+ Academic Clubs for Teaching Social Studies

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The Lab School of Washington (LSW) has a unique approach to social studies and humanities instruction, according to a rich article by Noel Bicknell in the LDA publication Learning Disabilities: a Multidisciplinary Journal.

In this arts-driven lower school program, every child spends 40 minutes a day in a room that simulates a specific historical time and place.  These sessions are called “academic clubs.” 

Currently, there are seven:

  • Cave Club — for the study of human evolution and pre-historic culture.  Students evolve through five stages of early human development, and explore the origins of human language, shelter, agriculture, and culture.
  • Gods Club — for the study of Egyptian, Greek and Roman history, mythology and culture.  Students become “gods” and “goddesses,” and study daily life, art and period technology.
  • Knights and Ladies Club — for the study of medieval Europe, emphasizing the influence of church and feudalism.  Students progress from page to knight and study warfare, arts and the trials of daily life.
  • Renaissance Club —  is set in the city-state of Florence.  Students study the rebirth of Greek and Roman ideas, influences from Asia, and developments in the arts and sciences.  A student works as a guild artist for a patron (teacher) to explore daily life, humanities, geography and the history of the technology.
  • Revolution Club — is set in Colonial America.  Sessions build chronologically to the declaration of independence from England.  Students become historical characters who represent the multiple experiences and perspectives of early American life during this period.
  • Museum Club — study of world history through the eyes of museum curators preparing exhibits.  Periodic museum openings presented to the larger LSW community exhibit recreated artifacts from early civilizations, such as Mesopotamia and ancient China.  Includes a comparative study of world religions.
  • Industrialists Club — a study of American history through the eyes of powerful industrialists as well as their adversaries.  New technology, the conflict between capital and labor, economics, management of natural resources and the progression of civil rights are explored.

Designed for the non-reading and possibly motor-impaired  student, academic clubs aim to build on children’s strengths.  

Students with learning disabilities are often disorganized, but they can also be very creative, visual thinkers.  They frequently show a talent for making quick connections between disparate concepts and ideas.

The academic club provides order and structure: the way the room is entered, the seating arrangement, the ritualistic opening ceremony, the activities presented, the formal dismissal.

LSW feels that this total environmental approach envelops a child in a number of topics and, by using all five senses, helps him or her amass a storehouse of information.

Furthermore, since students with learning disabilities are often passive learners, instead of offering lectures the clubs allow a child to become an active part of each topic studied. 

The content of LSW’s club activities is highly academic.

Using a panoply of art forms students learn history, geography, civics, archaeology, literature and economics.

Participants risk trying new skills and foster a tightly knit group dynamic by developing passwords, routines and rituals.  This learning is total immersion — multi-sensory and project-based.


The word club was chosen carefully.  It implies membership, belonging and ownership.  Clubs are groups where each person has a recognized place.  There is room for individualization built into group activities in a club. 

LSW feels that a club is non-compartmentalized — arts, subject matter, concepts and  ideas all bear on one another; they reinforce one another and funnel toward the same objectives, while the children are immersed in their play. 

The word leader is used instead of  “teacher.”   “Leader” reflects the experiential nature of the academic club environment, where   children are given active rather than passive learning roles. Leaders act as facilitators of discovery. 

Clear Structure

  • Imaginary identities give each child a specific role and the teacher authentic authority.
  • A decorated entrance door depicts the club’s theme.
  • Specific historical characters/roles are given to students and teachers.
  • Costumes suggest time and place.
  • Passwords, used for entry, convey membership.
  • Total room decorations communicate the club’s topic.
  • An opening ritual marks entry into time and place.
  • A behavior code based on the club’s theme is established.
  • A closing ritual helps students transition to their next activity.

The leader’s role is to help find each child’s path to learning.  Importantly, the dramatic framework provides psychic cover for students who have experienced previous academic failure. 

According to Bicknell,

Just as each plant or animal in an ecosystem occupies a specific environmental niche — its own critical habitat to survive — students with learning disabilities need a highly structured yet pedagogically flexible environment in which to learn how to learn and express their strengths fully.

For the entire article, with much more information about how this rich learning experience is mounted and deployed, see “Learning Disabilities: A Multidisciplinary Journal,” Spring/Summer 2010.  Noel Bicknell’s article is titled The Academic Clubs: Theory to Practice,” pp.85-89.  

Noel Bicknell is in his eleventh year leading Academic Clubs at The Lab School of Washington.  He also coordinates the Academic Club Teaching Service, a training program for schools interested in using the methodology in thier programs.

Become a member of LDA, Learning Disabilities Association of America: http://www.ldaamerica.org or email info@ldaamerica.org.  

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021  or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com


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