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Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. To submit questions, use this form or #helpstudentsthrive. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Time for Bin Busting: Teach Math, Reading, and Social Skills Together

By Hailey Gibbs, Elias Blinkoff & Kathy Hirsh-Pasek — December 15, 2021 2 min read
How do I integrate whole-child instruction across different subjects?
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I support a whole-child approach to teaching, but how do schools integrate it when we have so many different subjects to cover?

Stop teaching in “bins.” Math is from 10 a.m. to 10:45 a.m., followed by reading until 11:50, then off to recess to build social-emotional skills. We often break the whole child into fragments to receive piecemeal instruction in individual subjects.

Even though the science of learning indicates that teaching in bins is not optimal, the practice has remained a mainstay for decades. Take the bins we absolutely believe in—the divide between reading and math. There are number people and good readers, and they often do not exist in the same person, right? Well, it turns out that even here, the science demonstrates that reading and math skills enjoy a lot of overlap. Would you believe that early-language ability is the single best predictor of both math and reading scores? Children who know number words and spatial terms like over, under, around, and through have better STEM scores. And a recent study reports that both reading and math ability is contingent on the same broad network of skills: memory, attention (executive function), language, and general knowledge.

Instead of binning, try a whole-child approach built from children’s interests. Consider, for example, using a birthday party as a thematic exercise. For kindergartners, planning a party requires diverse (previously binned) skills. How many people will we invite, and who will be included? How can we write invitations for each child? What should the invitation look like?

For a 3rd grade math class with fractions as part of the curriculum, just adjust the questions. If we’ve invited 12 children, and 10 can come to the party, what percentage of our invitation list is available? How much pizza should we order, assuming that each child will eat two slices and a large pizza includes 12 slices? Here again, we motivate children while still teaching writing, reading, and division!

By coming up with integrative themes, you can carry out your curricular goals while creating an engaging climate for your students. Think about the key characteristics of a good classroom activity, then test if it works by using this checklist: Is your activity …

Active or passive?
Engaging or distracting?
Meaningful to your students or disconnected from their lives?
Socially interactive with peer collaboration or entirely independent?
Iterative, allowing students to build on ideas each time they come to the classroom, or merely repetitive?
Joyful or boring?

A whole-child approach is not hard to do. Just pick a topic that you like and that you think children will enjoy—race cars, family recipes, music, dinosaurs—and create integrated lessons that draw on a range of topics in reading, math, social skills, geography, and science. You will have a happier classroom, and your students will not only learn reading and math but also how to collaborate, communicate, critically think, and create.

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