The Subject Matters

Classroom Activity in Math and Social Studies

Susan S. Stodolsky

The Subject Matters
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Susan S. Stodolsky

214 pages | © 1988
Cloth $47.50 ISBN: 9780226775111 Published April 1988
To achieve quality education in American schools, we need a better understanding of the way classroom instruction works. Susan S. Stodolsky addresses this need with her pioneering analysis of the interrelations between forms of instruction, levels of student involvement, and subject matter. Her intensive observation of fifth-grade math and social studies classes reveals that subject matter, a variable overlooked in recent research, has a profound effect on instructional practice.

Stodolsky presents a challenge to educational research. She shows that classroom activities are coherent actions shaped by the instructional context—especially what is taught. Stodolsky contradicts the received view of both teaching and learning as uniform and consistent. Individual teachers arrange instruction very differently, depending on what they are teaching, and students respond to instruction very differently, depending on the structure and demands of the lesson.

The instructional forms used in math classes, a "basic" subject, and social studies classes, an "enrichment" subject, differ even when the same teacher conducts both classes. Social studies classes show more diversity in activities, while math classes are very similar to one another. Greater variety is found in social studies within a given teacher's class and when different teachers' classes are compared. Nevertheless, in the classrooms Stodolsky studied, the range of instructional arrangements is very constricted.

Challenging the "back to basics" movement, Stodolsky's study indicates that, regardless of subject matter, students are more responsive to instruction that requires a higher degree of intellectual complexity and performance, to learning situations that involve them in interaction with their peers, and to active modes of learning. Stodolsky also argues that students develop ideas about how to learn a school subject, such as math, by participating in particular activities tied to instruction in the subject. These conceptions about learning are unplanned but enduring and significant consequences of schooling.

The Subject Matters has important implications for instructional practice and the training, education, and supervision of teachers. Here is a new way of understanding the dynamics of teaching and learning that will transform how we think about schools and how we study them.
List of Tables
List of Figures
1. Subject Matter, Classroom Activity, and Student Involvement
Subject Matter and Instruction
Mathematics Programs
Social Studies Programs
The Activity Structure and Activity Segments
Segment Properties
Student Involvement
Background on Student Involvement
2. Research Methods
Selection of Schools, Classrooms, and Students
Data Collection Proccedures
Observations of Classroom Activity and Students
Data-Coding Procedures
Identifying Segments
Coding Segment Properties
Coding Student Involvement
Data Analysis
Interdependence in the Data
Basic Descriptive Information on the Observational Data
3. Subject Matter Differences in Classroom Activity
Lesson Topics
Instructional Activity
Segment Feature Measures
Instructional Formats
Student Behavior Patterns
Pacing and Expected Social Interaction
Location and Time of Day
Cognitive Level
Teacher Role and Simultaneous Segments
Segment Patterns
Program Variants
Individual Teachers
4. Beyond Subject Matter: Intellectual Activity and Student Reponse
How Learning Environments Are Organized
Cognitive Level and Pacing
Student Involvement
Cognitive Level, Pacing, and Student Involvement
Factual Teacher-Paced Segments
Preparatory Segments
Checking-Work Segments
Recitation Segments
The Responsive Student
Intellectual Activity
5. Discussion and Implications
Origins of Different Activity Structures
Community Influences
Content and Topics
The Meaning of Learning
Routes to Learning
Routes to Learning
Student Attitudes
Implications and Reflections
The Existential Fallacy and Educational Research
Appendix A. Sample Instruments
Activity Structure Observation Form
Individual Student Observation Form
Appendix B. Coding Definitions and Examples
Instructional Format
Cognitive Level
Student Behavior
Teacher Leadership Role
Expected Student Interaction
Task Options
Options When Done
Student Location
Student Involvement
Appendix C. Tables
Table C.1 Number of Instructional Segments, Involvement Segments, Minutes, and Class Periods Observed in Each Class
Table C. 2 Mean Durations of Segments by Segment Features
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