2018 IDEA Award Winner Q&A: Ariel Cornett


Every year, the Curry School of Education awards grant funding to select students as part of the Curry Innovative, Developmental, Exploratory Awards (IDEA) Competition. Funded through Curry’s Research and Development Fund, this grant helps students advance both their careers and the field of education through the development of innovative research. This article is a part of a series that explores the winning 2018 IDEA projects and their potential impact on education.

Program: Social Studies Education
Project: Content Integration and Student Learning in Elementary Social Studies Classrooms

Can you give me a brief overview of what this project is about? 

Consistently, research has highlighted the marginalized nature of social studies in elementary classrooms. The emphasis on math, language arts and the STEM fields has pushed social studies to the sidelines — but the knowledge, skills and dispositions taught through social studies are so important for students to become informed and productive members of society. Due to this limited attention, advocates have called for increased content integration (i.e., social studies with other elementary subject areas). Another movement in elementary schools is multi-age classrooms, where more than one grade level work together in a shared space.

Currently, we don’t know a lot about how elementary teachers are teaching social studies outside of their designated social studies time, and we don’t know a lot about how social studies is taught in multi-age classrooms. The focus of this study will be on how elementary teachers’ instructional practices in both multi-age and grade-leveled classrooms influence students’ classroom experiences and learning in regards to social studies.

Why are you passionate about this area of research?

As a researcher, I think that the relatively unexplored multi-age setting will provide insights into that particular context, which could inform research, policy and practice.

Additionally, as a former elementary teacher, I loved developing and implementing interdisciplinary lessons, units and projects in my classroom. My students were more engaged with the curriculum and more successful with assessments when they could find connections across content areas. The payoff was evident in both intrinsic and extrinsic ways. I want more elementary teachers to be able to bring that joy and confidence to children.

Where did the idea for this particular project come from? 

My culturally rich experiences growing up in Southwest Virginia have directly influenced my love for social studies. As a child, I gained knowledge and skills from volunteering at the Southwest Virginia Museum Historical State Park as well as through my adventures thrifting, attending yard sales and conducting estate sales with my family’s antique business. I’m a strong believer that our belongings tell our stories and history, whether we want them to or not. Many of those childhood experiences allowed me to explore social studies alongside other content areas. I am passionate about elementary teachers utilizing their place to teach state-mandated social studies curriculum as well as teaching social studies in conjunction with other content areas.

A local school district’s use of multi-age classrooms in many of their elementary schools inspired my interest in that particular setting. I went to observe some of these classrooms and witnessed an abundance of innovative teaching practices. Students across two and even three grade levels were collaborating with one another and learning new content knowledge and skills. A buzz of student engagement and choice was undeniably in the air. Students were writing stories about ancient Egyptians, building a Jamestown fort on Minecraft and so much more. I want to bring that to fellow researchers, practitioners and policymakers.

How did you decide to submit a proposal to the Curry IDEA competition? 

As a Ph.D. student at Curry for the past two years, I have developed an interest in student learning, particularly in social studies at the elementary level. This interest can build on research that my advisor, Stephanie van Hover, has been conducting on student learning in social studies at the secondary level. Therefore, she encouraged me to write the IDEA grant proposal to secure funding for my dissertation research. I am incredibly thankful that my work was selected and that Curry supports developing researchers with their initiatives.

What other people and organizations will be involved? 

I have been working closely with a local lead instructional coach for social studies education to gain access to elementary schools with both multi-age and grade-leveled classrooms. At this time, I am recruiting teacher participants and once school begins, I will find student participants as well.

What goals do you have for this project?

I hope to gain knowledge about content integration and students’ social studies learning in elementary classrooms. My research has the potential to broadly inform elementary teachers’ social studies instruction, as well as support the creation of elementary curricular materials and professional development in social studies. Lastly, this research could generate specific strategies that allow teachers to integrate social studies content in language arts, math and other subjects, which could increase attention to social studies.

How will the IDEA grant help you achieve those goals?

With the IDEA grant, I will be able to provide compensation to teachers in exchange for their time with pre- and post-unit interviews. Additionally, some of the funds will cover transcription costs for teacher and student interviews.