History Uninspired? A Critical Look at Tom Snyder’s American History Inspirer: The Civil War

 

Reviewed by Chad C. Fairey, Clifford T. Bennett, and John Lee

General Overview

Wouldn’t it be great if students could learn about the Civil War in a fascinating and motivating context by examining both the changing geography of antebellum United States and the primary history trends and social shifts that led up to the war? In 1989, Tom Snyder Productions’s innovative National Inspirer received high marks for providing this sort of fusion in a software package that offered a “challenging, competitive search game that requires students to cooperate and use map and graph skills” to succeed in meaningful social studies learning.1

Tom Snyder Productions aspires to this same goal in its latest software package, American History Inspirer: The Civil War. Intended for social studies students in grades 5-12, this piece of software operates on the tenet that the American Civil War was “an event that can be largely understood by being aware of the impact of geography.” Centered on an interactive map of the United States, the software allows students to go on a “scavenger hunt” through the nation and “time jump” to different decades, ostensibly comparing data, graphs, maps, and historical trends. To an innovative educator looking to unleash the power of technology and cross-disciplinary study within social studies, this appears to be a “dream” package. Not only can students learn about the coming of the great war which riveted the nation, but they can also expand their notions of history through its synthesis with geography.

Does American History Inspirer: The Civil War achieve this ambitious and promising goal? Does a look “under the hood” of this package reveal the potential for intricate connections and integrative learning implied by a cursory glance at the software?

 

General Evaluation

Quality of Content

The first characteristic of this software package that is immediately startling is its dearth of content. Considering the incredible storage potential of digital media, American History Inspirer: The Civil War seems to fall short from the outset in what it doesn’t offer to teachers and students. Bereft of primary source documents, images, historical narratives, biographies, and supplemental resources, the software package contains
little more than can be found within the teacher’s guide. All information can be found on printed maps and worksheets; indeed, all of the worksheet activities can be done without the use of the software.

The maps included with the software are detailed, revealing agriculture, population, industrial and military patterns in 19th century America. However, except for a timeline and some ancillary worksheets, virtually no content is provided beyond these maps.

 

General Instructional Quality

One common feature of all Tom Snyder software (and one of its most remarkable assets) is that it recognizes the need for one-computer scenarios as well as multiple-computer scenarios. Detailed instructions are provided that illustrate how to install software, prepare it for instruction, create cooperative learning groups, and facilitate a single-student, student team, or whole class approach to the software. Unfortunately, little is provided in the way of instructional strategies and the entire package is devoid of a single, content-orientated instructional lesson that directly involves the software. The package does include some higher-level worksheets which teachers can use to engage students, although these do not require the use of the software nor do they connect with any technology-based activities. These instructional materials can be integrated with American History Inspirer: The Civil War, but only with the investment of time and prudent planning by the instructor.

Teachers will find the greatest challenge in adapting the software to their specific grade level; direct instructions are entirely absent from the manual, with the only curriculum guidelines being the vague and unrealistic notion that the materials can be used throughout grades 5-12 without adjustment.

 

General Technical Quality

As with all software from Tom Snyder Productions, the technical quality is excellent. The graphics are crisp and striking, screens are active, and sounds accompany most actions and processes throughout the course of the activity. The tool bar is easy to see and read, and available choices are intuitive. Each screen loads quickly and memory does not appear to be an issue of concern; a great advantage of this software is that it all seems able to run at optimum levels on slow and moderate-speed systems.

 

Social Studies Evaluation

Social Studies Knowledge

Students can detect and internalize historical and geographical trends by interacting with the maps provided in American History Inspirer: The Civil War. While students can extract some historical generalizations from the maps—such as “What region of the United States tended to build a great deal of railroads?”—they are most likely to do so only with the guidance of the teacher, as they are not prompted with these questions by the software. The software does facilitate basic geography knowledge including position of states and regions, borders, simple landforms, and the like. If an innovative teacher were to couple this “reference” quality of the software with some pre-chosen primary source documents or images, this package could become a truly powerful instrument for presenting social studies knowledge.

The use of this software does seem well-suited for attending to three of the NCSS Curriculum strands. The software’s focus on geographical and historical trends like the “Growth of the Iron Industry” or “States with a High Slave Population” offers a vehicle for achieving the People, Places and Environments strand. Innovative teachers should integrate primary source materials to elevate this activity toward the strand’s ideal of analyzing “human behavior in relation to its physical and cultural environment.” In addition, the concise and clear nature of the maps could allow the software to successfully achieve the goals of the Production, Distribution, and Consumption and Time, Continuity, and Change strands.

 

Social Studies Skills

This software accomplishes at least half of its goals from the outset: giving students an opportunity to practice map and reference skills in an exciting and motivating context. The competitive and strategic nature of this software works toward this goal well, as the most organized
students with the highest understanding of and familiarity with the maps become the “winners.” It is often easy to write off competitive software such as this as a “simple game” and diminish its effectiveness, but the powerful motivating ability of competition and strategy should not be overlooked.

Although geography has a strong presence in this package, it is the touted historical connections that are lacking. The trends and issues highlighted on the maps are alluring and well-chosen, but the lack of historical content leaves the burden on the teacher if these connections are truly going to be made. While primary source materials, photographs, or music is not the focus of this package, they would all certainly heighten the depth and breadth of understanding possible. Teachers using this software should definitely prepare their students by providing them with some form of contextual narrative, whether it be from the textbook or other secondary source materials.

 

Social Studies Values

In general, this package does convey to students the breadth of causes of the Civil War. Unlike many textbooks, which imply that slavery and the issue of state’s rights were the only factors contributing to the outbreak of war, this package gives students a sense that agricultural patterns, industry, and population affected the course of America throughout the 19th century.

The most “uninspiring” element of American History Inspirer: The Civil War, however, is the absence of “people” from the Civil War. In an examination of America as it expanded and swelled in the 19th century, and of American society as it transformed, stagnated, and absorbed decades of shocks, where is the “human voice?” As students look at trends dealing with the population, they never see a human face or read a document written by one of the people participating in these trends.

Research has repeatedly shown that students are “uninspired” by history because it is essentially irrelevant to their lives.2 While providing an archive of materials on the Civil War was undoubtedly not the intention of the producers with this package, they have almost succeeded in extracting the human face from one of the most riveting events in the American story. Gone is the toil, the anguish, the passion, the excitement, the burden on families and communities, the rhetoric, the death, the pain, the triumph, and the peace. How “inspiring” will students truly find the Civil War when these elements are ignored?

 

Conclusion

The reviewers found American History Inspirer: The Civil War good for what it truly is: a competitive, active simulation which builds and reinforces map and reference skills. When used on the highest “difficulty level,” the software requires that students formulate complex strategies and become extremely familiar with the maps and their content. Although some doubt has been cast on the historical value of this product, an innovative teacher can foster the connections between geography and history by integrating primary sources or other materials into instruction.

Because this software has been targeted at the large umbrella of Grades 5-12, teachers should integrate age-appropriate resources to craft a more effective activity. Teachers interested in a rich storehouse of materials or content to infuse into their teaching would most likely be unimpressed with this product. However, teachers interested in adding an interactive component to their instruction should preview the package and should be able to use its visual appeal and map-related activities to their advantage. G

 

Notes

1. Mary E. Haas, “Becoming Aware of U.S. Geographic Diversity: a reviewer of National Inspirer,” Social Education 53 (1989): 276-77.

2. Ronald L. VanSickle, “The Personal Relevance of the Social Studies,” Social Education 54 (1990): 23-27.

 

Chad C. Fairey recently completed a Master’s degree in Social Studies Education at the University of Virginia, and is currently teaching middle school in Alexandria, VA. Clifford T. Bennett is Program Director of Social Studies Education, and John Lee is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

 

 

Courseware Ratings

(5=excellent, 4=very good, 3=good, 2=fair, 1=poor)

 

General Quality of Content 1.0

General Instructional Quality 1.5

General Technical Quality 3.5

Social Studies Knowledge 2.0

Social Studies Skills 2.0

Values 1.5

Average Rating 2.0

 

Producer

Tom Snyder Productions

80 Coolidge Hill Road

Watertown, MA 02172

Telephone: 1-800-342-0236

Fax: 617-926-622

http://www.teachtsp.com

 

Requirements

American History Inspirer: The Civil War is available for Macintosh and Windows-based computers. Macintosh requirements include at least an 68030 processor or a Power PC as well as System 7.1 or higher. Windows-based machines must be a 486 or higher and run Windows 3.1 or 95. Both require 8 megs of RAM, a 256-color (640X480) monitor, a hard disk, and a double-speed CD-ROM drive.

 

Support Materials

The teacher’s materials include the American History Inspirer: The Civil War CD and a teacher’s guide with maps, curriculum guidelines, and suggested classroom activities.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.