• Essential Election Questions
  • Social Studies Education in the Information Age

    Essential Election Questions

    While it is tempting to use new technologies to gather mountains of information about the upcoming election campaign, the value of such information will be greatly increased if students are guided through a careful questioning process prior to the gathering. The nature and shape of the information gathering should be tailored to match the inquiry, since improper design of databases and other vehicles for information analysis can hinder effective questioning.

    If we hope to show students how to convert data to information and insight, it is best to begin the inquiry with a question at the insight level which will guide most of the research to follow. Such a question should flow from one of the three top levels of Bloom's Taxonomy:

    Evaluation (deciding): making a thoughtful choice between a number of options, exploring the pros and cons of each and applying selection criteria to govern the final decision. Election examples:

    1) Which candidate is most likely to take strong and effective action on the following issue(s)? What evidence can you supply to support your position? (environment, defense, deficit, race relations, crime, education, the economy, etc.)

    2) Which candidate has the best track record as a manager of an administrative operation? Upon what evidence do you base your position?

    3) Which factors are most likely to influence the voting behaviors of the following group? Why? (farmers, small business people, disadvantaged urban dwellers, suburban affluents, steel workers, etc.)

    4) Which country has a better system for electing a chief executive? Why? The USA or (France, England, Russia, Italy, Kenya, etc.)?

    5) Which television network has provided the most responsible new coverage for the election? Why?

    6) Which campaign has engaged in the least ethical or responsible campaign advertising? Why?

    7) Which candidate is most likely to work effectively with Congress? Why?

    8) Which candidate is most likely to make Supreme Court appointments which will be good for the future of the country? Why?

    9) Which candidate is most charismatic? What are the implications of this trait for our nation's future?

    10) Which candidate prefer as your father? Why?

    11) There are many different ways that voters prepare for the voting decision. What is the best way, in your opinion, and why?

    12) Which candidate is most likely to keep his word? Why?

    13) Which candidate is most likely to win? Why?

    Synthesis (inventing): rearranging and modifying something in order to improve it. Election examples:

    1) How might the American system for electing a president be improved? Why?

    2) If you were running the advertising campaign for Clinton, Bush or Perot, how might you change it for the better? Why?

    3) If you were planning the campaign strategy for Clinton, Bush or Perot, what would you change? Why?

    4) If you wanted to convince more people to register and vote, what strategies and systems would you establish? Why?

    5) How would you improve the present system of financing campaigns? Why?

    6) How could new technologies be employed to improve the election system? Why?

    7) How should the media change their election coverage? Why?

    8) How should schools teach students about the election? Why?

    9) How should the use of public opinion polls be modified? Why?

    Analysis (understanding): breaking something down into its components and elements in order to understand better how they are related. Election examples:

    1) What are the most important factors in the voting decision of the following group(s)? How do you know? Why? (farmers, small business people, disadvantaged urban dwellers, suburban affluents, steel workers, etc.)

    2) How does the present system for campaign finance influence the chances of each candidate? Why?

    3) What are the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate's strategy? Why?

    4) What are the strengths and weaknesses of the political party system? Why?

    5) Which issues will mean the most in this election? Why?

    6) How do various groups reach their election decisions? How do you know?

    7) How accurate are public opinion polls? Why?

    8) How does media coverage of the campaign influence the outcome? Why?

    9) In what ways does the image being portrayed for (Clinton, Bush, Perot) fit or violate reality? Why?

    10) What evidence can you find to substantiate the use of info-tactics in this campaign?

    11) In what ways have new information technologies transformed modern elections? Why?

    The best questions will be formulated by the students themselves after they have been taught the three types of questions and have seen examples. Questions which flow out of their own personal curiosity are most likely to provoke a high level of motivation.

    Conducting the Research

    Posing the essential question leads to the development of research strategies. What data and information will bring clarity and understanding? Where does the student begin the search? What technologies will prove most illuminating?

    Text searches through databases are supremely effective and efficient. DIALOG offers a database, PAPERS, for example, which allows students to browse through dozens of American newspapers with keywords such as "Clinton" and "character" or "media" and "presidential election" to locate every article containing those words. The student thereby gathers evidence and editorial reflection with extraordinary speed. Other databases offer social science analysis and insight. In contrast with time-honored print sources, the time required to locate key ideas and data is greatly reduced. Instead of plodding through indexes and piles of paper, students can hit information bulls-eyes with "smart bombs" and devote most of their time to analysis.

    Videodisc programs such as the ABC News Interactive Vote `88 offer visual encyclopedias for student analysis of the last election's speeches, events and advertising. Unlike the movies, film strips and videos of prior years, this videodisc allows for detailed, frame-by-frame analysis of the visual material.

    Eric Jensen's article does a thorough job of describing many of the research options and tools available for students. Many of the activities and the applications he describes are admirably suited to exploration of the kinds of questions urged by this article. The key theme of this article is the importance of students keeping an eye on the essential questions formulated prior to the collection of information. Our goal is to rise above descriptive activities to predictive and analytic thinking which supports thoughtful choices and inventive thinking in line with the citizenship and social studies goals outlined in the next article.

    Social Studies Education in the Information Age

    New technologies promise to enrich social studies learning by bringing social data to students in rich and vivid terms. This data may then be meaningfully interpreted in light of insight questions. Charting a Course: Social Studies for the 21st Century (1989), a joint project of the American Historical Association, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the National Council for the Social Studies and the Organization of American Historians clarifies "what historical, geographic, political, social and cultural knowledge is indispensable for good citizenship and a rich cultural life." This group established the following goals for social studies education:

    The Social Studies Curriculum should enable students to develop:

    1. Civic responsibility and active civic participation.

    2. Perspectives on their own life experiences so they see themselves as part of the larger human adventure in time and place.

    3. A critical understanding of the history, geography, economic, political and social institutions, traditions and values of the United States as expressed in both their unity and their diversity.

    4. An understanding of other peoples and the unity and diversity of world history, geography, institutions, traditions and values.

    5. Critical attitudes and analytical perspectives appropriate to analysis of the human condition.

    Page 6

    Charting a Course:

    Social Studies for the 21st Century

    In identifying essential "Characteristics of a Social Studies Curriculum for the 21st Century," three sections speak especially well to the contributions that may be made with new technologies:

    6. Content knowledge from the social studies should not be treated merely as received knowledge to be accepted and memorized, but as the means through which open and vital questions may be explored and confronted. Students must be made aware that just as contemporary events have been shaped by actions taken by people in the past, they themselves have the capacity to shape the future.

    7. Reading, writing, observing, debating, role-play, or simulations, working with statistical data and using appropriate critical thinking skills should be an integral part of social studies instruction. Teaching strategies should help students to become both independent and cooperative learners who develop skills of problem-solving, decision-making, negotiation and conflict resolution.

    8. Learning materials must incorporate a rich mix of written matter, including original sources, literature and expository writing; a variety of audiovisual materials including films, television and interactive media; a collection of items of material culture including artifacts, photographs, census records and historical maps; and computer programs for writing and analyzing social, economic and geographic data. Social studies coursework should teach students to evaluate the reliability of all such sources of information and to be aware of the ways in which various media select, shape and constrain information.

    Page 3

    Charting a Course:

    Social Studies for the 21st Century

    As teachers prepare units to involve students in understanding this year's election, they might ask which of the following skills listed in James Banks' Teaching Strategies for the Social Studies: Inquiry, Valuing and Decision-Making are being addressed and nurtured:

    Social Science Inquiry Skills




    Concept formation


    Gathering and organizing information

    Interpreting maps and globes

    Time-space orientation

    Interpreting graphs and charts

    Summarizing and generalizing

    Value Inquiry Skills


    Analyzing points of view

    Distinguishing facts from opinions

    Detecting biases

    Critical reading

    Justifying and defending a position

    Decision-Making Skills

    Identifying generalizations

    Evaluating the accuracy of generalizations

    Identifying alternative courses of action

    Using generalizations to predict alternative courses of action

    Relating values to specific courses of action

    Defending a particular course of action

    Citizen Action Skills

    Working with others in groups

    Oral and written communications

    Persuasion, compromise, and bargaining

    Forming coalitions with other individuals and groups

    Communicating a social concern to a large public


    Banks, James A., Teaching Strategies for the Social Studies: Inquiry, Valuing and Decision-Making. White Plains, New York, Longman, 1990.

    Charting a Course: Social Studies for the 21st Century, 1989.

    Credits: The background is from Jay Boersma.
    Other drawings and graphics are by Jamie McKenzie.

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