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Q&A: Researcher Examines How the Gulf War Was Taught in Schools

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When American troops were sent to the Persian Gulf in 1991, a spate of news reports provided anecdotal evidence that the war had become a major focus of classroom discussions nationwide.

To take a closer look at the educational quality of those discussions, researchers from the University of Maine and Illinois State University surveyed 350 secondary school teachers in the two states. The survey asked the teachers to describe how they approached the topic and queried them on their own pedagogical orientations toward social-studies teaching. The findings were compiled in a report, which was presented this fall at the annual convention of the National Council for the Social Studies in Detroit.

Assistant Editor Debra Viadero talked about some of those findings with Lynn R. Nelson, an assistant professor of social-studies education at the University of Maine and a co-author of the study.

Q. Why did you decide to look at classroom treatment of the Gulf war in particular?

A. My interest was sparked initially by National Public Radio broadcasts. One was about an elementary teacher in Maryland who defined war for her 5th-grade class and explained that sometimes we have to fight and go to war. Another was about the British ministry of education and their orders in effect to British teachers not to go beyond the national curriculum, which officially ended in the 1960's.

The other reason is the debate in the social studies between advocates of a history-centered curriculum and advocates of a social-issues-centered curriculum. We saw that the Gulf war offered an opportunity for teachers to provide historical context or to look at it as a contemporary social issue.

With the historical issue, you had all of this opportunity for teachers to explore the history of the Middle East and innumerable topics from the founding of Israel to the religious crusades of the Middle Ages. ... For those involved in contemporary issues, they could have made comparisons with recent history or they could have made debates about whether the United States should become involved in the war.

Q. Were teachers discussing the war extensively in their classrooms?

A. Certainly, they felt free to interrupt the prescribed curriculum to talk about it. ... The time they spent on the war really paralleled the military involvement of the United States in the war. But, even in September or October [of 1990] we had a number of teachers who devoted 30 percent of their time on the war. ...

Nowhere did the Gulf war become the only topic of instruction, but it was incorporated into classrooms.

Q. You also found that there was little research going on outside of classrooms in connection with the classroom discussions.

A. That was one of the important aspects of this. We were trying to look at the idea of student involvement and inquiry and having sources of information beyond what is provided by the media. We thought, Here's a wonderful opportunity to, at a minimum, skip around in the textbooks available to locate chapters that would provide historical background information or geographical background information. We also thought teachers might use the library as a source of information and involve students in research.

[In fact, however,] 73 percent of teachers just did not rate libraries on a scale of 1 to 8, with 8 being most important, as a source of information about the war. They gave libraries a zero. And 11 percent of teachers rated libraries as very important. That part of the study was disturbing.

It seemed the majority of information that students received about the Gulf war came via newspapers or television news.

Q. Why do you think teachers made so little use of other resources?

A. We did a presentation about this to the New England regional council on the social studies last year in Hartford, Conn. We had secondary-school teachers there and their explanation was that the library materials in their building were so poor they really didn't make use of the library. If that's true, with the cutbacks and the age of austerity we had throughout the 1980's, then what we have are libraries that no longer can provide adequate services to students. That's one possible explanation.

The other possibility--and this is what other researchers have found--is that secondary-school teachers still like to maintain large-group instruction, and they're hesitant to involve students in individual research. Again, that is a very disturbing finding.

Q. You also found that few teachers drew parallels between the war and other historical events, such as the Vietnam War. Why was that?

A. I know some historians are really hesitant to draw parallels across time and across other cultures. Even if social-studies teachers were trying to establish the uniqueness of the Gulf war, one way to establish uniqueness would be to compare it with other events, such as the Vietnam War, to establish how different it is. That, I expected, would've been part of the teaching about the war. That was not a very positive finding from my perspective.

Q. Were there any links between teachers' philosophical orientation for teaching the social studies and their treatment of the topic?

A. That's an interesting finding, too. ... What we found was that people who had a reflective-inquiry focus, or were John Deweyian in perspective, those individuals were more willing to spend time on the war. We didn't find any differences in terms of use of the library or use of debate or any other methods associated with that orientation.

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