Power Learning

Chapter Three - High Tech Social Studies

I. Introduction

Social studies offers fertile ground for power learning. Whether it be history, geography or the social sciences, the importance of sifting through data to gain insight is paramount.

New technologies may enrich the data available to students while eliminating many of the frustrations that have blocked students from mining primary sources in the past. Regrettably, studies of social studies classroom practice have documented a longstanding pre-occupation with lecture and memorization in the majority of classrooms.

Smokestack education has found one of its most solid and loyal followers in this discipline. At the same time, there has always been a minority of social studies educators who have emphasized inquiry and the use of primary sources to empower student thinking, an approach well suited to the new technologies (Morrissett, 1981).

Perhaps as a consequence of its archaic methodologies and a national pre-occupation with other subject areas, studies of student knowledge, skills and attitudes in the social studies point to serious problems and gaps. Put simply, the typical 11th grader doesn't know much about the world in 1993, including where things are and how things work. This same student has trouble demonstrating the kinds of reasoning required for decision-making in a democracy and lacks basic attitudes such as tolerance of diversity which keep the society healthy.

In short, citizenship and social studies education (which includes history, geography and the social sciences) have long been in a state of disarray (Martin, 1981). New technologies could do a great deal to breathe life into this slumbering subject.

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

Charting a Course: Social Studies for the 21st Century clarifies "what historical, geographic, political, social and cultural knowledge is indispensable for good citizenship. The social studies curriculum should enable students to develop the following:

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.

NCSS, 1989, p. 6

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:

C6. 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.

F7. 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.

E8. 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.

NCSS, 1989, p. 3

III. Mining the Mountain - Combating Info-glut, Info-tactics and Info-paralysis

Megatrends was one of the first books to identify the challenge accompanying the vast information resources now available (Naisbitt, 1982). Today's students have millions of pages of text and thousands of pictures at their fingertips. A click of the mouse opens up a mountain range of documents holding rich veins of meaning below their surface.

The danger lies in the enormity and complexity of the task. How does one mine these resources, probing below the surface to find the data relevant to the questions being explored? How does one avoid drowning or choking on info-glut?

New data sources such as videodiscs, CD-ROM and online databases can illuminate student research questions, but only if the students know how to navigate, to find their way below the surface.

Today's social studies teacher becomes less of an expert and more of a guide, showing students the skills which empower them to sort and sift through these resources on the way to making meaning. Such skills require elimination of the barriers which have long stood between school disciplines, as mathematical reasoning becomes an essential partner in the search for meaning, for example. If students gather data, they must know how to explore the significance of relationships between various variables, a reasoning task which involves statistical inference. They must also know ways to judge the reliability of the data.

In the smokestack era, students were warned not to believe everything they read in newspapers or books. Today we must warn them not to believe everything they read, see or hear in various databases and collections. Survey data, for example, may lead to invalid conclusions because items were phrased in a biased manner. Students must weigh the data after they collect it, asking how it was gathered and whether or not it can be trusted.

Toffler warns that powerful figures intentionally manipulate data in order to sway people's thinking, using info-tactics or meta-tactics to cast a desirable light on a particular decision or to cover disturbing phenomena with fog. He points out that one must travel back to examine the assumptions built into the data collection and track how those assumptions might have distorted the findings, since info-tacticians usually try to hide these assumptions while emphasizing findings or conclusions (Toffler,1990).

Social studies teachers can best prepare students to challenge such faulty thinking in two ways: (1) engaging them in their own research projects which acquaint them with research design issues and (2) involving them in critiques of flawed studies. The goal is the development of info-scepticism - a healthy tendency to look past other people's insights to detect bias and distortion.

The shift is from consumption of others' insights to production of one's own insight. In order to prevent info-paralysis, teachers must show students how to employ powerful search strategies, acquainting them with the structure of databases so they know where to look, with Boolean logic (the use of various connecting words or range indicators such as "and," "or," and ">") so they can identify relevant records, and with the creation of powerful questioning techniques that will enable them to carve through the mountain.

In designing such learning experiences, teachers must provide a range of activities that introduce students to visual and numerical data as well as text. Full information literacy includes all kinds of data. Thus, students must learn to analyze photography, television coverage and various forms of advertising critically.

Mary Alice White argues that even though students will learn more than half of what they know about the world through visual data, few schools have an explicitly stated curriculum dedicated toward teaching students visual literacy - the ability to apply critical thinking to visual data and images (White, 1984). Since visual data is especially susceptible to the use of info-tactics in the war to win the minds (and the votes) of the citizenry, social studies teachers have a particular responsibility in this regard.

Technology Snapshot 3.1

Fifth graders work as two person teams with a user-friendly database program that allows them to scan through records on various kinds of information treasure hunts. Today's worksheet provides clues about presidents. Students must figure out which president was born in 1804, served in the navy and was a Senator before election to the presidency. At first they click through every record until they stumble upon the right birth date. They then check to see if the rest of the clues match. It is a slow process, but they enjoy being infotectives.

Wanting her students to see the powers of computer searching, the teacher circulates around the room and asks each team to command the computer to search for a particular date. In a few seconds, the target record stares them in the eye and their faces brighten with excitement.

"That's wicked!"

Walking down the hall of this same school, one encounters computer-generated bar charts showing the results of a student survey for the upcoming 1996 presidential election. Once they learn how to use someone else's databases, they begin building their own databases to answer whatever questions are on their mind.

Technology Snapshot 3.2

On the day after the 1992 election, as an eleventh grade class sits discussing the results, one student blurts out a question about term limits.

"I don't understand," she says. "If people want term limits, why do they keep reelecting their own representatives?'

"They don't," argues a second student. "A whole bunch of incumbents lost last night."

"Like what percentage of the whole group?" asks the first girl.

The second student shrugs, confessing a lack of data.

"We could easily find out," interrupts the teacher, "by searching through online newspaper accounts. One of them must have reported that percentage."

"Yeah," chimes in a new student, "and we could even check to see which states had ballot questions on term limits and see how incumbents did in each of those states. That way we could check and see if the voters are saying one thing but doing another."

The teacher begins a search on the PC in the front of the room to identify which states had ballot questions on term limits, and then the class is split into research teams, one for each selected state. Steering their PCs onto the electronic highway, each team calls up newspapers for their target state to find data to report back to the whole group. One group is assigned top plan how to enter the data into a statistical package to merge, analyze and report the findings.

Technology Snapshot 3.3

Three students are spending the evening in Info Central exploring the question of what role charisma will play in Bill Clinton's presidency. They have already explored a dozen articles on charismatic leadership on previous visits, consulting the wisdom of hundreds of historians, philosophers, political scientists, and pundits at their fingertips. Tonight they are looking back at previous presidents, concentrating on newsreel footage from the past.

"Let's play Roosevelt's speech one more time . . . that one second about 'fear itself.' Watch his eyes and his face. Listen to his voice. Compare that with what we saw of Hoover earlier. I think he has some kind of magical touch that hits people in their gut. It reminds me of Clinton, but Clinton always seems to be trying too hard."

"Yeah, it's almost as if Clinton went back and watched these tapes to learn how to sway people, but he doesn't quite get it. It doesn't seem real. It's too slick, almost like makeup. I really wonder whether he'll be able to inspire people."

The first student clicks on the mouse and newsreel whirs on the videodisc player. FDR's face comes into focus and his words flow.

"Let's save that segment for our visual essay. Just those 12 seconds. They illustrate really well what we've been finding out about hitting people in their gut."

Traveling the Electronic Highway

Telecommunications not only link students to powerful databases, they also serve to shrink the world by tying people together from many different states and nations using bulletin boards, e-mail and electronic communities of various kinds. As one more cure to the archaic data characteristics of smokestack social studies programs, this electronic highway supports the gathering of all kinds of fresh information by communicating directly with people who are close to whatever is being studied.

The quality and accuracy of optical character recognition software is improving, and we are moving to optical fiber support for the rapid transmission of graphics. These advances will improve the quality and quantity of data that can be exchanged as students from widely different locations share local newspaper stories, photographs, tourist guides, and all manner of documents.

In addition to this exchange of data, telecommunications could support a kind of international dialogue that may dramatically lower cultural barriers and bring about what the Global Business Network has called "the global teenager" - a generation tied together by a global culture created by electronic media (P. Schwartz, 1991). International exchnage will no longer be limited to small cadres of visitors. Some students may elect to "visit" other countries daily, taking advantage of the electronic highway. Carefully guided by imaginative social studies teachers, these exchanges could do a great deal to advance world understanding while fueling in the United States a resurgence of interest in learning foreign languages, including those of the Far East as well as those of Europe.

Microworlds, Tele-Presence, and Virtual Reality

New technologies will provide students with vicarious experience that will sometimes seem more real than the actual event might. The quality of computer simulations keeps improving as multimedia adds dimensions and senses to the mix, and we are moving toward virtual reality programs for schools that will provide electronic field trips, expeditions, excursions, treks, and adventures to far distant lands and times.

Tom Snyder Productions offers a whole series of simulations entitled Decisions, Decisions, that places students in group problem-solving situations related to their social studies or science curriculum: Colonization, Revolutionary War, Immigration, etc.

Project Jason brings thousands of students to the bottom of the sea through the magic of tele-presence. Palenqué allows students to "walk" through Mayan ruins. Simcity involves them is running a city. Before long, students may be able to sit as judges at the Salem witch trials or at Nuremburg, making important decisions and seeing their consequences. They may be able to visit Gettysburg to join Pickett's ill-fated charge. Hopefully, most of these programs will provide opportunities to "help students become both independent and cooperative learners who develop skills of problem-solving, decision-making, negotiation and conflict resolution" (NCSS, 1989, p. 19). Virtual reality may help bring social studies to life, engaging students in role-playing with more vitality and passion than was previously possible.

It is important to note that virtual reality does have its limitations and its dangers. Because simulations are oversimplified models of reality, students must be taught to see how they differ from reality so they do not become prey to "virtual truth" or "virtual thought." As Postman warns in Technopoly, when the phone company asks us to "reach out and touch someone," we must never forget the difference between the tele-touch and human touch (Postman, 1992). A tele-presence on the bottom of the ocean is very different from a real presence, just as acting the role of judge on a computer falls far short of what it must have really been. Power learning exploits these differences, heightening the student's understanding of the real thing by critiquing the simulation's inadequacies and strengths.


New technologies offer social studies educators a powerful array of tools with which to achieve the laudable goals established by the National Council of the Social Studies. Power learning develops citizens who are prepared to tackle the baffling and bewildering questions and issues facing an Information Age society. Although the use of such technologies represents a major break with past traditions, the importance of the task and the need for such a break is underlined by repeatedly disappointing evaluations of current student knowledge and skill levels.

© 1993, J. McKenzie, all rights reserved.
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