Volume:6, Issue: 2

Sep. 1, 2014

Cultural Universals as an Integrated Pedagogical Approach for Preservice Teachers
Winstead, Lisa [about] , Gautreau, Cynthia [about]

KEY WORDS: cultural universals, social studies, preservice teachers, pedagogy, professional development.

ABSTRACT: The purpose of this research was to explore preservice teachers’ experiential perceptions concerning the use of cultural universals in the classroom.  Cultural universals are explored as a pedagogical approach and framework for teacher instruction and social studies curricular implementation.  The information collected as a result of this research may influence professional development among teachers to improve the instruction in social studies content and the inclusion of cultural universals in instruction.

Classrooms are comprised of mainstream learners, English Learners, and learners with special needs.  Teachers need exposure to effective instructional strategies that meet the needs of learners.  Instructional time devoted to social studies (SS) content is limited, and teachers have few opportunities to learn approaches to support SS instruction (Bleicher & Kirkwood-Tucker, 2004; Brown, 2007; Author, 2011).  As university faculty who teach preservice teachers we are confronted with several issues related to SS instruction in schools including instructional time and teacher professional development (PD).  The focus of standardized tests places more instruction and emphasis on mathematics and language arts in elementary schools. Teachers’ time is primarily limited by accountability measures (Scruggs, Mastropieri, & Okolo, 2008, author, 2011).  A disproportionate amount of instructional time is focused on language arts and mathematics curriculum in lieu of SS (Doppen, 2007).  

Cultural Universals: A Thematic Framework for Understanding Abstract Concepts

Cultural universals’ concept provides a thematic frame for organizing interdisciplinary information.  Howard(1999) noted major SS themes as identified by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) as culture, time, continuity, change, people, place, and environments; individual groups and institutions; power, authority and governance; production, distribution and consumption; science, technology and society; global connections; and civic ideals and practices. The NCSS (2010) provides an example of early grades performance expectations, noting that SS programs should include experiences that provide for the study of culture and cultural diversity. Cultural universals may be a thematic approach to address SS instruction, as well as, make cross-curricular connections (Brophy & Alleman, 2001; Campbell & Henning, 2010) connected to academic standards.

Second Language Learners and Cultural Universals

Social studies concepts tend to be abstract and provide cognitive challenges for English Learners (Brown, 2007; Scruggs et al., 2008). Typically elementary teachers focus on numerous facts within the school year with an over-reliance on textbooks as a primary resource (Brophy & Alleman, 2009; Brown, 2007; Kon, 1995; Shand, 2009).  When the SS textbook is the predominant resource students rely on textbook to be clear and concise, especially when working independently.  In addition, much of what students read before third grade focuses on narrative versus expository material which “more complicated concepts are conveyed” (Spor, 2005, p. 19) that presents challenges for English Learners and students reading below grade level. Photographs of particular concepts, such as shelter may appear within the text, but the caption often lacks deeper meaning and may be unconnected to the main concepts, and as a result students gain minimal understanding of concepts (Brown, 2007; Scruggs et al., 2008).  

The lack of explicit content in textbooks reinforces the need for increased teacher knowledge in academic content.  Much of the conversation about thematic conceptual development of academic knowledge is discussed in the literature on English Learners and often includes the use of Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English (SDAIE) strategies that make academic content accessible to students (Brown, 2007; Cline & Necochea, 2004). Retention is greater when students are exposed to information that is provided in thematic, relational, and associative manners (Endacott, 2005; Endacott, 2011).  “Thus, chunking information in various ways and in a variety of formats (e.g., auditory, visual), tapping prior knowledge, and providing scaffolding with which to increase student schemata can influence a learner’s increased memory retention”  (Author, 2004, p. 35). Furthermore, “As the teacher makes connections with the core curriculum, students are able to assimilate new knowledge and build the schematics necessary for language learning and conceptual development to occur”  (Cline & Necochea, 2004, p. 18). This approach is linked to teaching students (including English Learners) within their zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978) in ways that tap their multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1993).  The SDAIE lessons tend to chunk information together in holistic ways.

Brain-based learning reveals that by using teacher facilitation of the contextualization of complex themes and patterning (Caine & Caine, 1995), students are able to constructing and linking meaning in relatable and logical ways (Caine & Caine, 1995; Gülpinar, 2005).  Frishkoff, Perfetti, and Collins-Thompkins (2011) studied students’ cortical responses to abstract words.  They found abstract words studied in a variety of contextual situations promoted greater active processing of meaning (higher cortical activity) in contrast to the study of vocabulary word lists in incidental ways. Teachers need to be proficient in supporting students’ transfer of knowledge to new scenarios.

Knowledge Transfer: Teacher to Student

When teachers provide students with a cultural universals conceptual frame for structurally organizing ideas, it becomes easier for students to transfer knowledge and link conceptual knowledge to newer information across the curriculum (Dorsey, Campbell, Foster, & Miles, 1999).  In developing an interdisciplinary knowledge structure, greater “insights into a social problem or public policy issue, an artistic vision, or historic perspective” (Ivanistskaya, Clark, Montgomery, & Primeau, 2002, p. 107) may be discerned.  

Professional Development

Effective PD should be tacit, personal and context specific (Hood, 2002). Research in PD by Lieberman and Wilkins (2006) emphasizes the need for a focused experience that improves strategies and positively influences student performance. Sorcinelli (2002) asserts that educators should have a direct say in the decision making process and be involved in their PD.  Teachers are responsible for teaching SS to students, they should be provided with instructional strategies and modeling that is effective given the time constraint and the lack of emphasis on SS content during a typical instructional day.  Thus, a small body of research about the experiences and perceptions of preservice teachers exposed to interdisciplinary approaches educational programs reveals that by providing teachers with interdisciplinary knowledge they were able to make deeper conceptual connections.  Spalding (2002) found “the majority of these preservice teachers reported a positive change in their thinking” (p. 171) about integrating curriculum and how it enhanced their ability to make deeper conceptual connections as noted in the findings.  In a similar study, Richards and Shea (2006) found that preservice teachers were able to make contextualized and thematic connections in their teaching and with their students. Further, Bleicher and Kirkwood-Tucker (2004) found that elementary teachers who joined forces to integrate SS and science in global ways had increased positive attitudes about global curricular integration. A number of researchers have called on educational programs to provide preservice teachers with training that provides pedagogical approaches to integrate curriculum (Bleicher & Kirkwood-Tucker, 2004; Brophy & Alleman, 2002; Campbell & Henning, 2010) and provides perspective consciousness to discern multiple points of views and develop global perspectives through SS curriculum (Bleicher & Kirkwood-Tucker, 2004; Brophy & Alleman, 2002; Henning, Peterson, & King, 2011; Wilson, 2001).

Purpose of the Research

The purpose of this research was to explore preservice teachers’ experiential perceptions concerning cultural universals in the classroom.  Cultural universals are explored as a pedagogical approach and framework for teacher instruction and curricular implementation.  The information collected as a result of this research may influence PD among teachers to improve the type of content input student receives that is more explicit in nature. 


This research consisted of a mixed methods approach to investigating preservice teachers’ knowledge of key SS concepts before and after PD about the cultural universals pedagogical approach.  Quantitative data were collected using a pre- and post-survey.  Qualitative data were collected by the researchers through surveys and a focus group interview in order to obtain multiple perspectives about learning and teaching cultural universals in the classroom.


The target population for this study was limited to preservice teachers enrolled in the Multiple Subject Teacher Credential Program. Participants were enrolled in a two-semester program, completing the second semester of required coursework and student teaching (N=21).  The focus group consisted of a subset of preservice teachers (N=6) who were part of the larger group.

Research Questions

Two research questions were explored (1) Does pedagogical modeling of a cultural universals approach influence preservice teachers’ knowledge of cultural universals? (2) Does professional development influence preservice teachers’ understanding of cultural universals instruction in social studies?

Data Collection

Data were collected using three sources.  A pre-survey, a post survey, and a focus group interview were used to collect data from participants.  The pre-survey and the post survey consisted of 22 questions (see Appendix A). The focus group (N = 6) interviews took place 30 days after the PD. 


Question 1

The conclusions drawn based on question one “Did professional development influence preservice teachers’ understanding of cultural universals?” showed that after receiving PD about cultural universals, most of the participants understood key cultural universals concepts.  Nine of the 21 participants were able to define the concept "cultural universals,” 12 were unable to correctly define the term.  Overall, they were knowledgeable about the meaning of cultural universals (e.g., government, economics) however; they had not made deeper cross-curricular connections.

Participants developed a comprehensive understanding of the importance of conveying content through cultural universals (e.g., cultural universals as a graphic organizer, culturally relevant pedagogy) to help reduce student marginalization and deficit notions. Upon reviewing pre-survey and post-survey cultural universals definitions, there was minimal change in their understanding of these concepts.  However, participants developed broader notions about these concepts in their post-test. Next, participants were asked to choose one cultural universal and write briefly about a lesson.  One participant wrote about technology and his or her expanded knowledge of this concept that went beyond his initial association of technology. Twenty of the 21 participants similarly emphasized a gain in understanding of the broader context of communication and how it could be identified in linguistic and nonlinguistic forms.  Of the 21, five chose to write about strategies to incorporate the theme of communication.

Question 2

Question 2 “Does professional development influence preservice teachers’ understanding of cultural universals instruction in social studies and other disciplines?”  Data analysis revealed several themes that were supported in the literature.  Cultural universals provide preservice teachers with a frame to (1) organize content and teaching in thematic ways; (2) relate content to all students in cultural, social, and personal ways; (3) develop cross-curricular connections and intersections; (4) provides access to a deeper conceptual meaning; and, (5) global understanding.  Two other divergent themes emerged (6) implementation constraints; and, (7) lack of SS pedagogical awareness.

Organize Content and Thematic Teaching

Participants revealed that they understood the standards and how to make pedagogical connections with thematic content. Participants commented that they believed the approach was more holistic and would promote engagement and understanding by applying thematic patterns. One participant, who had an opportunity to apply her knowledge from the PD training to her student teaching, found that a cultural universal approach improved understanding of the thematic concepts personally by comparing the historical present with the past.

Relates Content in Culturally, Socially, and Personally Relevant Ways

Participants viewed the approach favorable in relating the curriculum to students in social cultural ways. Participants commented on integrating the concept of family life and dynamics would be easy for students to relate to on a personal level. As one participant commented,

You could relate that back to the religion universal. Or if they’re fighting over land or money or possessions, I think that you would really have to focus on this, get a good understanding yourself and then go to the standards or the curriculum, take a different kind of approach and look at it and start seeing where you can fit this in because it’s a whole different way of thinking about it (Jenny, focus group).

Develop Cross-Curricular Connections

The participants had limited exposure to cross-curricular SS instruction.  However, after PD in cultural universals, many participants noted an increased understanding of integrated curricular themes. Despite instructional time challenges, they began to see that an integrated approach would ensure that their students learned key concepts holistically.  One participant commented,

I know that doing what we covered when we went into the unit, I didn’t really teach it the way you [researcher] did, I know I made clear connections.

As reflected in the literature, after PD and the implementation of cultural universals in SS, participants were able to grasp the value of developing cross-cultural connections. Furthermore, 6 of the 21 participants mentioned that cultural universals was a basis from which information could be built upon not only within each classroom, but across and within grade levels to promote student’s conceptual knowledge.

Provides Access to a Deeper Conceptual Meaning

Participants indicated that by learning about cultural universals they expanded their ability to teach abstract concepts in meaningful ways.  In turn, the participants’ transfer of knowledge would ultimately affect their students understanding of key SS concepts.  As one participant noted,

I like the idea of using the concept of family life to teach SS.  It is a concept that all the students can relate to and connect to. 

As reflected in the literature review, after learning about the benefits of integrating cultural universals, participants were more likely to understand the value and expand their knowledge of key concepts.

Build Global Connections

The PD helped to build global connections that may be promoted through cultural universals inclusion in SS.  Another phenomenon that occurred in post-survey responses were increased references to the inherent nature of the cultural universals that would allow preservice teachers and teachers to help make students more aware of culturally pluralistic societies in the United States and globally.

Associated Teaching Constraints

While teachers touted many of the benefits of teaching cultural universals, they were conflicted by pedagogical contradictions in types of essentialist approaches promoted in schools (Campbell & Henning, 2010; Henning, Peterson, & King, 2011).  The theme of barriers to implementing a cultural universals approach or even getting an opportunity to teach SS inevitably emerged in survey responses and focus group interviews. All participants noted that they would incorporate cultural universals as a thematic approach in the future.  Focus group participants noted that due to subject matter constraints (e.g., language arts, mathematics) they and other participants were unable to incorporate thematic approaches into their instruction.

Teaching Time

Another constraint for teaching thematically might be the associated time factor, which allows for open dialogue and student discussion during conceptualization of major themes.  Not only did participants note that having the time to teach concepts was a luxury, in the focus group participants stated that students are expected to know the facts and not necessarily the context to improve test scores.

Lack of Pedagogical Awareness About Social Studies

During the focus group interviews, participants commented on their lack of knowledge about integrating a thematic cultural universals format.  They found that cultural universals were beneficial and could be used in the classroom to promote conceptual understanding of key SS concepts.  However, more than one-third of participants noted that cooperating teachers often resist the teaching of SS and other content as it went against their time and topic frames, a situation also mentioned in a study of preservice teachers completed by Henning, Peterson, and King (2011).


The purpose of this study was to examine what preservice teachers believed about their training in the teaching of cultural universals. In reviewing the data, the researchers not only discovered that most of them believe cultural universals to be a benefit for them in making connections between students and the subject matter in culturally relevant and personal ways, but that it gave them ideas for how they might approach their curriculum as well (e.g., cultural universals frames on the wall and placing information that they have learned from different studies and activities in the classroom).  Participants realized that they are intuitively aware of cultural universals.  However, this type of awareness causes them to overlook how to contextually teach these ideals to students to build a base of knowledge. Cultural universals may be intuitive; however, the concepts are not taught in a manner that students understand and are able to relate to especially when the focus is on factual versus conceptual knowledge.  

Although participants would like to change the way they teach, some found that there were barriers to implementing a SS curriculum whether it is lack of time or a lack of awareness about how to teach it. The cultural universals, as a frame of reference could provide them with more time and focus on major concepts that would help students gain an understanding of their society and also allow them to become globally-minded. Using a cultural universals approach for teaching provides students with a global outlook and teachers with an organizational frame from which to construct, deconstruct, and co-construct knowledge with students.  The cultural universals frame allows students to anchor personal knowledge and teacher-facilitated knowledge within a SS context.  Abstract terms such as economics, governmental organizations, and more common terms such as food, shelter, recreation and art become a part of the students’ daily vocabulary, and it reinforces deeper connections to the content and their world. It allows for personal, interdisciplinary, global, and social contextualization of SS and other academic domains.

As noted in the literature, the inclusion of cultural universal concepts in SS instruction may be a benefit for English Learners.  The transfer of knowledge of common universal concepts is an area that students can relate to regardless of their primary language.  Data collected during this study revealed that participants expressed the need to include SS instruction in a manner that English learners could relate to, understand, and conceptualize.


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Appendix A

Cultural Universals Survey A

Please answer the following questions. Please note that this information will be kept confidential.

  1. Name:
  2. Major/ Degrees:
  3. Age:
  4. Male/Female
  5. Explain your experiences with social studies (e.g., your impression, what you remembered, what you learned)?
  6. What do you perceive to be the most important vocabulary (concepts) in social studies?
  7. How do you plan to teach social studies lessons in the elementary grades?

Cultural Universals Survey Section 2

Define the following and provide one or two examples of each:

  1. Cultural Universals:
  2. Political Organization (government)
  3. Economics:
  4. Technology:
  5. Communication:
  6. Arts and Recreation:
  7. Shelter:
  8. Family Life:
  9. Food:
  10. Clothing:

Cultural Universals Survey Section 3

Choose any of the above and state how you might incorporate one of those concepts or others in a lesson plan.

Please explain in the space provided.

Cultural Universals Survey B


Define the following and provide one or two examples of each:

  1. Cultural Universals:
  2. Political Organization (government):
  3. Economics:
  4. Technology:
  5. Communication:
  6. Arts and Recreation:
  7. Shelter:
  8. Family Life: 
  9. Food:
  10. Clothing:

Cultural Universals Survey B Section 2

Choose any of the above and state how you might incorporate one of those concepts or others in a lesson plan. Please explain in the space provided.

Cultural Universals Survey Section 3

  1. What do you perceive to be the benefits of this type of social studies training for preservice teachers?  (Please explain in depth.)
  2. What are the challenges? (Please explain in depth.)
  3. Has this professional development changed the way that you will teach social studies in the future?  Yes ____ No ____ Please explain: 
  4. What do you think are the benefits of teaching cultural universals in the classroom? Explain.
  5. What do you think the challenges of teaching cultural universals in the classroom might be? Explain.
  6. Do you plan to employ cultural universals in the teaching of social studies?  Why?  And, how—in what ways? 

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