Teaching War: Pedagogy of History in the Classroom

Teaching about World War II and other global conflicts in the classroom can be a daunting but imperative task for teachers. The dilemma of providing an all round coverage of the happenings of the war while also setting the context about wars through nuances of the cultural context of the victors can be a daunting task. The struggle is exacerbated when students must be exposed to the necessarily graphic and pervasive nature of wartime news reports and other sources of information. How can teachers raise and discuss issues related to war – safety, conflict-resolution, history, geography, diversity, current events, and more – in classroom-appropriate ways?

Teaching war pedagogy

Why is it Important to Teach Children about World War II?

Wars affect communities in an indiscriminate manner. The happenings of war affect everyone equally, including the children. It then becomes something of a moral imperative to educate young learners of what the accident of birth in a different country or era could have meant. Also, children learning about the history and heroes of the second World War will better understand the ways in which accumulation and distribution of power and resources plays a huge role in changing history. However, teaching the history of this war is only the first step – teachers must go on to teach the lasting legacy of the war and how it continues to shape the world as we know it today. 

Here are two approaches teachers can use while teaching about World War II or any global conflict. They can choose from a variety of stories, first-hand narratives such as Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, online resources, and interactive activities that make the history and legacy of World War 2 relevant to today’s students. Being able to reflect on stories of people of their age who lived in grossly different situations can bolster the concept-learning and a larger sense of empathy.

  1. Approaching the Topic of the World Wars in a Spirit of Inquiry

The ideal pedagogical approach when it comes to war and other kinds of global violence is to ask questions and create a framework of inquiry. Some important questions to ask your students would be: What do you know about the World Wars? What do you think you know about the World Wars? What questions do you have about the two wars? This pedagogical framework assesses students’ knowledge and follows their questions to delve deeper into the topic. 

The information gathered during the process of inquiry can then be mapped with the help of a concept web. A concept web is a visual diagram that connects abstract ideas. Students can use it to connect prior knowledge to new information. They can build upon this prior knowledge by researching the topic, making their own discoveries, and bringing this information to class. This method may not be very systematic or methodical, it will certainly raise several pertinent issues while keeping them engaged with the topic. 

Approaching the topic of the World Wars in this spirit of inquiry helps students become aware of the ideas, values, and evidence they will use to arrive at their own conclusions. This method is also the best preparation for participating in the democratic process as adults. It might even be interesting for them to guide their curiosity to find more about our past through encyclopedias and Britannica.

  1. A Collective Approach to the Topic of the World Wars

Students in the elementary grades are quite familiar with the World Wars as well as with other global conflicts. The collective approach is a constructive way to teach about the World Wars or any kind of conflict sans the risk of spreading fear or propaganda among impressionable young minds.

Using this approach, teachers encourage students to pool what they know and what they think they know about the World Wars. Students are also expected to list topics and issues about which they want to learn more. They are then encouraged to find answers to their questions, often by interviewing their parents, family members and friends. The information they thus gather usually helps correct any misinformation or misconceptions they may have had and sometimes generates more questions. The process of questioning and information-gathering culminates in a final activity such as a report, a presentation, a quiz, etc.

Also, Read; Online Education vs Offline Education

Using Moral and Civic Principles as a Framework to Discuss War 

We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. –Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

Public schools in the United States are entrusted with the civic responsibility to impart the ideals and principles enshrined in the Constitution. Using the U.S. Constitution as the framework, teachers can invite students to discuss how best to apply the principles of liberty and equality, for instance, in any global conflict. They can discuss how to sustain these values and what kind of civic obligations would be required to sustain them. It should be made clear that it is normal to disagree about how best to apply those principles. Students can also be encouraged to understand how, historically, the government and citizens of the United States have adhered to these values and principles. 

Tailoring Your Teaching According to the Grade

The degree to which teachers should directly address the topic of world wars and the resultant violence depends on the age and requirements of their students. 

Preschool children are generally concerned about their personal safety and that of their families and friends; war is a new concept to them and need a gentle introduction to it and learn how it has affected/will affect them. 

Also Read: Three Major Sociological Perspectives on War and Society

Students in the elementary grades are often interested in the people involved in the war; they want to know why countries fight with each other and what they can do to help. 

Middle school students, who are in the midst of forming their own opinions, would probably be more interested in learning more about the reasons that led to the war and in exploring a variety of perspectives about it. 

High school students are ready to acquire an in-depth understanding of the history of World War 2 and the myriad issues that surrounded it, and in relating the war to what they already know about history, geography, politics, etc.