them with the challenge of how we should study these areas. Their response showed much growth from the beginning of the school year.

Friday also found me asking the kids how we will study the Civil War. I was surprised at the openness of their response. They seemed to jump at the opportunity to research the various questions we generated last week, enthusiastically choosing areas and work partners and even wanting not to limit their areas too much. There was no complaining about researching another area, no moans or protestations of any kind. Just excitement about the possibility of learning about a topic they find many questions about. A relationship to knowledge where they are the authors and the readers, the teachers and the learners. (Teacher Journal, 4/25/92).

The students appeared comfortable with the idea of inquiry. They looked forward to learning on their own and sharing that knowledge in an open forum with their peers. If it was hard for anyone, it was probably me. Letting go was still difficult for me, trusting that they could just take the subject and go with it. They seemed confident that they could find the answers to their questions and present them to the class. Thus, they launched into their inquiry with vigor.

The students spent the next three weeks working on their selected areas to research, some working in small groups and some working individually. Students made presentations as the class took notes and discussed key ideas and questions raised by the presentation. Our discussions around the reports were a productive sharing of information, with the students and me actively participating in asking questions of the presenter and each other. Together we tried to understand and delve deeper into the meanings of questions sometimes only slightly understood by the presenters.

Our study revolved around a duality in human nature, not only why people acted as they did, but how humans struggled with the conflicting forces of greed and charity in themselves and those around them. This understanding began to take shape as we went to the public library history room,

. . . where we gathered around a table to peruse a copy of the Weekly Courier from 1860. We found some slave ads, “Negroes for sale”. . . I read several articles to the group, one about not talking about the abolition movement in front of slaves, one about the slave trade, one about Lincoln, and one about rewards for turning in deserters. Most of the kids were spellbound by the paper, how totally different it was from today, how the perspectives on life were different, . . . The kids asked about the conditions of selling slaves, prices, splitting families, raising slaves to sell them, and why different slaves could cost different amounts, especially women. This source document impressed the kids greatly, causing them to ask many questions and really see how different life was in the not-so-distant past. (Teacher Journal, 5/3/92)

This was a profound experience for all of us involved. Several parents spoke to me of the impact this experience had on their children. Students were deeply impressed with how different life was in 1860. I was deeply impressed at the intensity with which the children approached the document. The sharing of purpose and focus associated with intersubjectivity was reached, where there existed a joint process of cognitive, social, and emotional interchange. All of us questioned and answered, explored and wondered. The old newspaper made the past concrete in a way that allowed us to see it in a new light. It also opened more questions than I as the teacher could ever answer. In our discussion, we all became inquirers, stretching our minds to understand.

We watched and discussed the “Roots” series on filmstrips. Viewing the story of one African’s life, and the struggle of his family to attain freedom and dignity, allowed the students to experience the implications of slavery firsthand. It also allowed us all to go beyond the usual depictions of slaves, to a deeper understanding of the derivations of the yearning for freedom that is a part of us all. Appreciating the strength of the African heritage became a continuing emphasis throughout our study of slavery. It deepened both the students’ and my understandings of the African-American experience.

Our reading of The Slave Dancer reinforced our ongoing experiences with slavery, adding a human face to the experience. The book drew the students into another aspect of slavery, the slave trade. More than that, it raised the important issue of how people stereotype a group of people to see them as less than human. The emphasis in the book on how the crew of a slave ship dealt with the horrors of their job allowed for discussion on our theme of why people act as they do. In the book’s characters we began to see the struggle between greed and charity. The characters were locked in internal conflict, pitted between their greed, in taking a job on a slave ship, and their sense of charity, in viewing the horrible suffering of the slaves and each other as well. This became a focus of our discussions as we tried to understand how people could act toward others as the slavers acted toward the slaves. At the same time, we dealt with the conflict between slave trader and slave, trying to understand how the slaves could survive such terror. “Mark keeps asking how an African could just curl up and die, how they could kill themselves just because they wanted to die.” (Teacher Journal, 5/16/92). These were deep human experiences we were involved in describing, and the students responded with empathy and a sincere wish to understand.

The literature was an important aspect of our studies but only one of many avenues which opened our understanding of the African-American experience. However, getting students to understand how a person being sold would feel was difficult. We participated in a short simulation of a slave auction (Furlong and Jacobsen 1976). Students were assigned to be either slaves or buyers, and we went through the process of selling slaves. Afterwards, I asked them to write the consequences of treating human beings as property, and we listed their responses as consequences for slaves, slave buyers, and society. Their responses were quite perceptive, allowing discussion of a broad range of issues.

Linda: Slaves feel like they are not worth anything.
Ted: Buyers become more bossy and lazy . . .
Bill: For slaves, it takes away self respect.
Mark: Slave buyers become indignant upon themselves . . . think they could control people . . . think they are more powerful.
Kristin: Slaves can be physically worked . . . physically scarred . . .
Jack: Slave buyers, it don’t feel right because it’s not in the family.
Cathy: It makes slave buyers more competitive, maybe greedy, felt like they could have all this stuff without having to work for it.
Nate: Slaves get mad, angry at their circumstances.
Linda: Slave buyers think it’s OK to do that to people. Slaves think they’re not as good as white people.
Ted: It might make slaves scared of white people . . . Slaves might fight other slaves.
Ralph: It makes them want to run away . . . They don’t like being bossed around . . . Slaves would want to try to get free.
Teacher: Makes them want to be free. That is an important one. You don’t realize how much you want to be free until that is taken away. You don’t realize how important freedom is until it is gone. (Videotape transcription, 5/14/92)

Our discussion was wide-ranging, connecting with politics, philosophy, and history. In relating their experiences, the students were full of large questions, significant ideas, and many key concepts. The riots in Los Angeles over the Rodney King beatings occurred during this period, becoming an important topic of discussion in our class. Our study of slavery was propitiously timed as politics and students’ experiences and concerns at home paralleled our historical study in class. Moving back and forth from our school study to the events in the world around them allowed me to tie in our historical study. More importantly, it created a real link between our burgeoning historical knowledge and the events unfolding today. Thus, the lines between school knowledge and personal knowledge fell away. School knowledge became important to the students for understanding their world — a part of the cultural content they were experiencing outside school walls. We were not creating answers so much as understanding what the problems were.

This excitement in the quest for knowledge is an extremely important part of both teaching and learning. Knowledge needs to be alive to be negotiated. It is when the teacher and the student both hold identifiable stakes in the knowledge that real conversation and negotiation can occur. We had all become stakeholders in this knowledge negotiation and creation, committed to understanding the relationship between our school studies and the world around us. That link to the outside world was quite clear and made our studies even more vital.

A simulation of creating our own popcorn businesses provided an opportunity to relate our mathematics with the larger theme surrounding our study of the Civil War. Over a two-week period, we studied and created popcorn businesses. Larger ideas started coming out in our discussions of our businesses.

We are looking at how people create businesses in a competitive marketplace. We began to connect it to how that affects how people act in our capitalist society. Why did slavery come about? Needs for cheap labor? Would that be good for our businesses? Now we have these government regulations that protect the workers, protection that they did not have before. Why? A big one: what is that balance between greed in people and human charity in people? How to find the balance, and why the balance so easily comes off kilter, falling toward greed. That’s the big question behind the scenes of this math project. (Teacher Journal, 5/16/92)

Tying this mathematics activity to our larger theme allowed us to refine and understand it better. We were not merely looking at why people act as they do. We were dealing in depth with the dichotomy expressed by greed and charity. In exploring these conflicting tensions in humans, we shed light on historical, economic, and political understandings of our society. These all seemed inexorably connected, and revealing those connections became a goal in our classroom studies.

Key Aspects of a Theme-Study Approach

Thus a year of experimentation and negotiation was culminated as the students and I defined theme study within our classroom. As the year progressed, we struggled to balance expectations, content, and new roles. I saw our class slowly approaching the community of inquiry toward which I was aiming. Yet this was a path marked by many apparent obstacles. The nature of the themes and the process of inquiry appeared as key elements of this journey toward creating new roles for students and teacher in the classroom.

In creating themes that could serve as lenses through which to examine different content areas, I attempted to respond to both the needs of the disciplinary areas and the needs of the students. Each theme I designed moved closer to the ideal of revealing fundamental patterns (Perkins 1989). Yet, for themes to apply both broadly across a range of topic areas and pervasively within topics, they needed to be flexibly interpreted by both the students and me. It was exactly this flexibility, encouraging the evolution of the theme, which allowed for powerful connections across the curriculum to be revealed.

The use of broad themes had the potential to allow the students and me to respond flexibly to the content and the materials of our studies. At times, it provided a useful schema within which to place our studies, allowing understanding to be built through connections to our experiences and our other studies. When we could make those connections, the powerful ideas which resided within the content and materials of our studies were revealed. Through our studies, and especially through discussion, our more general themes could become powerful in understanding the world around us.

Themes allowed “big ideas” to surface, a metaconceptual bonus allowing the students to see beyond the content materials into connections with life experiences. Students could then go beyond the materials to the knowledge itself, questioning their developing knowledge. Exploring stereotypes, revealed as a year-long theme in the materials and discussions of our studies, was as much an exploration of humankind as it was an exploration of one’s own self. Discovery, exploration, and investigation became both topics of discussion and methodologies. In looking at how Europeans stereotyped Native Americans, we also looked within ourselves and examined the stereotypes we held of various peoples. Discussions about the literature we read connected our own biases with those of the people we were studying. Our own efforts to balance greed and charity provided the basis for viewing the motivations of those involved in slavery.

These powerful, crosscutting ideas sometimes allowed “big questions” to surface. Theme study gradually revealed itself to be the search to understand these “big questions” through the process of inquiry. Inquiry appeared to be a key aspect that could allow students to see beyond the content into the connections to their life experiences. Our debates, simulations, and projects began to push the children in the direction of inquiry. Beginning with questioning each other and the content students shared, we made slow movement toward questioning knowledge.

Student involvement in research was a key aspect of my conception of a theme-study classroom. Through student research, students could become active stakeholders in the teaching/learning process. My goal became sharing the decision-making process with them while maintaining general leadership of the curricular process. Thus, we negotiated the development of our research projects. At first, I created the forms. Later, I gradually began to share some of the power of decision making in curriculum. Sharing that power also involved sharing the responsibility, which some students were at first hesitant to accept. I found it very hard to give up the power vested in me as the classroom teacher, really trusting the students to be copartners in the creation of curriculum. As the year progressed, however, students became more comfortable negotiating their approach to learning with me. They began to take a greater role in making decisions for themselves about the direction of their study.

I strove to continue to negotiate my own and students’ roles in our classroom. Not content with students as learners and myself as teacher, I pushed the students to learn for the purpose of sharing their knowledge. Each research opportunity aimed at becoming an opportunity for students to teach each other. I moved between group and individual responsibilities, attempting to balance individual accountability with group interaction. We used different structures for organizing our research knowledge, ranging from making charts to creating books to allowing freeform notes.

Throughout the year, students were assigned the role of presenters. They were to become the experts standing in front of the class, sharing their new-found knowledge. Those listening to the presentation were encouraged to clarify, question, and connect that knowledge with their own experiences. The discussion during and after the presentation began to provide a nonthreatening environment where ideas were encouraged rather than judged. As teacher, I could lead and organize the questioning, modeling critical inquiry into the ideas presented. Students were encouraged to become critical questioners, tying the knowledge shared to their own interests and experiences.

To a teacher this process was both challenging and frustrating. I had to be very active in the process, moving back and forth from teacher to learner, participant to observer, careful to give students enough space to develop their own questions and problems while at the same time challenging students to be active participants. I had to model critical questioning without threatening the student/expert presenting the material. I had to create an environment that was both secure and critical.

I am not sure I moved the class far enough. Control continued to be an issue as students pushed the limits of their newfound freedoms, and I dealt with the institutional pressures to maintain expected levels of control. Students accepted the responsibility for their own learning at greatly varied levels, some readily becoming dedicated to sharing the fruits of their research, while others minimally fulfilled the group’s expectations. I struggled with retaining my level of control over the routines that defined my teaching. I found it exceedingly difficult to give up control of the curriculum, as much as my reflections made me aware of my need to share this power.

It was apparent, however, that the structure of the presentations facilitated initiating a climate of inquiry. Student note-taking along with my modeling and stimulating questioning brought us close to creating a culture of learning, where the interest of all was focused on pursuing and understanding knowledge. Students and teacher together developed knowledge in the classroom. Instructional conversations (Tharp and Gallimore 1988) began to be created and supported in our discussions with presenters, in our book discussion groups, and in our debates and simulations, allowing students to be partners in the exploration of knowledge. I felt I had moved toward creating a theme-study classroom, unique to my local context, yet powerful in influencing the conceptions of knowledge of those involved.

Theme Study Redefined

Theme study has been redefined for me through this study. It is more than a holistic approach to learning through studying broad themes. Theme study is the search to understand “big” questions through the process of inquiry. “Big” questions involve powerful, crosscutting ideas which speak to the larger world within which students exist. “Big” questions go far beyond the classroom walls, speaking to human nature, values, and ethical action. Most school curriculum has been whitewashed of these types of questions. Theme study must allow these “big” questions to surface and then pursue them through a community of inquiry that cuts across disciplinary lines. In our studies around “Greed and Charity,” the questions we pursued were powerful enough to support a community of inquiry that led to the joint negotiation of knowledge.

Student research gradually became a venue for inquiry in my classroom, as students gained expertise and the class shared and questioned their insights through instructional conversations. An environment that fostered a community of inquiry became an essential goal of theme study. As a community of inquiry slowly evolved, members of the classroom began communicating with each other, reconstructing what they heard, and submitting their views to the further inquiry of the group (Sharp 1987). The roles of both students and teacher evolved throughout the year. Students began to take on the roles of teachers, presenters, and questioners. Many seemed to move beyond being content merely researching. Presenting their knowledge to the community and refining that knowledge though a process of group inquiry appeared to become an expected part of learning. The teacher’s role changed as well. I became less the transmitter of knowledge and more the organizer of questioning and the modeler of critical inquiry. I found myself moving back and forth more, from learner to questioner to critic to sharer of my perspectives. Knowledge did not reside entirely in me, but it could be created through the interaction of all the members of our community.

Theme study ultimately involves redefining the relationship that both students and teacher have with knowledge. As it proliferates within schools, we must hold it to this high standard. Theme study appears to have the potential to move schooling toward a redefinition of knowledge and a transformation of classroom practice. At its worst, however, it can be a motivational device for teachers to use on students (Esland 1971) or a special time, tucked into the schedule among unrelated practice-as-usual curricula (Webster 1990). Themes can easily be trivial and unrelated to students’ lives, such as “two weeks of more than you’ll ever want to know about apples.” Too often there is no significant alteration in the top-down discourse patterns familiar to school (Grisham 1995). Theme study as an approach to curriculum needs to be seen as much more than the use of themes. It must be viewed as an approach to knowledge construction and the resulting environment for inquiry created within the classroom.

Social studies represents the great connection, the core of a curriculum that can promote knowledge as created jointly by students and their teachers. Teachers using themes develop their own curriculum, one that promotes inquiry and reflection. Goodman and Adler (1985), in looking at the perspectives of social studies student teachers, stressed the need to train teachers to develop, research, and organize themes around which students could inquire. The study in social study needs to be about the discovering, observing, and thinking process in solving a problem. A theme-studies approach to elementary school social studies can hold that promise.


Boehm, C., and J. Trull. 1983. Business: A simulation setting up popcorn or paper airplane businesses. Lakeside, CA: Interact.

Esland, G. 1971. Teaching and learning as the organization of knowledge. In K Knowledge and control: New directions for the sociology of education, edited by M. Young. London: Collier Macmillan.

Fox, P. 1973. The slave dancer. New York: Dell.

Furlong, M. and L. Jacobsen. 1976. Slave auction: Crisis in human values. Culver City, CA: Zenger Publications.

Goodman, J., and S. Adler. 1985. Becoming an elementary social studies teacher: A study of perspectives. Theory and Research in Social Education, 13: 1-20.

Grisham, D. 1995. Exploring integrated curriculum (Research into practice). Reading Psychology, 16: 269-279.

Hausfather, S. 1994. Integrating instruction through theme study and conceptions of knowledge in the elementary classroom: An emic perspective. Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin- Madison.

Lacey, B., and J. Bovberg. 1987. Great American confrontations: Who really discovered America?. Lakeside, CA: Interact.

Lipson, M., S. Valencia, K. Wixson, and C. W. Peters. 1993. Integration and thematic teaching: Integration to improve teaching and learning. Language Arts, 70: 252-263.

McNeil, L. 1986. Contradictions of control: School structure and school knowledge. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Perkins, D.N. 1989. Selecting fertile themes for integrated learning. In Interdisciplinary curriculum: Design and implementation, edited by H.H. Jacobs. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Reese, J. 1976. Flight: A simulation of a cross-continent air race. Lakeside, CA: Interact.

Rogoff, B. 1990. Apprenticeship in thinking: Cognitive development in social context. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sharp, A.M. 1987. What is a ‘community of inquiry’? Journal of Moral Education, 16: 37-45.

Tharp, R.G., and R. Gallimore. 1988. Rousing minds to life: Teaching, learning, and schooling in social context. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Webster, T. 1990. Projects as curriculum: Under what conditions? Childhood Education, 67 (1): 2-3.

Wesley, J. 1974. Pioneers: A simulation of decision-making on a wagon train. Lakeside, CA: Interact.

Facebook icon Twitter icon Instagram icon Pinterest icon Google+ icon YouTube icon LinkedIn icon Contact icon