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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Volume 33 Number 1
Winter 2006

Social Studies Teacher Educators: 
A Survey of Attitudes Toward Religion in the Curriculum 

Gerard A. Zam and Gregory E. Stone

Despite sound philosophical, legal, and pedagogical arguments for its inclusion, the unanimous approbation of the highest court in the land, and the many excellent related organizations that have labored diligently over the years, the study about religion remains controversial throughout the majority of our nation’s classrooms. Many teachers avoid discussion about religion in classrooms, even with a wealth of material, administrative, and governmental support for its inclusion in the K-12 curriculum. This article reports findings from a study of one potentially key group in facilitating this inclusion – social studies teacher educators.

Teacher Training, Natural Inclusion, and the Social Studies

Training of K-12 educators in religious literacy, though exemplary at times, has been spotty over the last 40-years. Many organizations and scholars squarely place the success or failure of effective teacher training in this area on professional schools of education. To that end the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) recommended that:

School systems and universities (particularly schools of education) should work together to provide both pre-service and in-service programs that help teachers develop the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and confidence they need for the effective inclusion of religion in the curriculum.1

Nel Noddings concurred, believing that: "professional programs must make it clear to teachers that the study of religion and existential questions is legitimate. I would even say that such is morally obligatory. The discussion of values at every level and in very familiar context is essential."2 Warren Nord and Charles Haynes, however, were not sanguine about the prospects. They reported that:

With only a few exceptions, scholars and schools of education have ignored our subject. So it should not be surprising that the proper role of religion in the K-12 curriculum is poorly understood, and the importance of what is at stake is not sufficiently appreciated among educators.3

Would a little consciousness-raising provoke a greater interest and engagement among faculty in schools and colleges of education? Is there a ‘natural’ curricular venue for its inclusion in a teacher certification/licensure program? Once identified, does this cohort have the necessary background, pre-disposition, and willingness to incorporate study about religion into their courses? If not, are they open to change?

The concept of ‘natural inclusion’ has long been considered the most viable alternative for accommodating the topic of religion in the curriculum. It was identified as one of a few important methodologies by the American Academy of Religion (AAR) in the mid-1970s.4 Since then, it has received the near unanimous recognition and approbation of those scholars interested in the success of religious literacy initiatives. Martin Marty detailed a rationale for the concept:

If there is to be no separate discipline or hour, or strategy that addresses religion, religion belongs in the school on the principle of ‘natural inclusion.’ The principle of natural inclusion is dead-set against ‘unnatural exclusion.’ When textbooks, curriculum planners, and teachers ignore events, personalities, and arguments that are incompletely explained with reference to religion, this runs counter to the goals of public education. Speak about faith and spirituality where the topic naturally fits- which is not everywhere but still plenty of places.5

Even Warren Nord, long a staunch supporter of the single-course approach, readily admitted that: "most advocates of the study of religion argue for natural inclusion, rather than for [new] courses that take religion as their subject. The conventional solution is ‘religion in courses’ rather than ‘courses in religion.’"6

To be sure, courses in literature, the sciences, art, and music all offer opportunities for discussion and debate about religion and religious themes.7 It is widely held, however, that the social studies offer the most propitious and enveloping opportunity for the natural inclusion of religion in the curriculum. In a paper presented at the World 2000 Teaching World History and Geography Conference, James S. Ackerman argued that: "[i]n the secondary schools, the teaching about religion will require the most work and have the greatest impact in the social studies curriculum."8 Frederick Risinger agreed with this notion as well, believing that:

Integrating the study about religion in the social studies curriculum is an easy task once the commitment has been made. Obviously, world history and U.S. history provide a broad ‘theater’ within which religion plays a significant role. But a presentation of U.S. government, sociology, and even economics is inadequate if the role of religion is omitted… Likewise, the opportunities to discuss the role of religion in elementary social studies are numerous. In community studies, state history, and other topics, the impact of religion on individuals and society can be observed and examined.9

A consensus that religion should be included in the social studies is one thing; its successful implementation quite another. This strategy has met with only limited success. Overcoming the obstacles to effective teacher training is inextricably linked to the perception and potential of stakeholders within teacher education. To date, much of the literature has focused on the potential for Social Foundation courses to provide the impetus necessary for energizing K-12 teachers to include religion in their lessons.10 Without evaluating the relative success or failure of the Social Foundations approach during the last 15 years (this could be the focus of yet another study), would it not be both logical and beneficial to try and enlist the support of other decision makers in schools of education? And since social studies teacher educators are directly responsible for shaping and implementing the curriculum in, this, the area of greatest natural inclusion, why not them? Moreover, the new standards and assessment movement may provide further impetus, as the topic of religion permeates nearly all of the national social studies model-frameworks.11



The present study examined social studies teacher educators’ awareness, attitudes, and actions regarding teaching about religion in the K-12 curriculum. The nationwide sample for this study consisted of 342 randomly selected members of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) who identified themselves as "teacher prep: elementary/secondary" or as College and University Faculty Assembly (CUFA) members.

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