Analyzing Public Issues - Clarification through Discussion: A Case Study of Social Studies Teachers
Byford, Jeff, Russell, William, Social Studies Review
In 1957, two events helped set the stage for reform within the social studies curriculum. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, Americans feared Soviet technical superiority, causing a collective re-examination of school curriculum. The second event came from two researchers at Purdue University in the form of a public opinion poll of school age children. The results of the poll pushed for the dismal of the social studies in schools. Students believed the government should exercise the right to limit freedom of speech and have the power of search and seizure of individual's homes without search warrants. According to Barr, Barth and Shermis (1977), the Council for Basic Education and a substantial portion of Americans pushed for education reform.
Almost overnight the Office of Education launched a movement to make major changes in the nation's social studies curriculum by funding a variety of social studies projects which included: 1) the Carnegie-Mellon Social Studies Project, 2) the University of Minnesota Project Social Studies, 3) the Anthropology Curriculum Study Project, 4) Basic Concepts in History and Social Sciences, 5) the Committee on the Study of History, 6) the Developmental Economic Education Program, 7) Development of Economic Curricular Materials for Secondary Schools, 8) ECON 12, 9) the High School Geography Project, 10) Sociological Resources for secondary Schools, 11) the Harvard Social Studies Project, 12) Asian Studies Inquiry Project, 13) Project Africa, and 14) the North Central Association Foreign Relations Project (Dumas and Guenther, 1971). Eventual more than 50 projects were develop, to either integrate social studies for the purpose of citizenship education, or to teach history and social sciences as ends in themselves.
During the 1960s, new materials and projects were developed focusing on controversial issues, inquiry-based assessment, and student-led decision making. The Harvard Social Studies Project was one of the most popular curriculum projects to come out of the new social studies. Developed to teach high school students of average ability to clarify and justify their positions on public issues, the project used historical, fictional, and contemporary situations as illustrations of basic social and value conflicts. Analyzing Public Issues: Clarification through Discussion was one of many approaches used throughout the project.
According to Oliver and Newmann (1969) clarification through discussion can be divided into three basic elements: 1) the analysis of public controversy in terms of prescriptive, descriptive, and analytical issues, 2) the use of distinct strategies for justification and clarification, and 3) a systematic attention to the discussion process as one deals with controversial issues.
Today, the discussion method is one of several teaching strategies used by social studies teachers as a means of learning. Unfortunately, many teachers often neglect this method of instruction due to the lack of control and comfort in students openly discussing and debating issues. Rather, teachers tend to use only one teaching style day after day, which denies the opportunity of a variety of teaching techniques (Siler, 1998).
The use of discussion, particularly clarification and analyzes through discussion can be used to teach students of average ability to clarify and justify their opinions on public issues, literature and historical events. Hess (2001) suggested that teaching with discussion and allowing student feedback means improving students' ability to think. Furthermore, teaching with discussion enables students to develop an understanding of the issues, enhance critical thinking skills, and improve student's interpersonal skills.
Harwood and Hahn (1990) allude that analyzing controversial topics is prevalent to the social studies for three reasons. First, analyzing controversial issues through discussion helps prepare students for future roles as citizens in a pluralistic society. Second, discussion and analyzes of potential controversial public issues helps in the development of critical thinking skills, and third, analyzing public issues to improve the interpersonal skills among students.
Building on previous research, the researchers interviewed public school teachers who attended workshops dealing with teaching controversial issues methods to gain an answer to the following research question: How do the methods in clarification through discussion differ, if any, from other inquiry methods used in your classroom? In answering this research question, teachers were interviewed to gather information on the following related questions; a) In your opinion, what are some of the potential uses of the clarification through discussion technique in your classroom? b) Do you believe the clarification through discussion technique is student friendly when addressing controversial topics and issues?
Method / Sample Selection
The participants were selected from a mid-western college summer seminar designed to provide practicing teachers in-service points for continuing education. Teachers were taught several techniques used in Analyzing Public Issues: Clarification through Discussion to include the following: 1) the analysis of public issues in terms of prescriptive, descriptive, and analytical issues, 2) the use of distinct strategies for justification and clarification on one's views on such issues, and 3) the systematic attention to the discussion process as one deals with a controversial issue (Oliver and Newmann, 1969, p.4).
At the time the study was conducted, thirty students were enrolled in a graduate summer seminar designed to explore teaching controversial issues in the social science. At total of twenty-eight students (14 male and 14 female) were selected creating a convenience sample of social studies teachers. All interviews were conducted in July. The purpose of the interviews was to discover attitudes towards teaching elements of the Harvard Social Studies Project as a supplemental tool. Teachers' responses were probed and clarified for comprehension with personal experiences encouraged. Interviews were taped recorded to ensure accuracy and later transcribed. Notes were taken from each interview describing nonverbal cues and posture. Each interview was then coded and resulting themes were noted.
Results and Discussion
The purpose of this study was to explore the Harvard Social Studies Project's Analyzing Public Issues: Clarification though Discussion as an approach to discuss controversial topics in the social studies classroom. With teacher variables, previous research, examples from the project, and the research questions in mind, two dominant themes emerged. Themes were designed to both answer the research questions and be neither static nor mutually exclusive. The first theme suggested active involvement and students' personal beliefs led to positive perceptions towards the discussion of controversial issues in the classroom. The second theme suggested the Harvard Social Studies Project's approach towards teaching controversial issues is versatile in its curriculum implications. The teachers' insight came from a collective 54 years teaching experience and different exposures to teaching methodology, content and evaluation techniques. Generally, most teachers were open and expressed interest in the Harvard Social Studies Project as a resource for classroom discussion. During the interview process, teachers expressed the importance of using current issues topics to relate to their units, themes or events studied.
During the interviews, teachers expressed active involvement as a means of student intellectual growth and success. Active learning and student participation were described as attributes towards students discussing and debating issues. Several teachers described the uniqueness the Harvard Social Studies Project delivered to the classroom compared to other traditional inquiry techniques.
The methods in the Harvard Project differ from other inquiry methods used in my classroom because the Harvard Project touches more on the types of questions that deal with more than what one's opinion is and why, but rather one's personal beliefs. The Harvard Project makes students become personally involved and the rationale of someone else's responses could make a student see others opinions (Interview with Lisa).
Several teachers mentioned the detailed guidelines used within the lessons found in the Harvard Social Studies Project. Teachers expressed the appreciation of the structure and clarity used in each lesson.
The Harvard Social Studies Project is more detailed than other inquiry-based lessons I have used. The project allows for students to begin at the start. Students can focus on the problem at hand with almost a "hands on approach" which is clearly outlined. The specific outlines allow for students to ask specific questions, but also have their own opinions and suggestions. Having a structured guideline helps students not to be placed "on the spot", while making students feel comfortable responding to the issues at hand (Interview with Chad).
Teachers saw the need for effective discussion among their students. Discussion allowed students to express themselves while investigating the issue. Thirteen teachers stated that students enjoyed hearing their peers opinions, ideas and beliefs in a student friendly environment. The teachers' opinions reflected Ehman's (1977) belief, that positive effects of controversial issues discussion included the opportunity for students' wide range of views and beliefs to be heard by others. As a result, teachers expressed that a majority of their students, when given the opportunity to discuss issues in class, increased their civic awareness towards social, political and environmental issues.
Students were described as "feeling validated" and "having a chance to discuss their ideas with others." It would seem that teachers support Hess' (2001) argument that teaching with discussion and allowing student feedback means helping students improve their ability to think. Furthermore, teaching with discussion enables students to develop an understanding of a specific issue, enhances critical thinking skills and helps to improve interpersonal skills.
In sum, using discussion techniques, when teaching the social studies content proves to be a valuable method. One of the many results concluded in the study, and arguably the most important, is that fact that students had an increased civic awareness toward social, political, and environmental issues. By increasing students' civic awareness, social studies teachers are helping develop students into effective citizens. Furthermore, creating effective citizens is national standard for social studies teachers set forth by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS).
The results of this research study strengthen the case for teaching the social studies using discussion techniques. Teachers and students alike found class discussions to be an effective and useful technique for the social studies classroom. In addition, teaching using discussion techniques proved to help students develop an understanding for a specific issue, enhance critical thinking skills, and improve interpersonal skills. Therefore, discussion techniques should be utilized when teaching the social studies curriculum.
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Dumas, W., & Guenther, J. (1971). The national social studies projects: A survey of curriculum implementation in Missouri and Kansas high schools, Columbia, MO: University of Missouri (Monograph)
Ehman, L. (1977). Social studies instruction factors causing change in high school students' sociopolitical attitudes over a two-year period. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New York.
Harwood, A., & Hahn, C. (1990). Controversial issues in the classroom. Bloomington, IN: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies / Social Science Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction No. ED 327453).
Hess, M. (2001). Teaching students to discuss controversial public issue. Bloomington, IN: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies / Social Science Education.(ERIC Document Reproduction No. ED 334658).
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Middle Grades and Secondary Education
Valdosta State University
William Benedict Russell III
Middle Grades and Secondary Education
Valdosta State University…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Analyzing Public Issues - Clarification through Discussion: A Case Study of Social Studies Teachers. Contributors: Byford, Jeff - Author, Russell, William - Author. Magazine title: Social Studies Review. Volume: 46. Issue: 1 Publication date: Fall 2006. Page number: 70+. © California Council for the Social Studies Fall 2001. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.