Silos in Education: How to Break Them Down with These Tips
Author: Bridget Zahradnik
September 4, 2018
Silos in Education: How to Break Them Down by Sharing, Cutting, and Buying Time
Silos in Education
In the United States of America, silos in education is a simple structure that keeps things compartmentalized, organized, and safe. It’s perfect for storing grain on the farm; not so good in education, however. Historically, the silos in education has been set up as the following: one teacher per room, every subject its own class or time frame, and every child his or her own desk! Compartmentalized, organized, safe.
Some of these silos in education have been deconstructed in many U.S.A. schools. For example, teachers collaborate and work together, children work more in collaborative seating arrangements (instead of isolated desk islands), cross-curricular connections are made… yet, subject-area silos in education, or the projected time frame for each subject, remains a constant in many of today’s schools.
When a school purchases curricular materials, let’s say for math, the new math curriculum demands 1.5 hours a day. Now add the science curriculum, which also requires 1.5 hours a day. Don’t forget about reading! Nothing’s more important that reading, right? Reading deserves an hour or more. But we can’t leave out a writing block; today’s youth in the job market are missing critical writing skills. Wait, we forgot about social studies; that needs time! Our kids need to learn about the social world around them, right?
Okay, now let’s do the math:
Math, 1–1.5 hours
Science, 1–1.5 hours
Reading, 1–1.5 hours
Writing, 1–1.5 hours
Social Studies, 1–1.5 hours
5–7.5 hours per week
Okay, that works! We’re in school for 7 hours each day. But wait… our kids need to eat lunch! Add 40–60 minutes. Now we’re at 5 hours 40 minutes–8.5 hours. We want our kids to participate in the fine arts and physical education; add 1 more hour. And don’t forget, in order for our young learners to be able to handle all this curriculum, they need breaks—RECESS! Add 20 more minutes! We’re now totaling a minimum of 7 hours to nearly 10 hours! None of this even takes into account all the transition time in an elementary classroom! There simply is not enough time in the day to give each subject area its due—so why do it?
That’s the question we’ll explore. What if we broke down silos in education and shared time across the curriculum? What would happen if we decompartmentalized subjects? Would it take away the organization and safety we’re used to? Probably! Would that be so bad?
What’s the purpose of silos in education?
Imagine this: It’s time to learn your state’s history for social studies and it’s over 200 years’ worth! You also want your kids to practice research skills. Additionally, your writing curriculum calls for a realistic fiction piece. In reading, you are in your nonfiction reading unit and are teaching specific skills for effectively reading nonfiction text. Finally, you like to teach oral-presentation skills (uh-oh, we didn’t allow time for that; add an hour!). By the way, math and science cannot be forgotten. You might be thinking, It’s too much… and you’re right! It is too much. But what if we “shared time” between subject areas and separated out what absolutely needed to be done?
What if we created a unit in which the history texts we worked with were used for research and we taught the nonfiction-text strategies prior to reading it? Let’s say we also emphasized research skills and proper note-taking daily during the reading, then had students use that information to create an oral presentation to help reinforce the information for the whole class. Take it a step further and have the topic of the realistic-fiction book be about one of the historical persons or events you are studying. Keep a class timeline in which you utilize addition and subtraction strategies to make sense of the timing between historical events.
You may be thinking, This is cross-curricular teaching; that’s come and gone and come again and gone again! But what I’m proposing is different! I’m proposing a system of “sharing” time AND “cutting” time and “buying” time.
“Sharing”, “Buying”, and “Cutting”
First of all, since you connected reading, writing, and social studies to the same topic of studying the history, you can share those three blocks of time as one large block and the minutes within the block are flexible to the needs of your students. This is “sharing” time.
You instruct students to read the history as a means of researching for the timeline, the realistic-writing piece, and the oral presentation. In order to really get the critical information from it, they need to use the comprehension strategies for reading informational text that you have been teaching. Be sure to teach proper note-taking as a part of your process, and in the 30 minutes it takes to do the reading, you’ve just covered skills for social studies and reading, practiced writing, prepared for a writing piece, and conducted research! If you taught in a silo approach, each of those four subject areas would demand at least 30 minutes, totaling up to 2 hours. By “sharing” time, you just “bought” an hour and a half of your day!
Now, how do we “cut” time? You’ve already taught research skills, day in and day out, for an authentic purpose, so cut that unit altogether when it shows up at the end of the year! Do I dare propose cutting reading-workshop time? I do! If you’re teaching the same set of skills that you would teach during a reading unit, but you’re teaching them for a practical and authentic application, then there is no need to do it in the time frame designated for reading workshop! Are you seeing the trend here? Teach the skills you are required to teach, but teach them for authentic and practical purposes in a highly engaging topic—like your state’s history.
But what about reading groups? I can’t get rid of reading groups! You’re right! Don’t get rid of reading groups. You now just “bought” yourself an hour and a half to help you fit them in. Use the texts you’re using for history and do your strategy groups. You will get more out of your students because they are reading to understand and apply the information to their own work, not just to practice a strategy.
How can we continue to “buy” time? When you discuss years on the timeline and need to subtract years to find out how many years between major events, teach subtraction strategies then—don’t wait for it to show up in your math curriculum. Teach it for an authentic and practical purpose! Then, when it does show up in the math curriculum, skip it! You’ve already taught it! Chances are, too, that if you taught it for a practical purpose, it was learned, and learned well.
When you are asking your students to choose a historical artifact to research to broaden the scope of their learning and engagement, ask them to write you a persuasive letter as to why they should be able to study that particular artifact. Tell them they need at least three reasons that are rooted in evidence. When you get to your persuasive-writing unit, shorten the time spent on reasons—they already know that and chances are, since it was for an authentic and practical purpose, they will have learned it well.
Isolating facts, strategies, and concepts into compartments, or silos in education, just isn’t how the world works. The world is messy. Learning is messy; it’s not separated, organized, and safe! Maybe what I’m proposing sounds dangerous to you, but why? Is it because our subject-area compartments ensure we will effectively attend to everything?
When learning is “messy” and integrated, that’s when transfer happens. What are we teaching for, if not transfer? And to be very clear, I’m not proposing cutting any critical content or standards. I’m proposing a different lens by which to view your instructional day. Make it work for you and your students. You can (and should) attend to all of your standards for each subject; how you attend to them is the difference here.
“When we consider time not as periods of the day that we fill but as a cultural force sending messages about what we value and shaping students’ learning, we take a step toward thinking about time differently, toward changing our paradigm with regard to time. It then becomes crucial that we marshal and allocate the resources of time in a way that supports thinking…. This means getting clear about our priorities so that we can look beyond the schedule and the coverage of material to focus on the learning and thinking that needs to happen in classrooms.”
—From Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools,
Ron Ritchhart, 2015.
Sample Education Schedule
Thinking about time differently is really what I am proposing. So it may seem contradictory to provide a schedule in time blocks… but let’s face it, as much as we would like to have no constraints on us within a day, that’s not ever going to happen. So below is a sample of how I schedule my day. Keep in mind that reading is taught throughout the day, and writing is given its own time block for writing instruction, but writing is expected in ALL subject areas.
9:00–10:00 Fine Arts or Physical Education
11:00–12:00 Social Studies*
12:00–12:40 Lunch and Recess
12:40–1:30 Writing Workshop With Reading or Writing Strategy Groups
1:50–3:00 Cross Integration of Subjects—Project Time
(Examples include working on research for the history project, reading a science article and using reading strategies, writing a persuasive piece for a proposal of a project, creating a presentation, etc.) Social studies is a great subject to integrate other subjects into and to create large-scale projects where students are highly engaged and are authentically using a multitude of strategies that transcend subject areas. It gives your students a purpose for their learning and allows you to “share” time. When you “share” time, you automatically “buy” time and “cut ”time from other areas!
*Teach reading strategies with these subject-area reading materials.
Be flexible with the time blocks. If Science takes an hour and a half for an investigation and there is not time for Social Studies, either move Social Studies down to the last block, or on the next day, skip Science and do an hour and a half of Social Studies. The point is, we need to think about what thinking we’d like our students to do, which academic opportunities will encourage that type of thinking, then let go of time-block constraints whenever possible so that we may provide these opportunities.
So silos are amazing… but let’s leave them for the farmers. Let’s break out of the silos in education and buy ourselves some time—both for us and our students. Face it, no one is taking things off our proverbial plates; we just continue to have them be overloaded and even more plates added to the mix. It’s time to make time work for us! Let’s share it, cut it, and buy it so we have time to help our students achieve their goals.
Bridget Zahradnik is a wife, mother, educator, and FranklinCovey consultant for Leader in Me. She is also a community volunteer and elementary science coordinator. She currently teaches 3rd grade in Novi, Michigan at Parkview Elementary where two of her three children attend school. She has a daughter in first grade, a son in third grade and another son in 6th grade. She loves teaching and leading. She aspires to always pass on enthusiasm for learning to all her students and her own children, as well as helping them to find their voices and inspire others to find theirs!