the educational technology journal

Vol 17|No 3|January 2008
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The Brave New Citizen

By Jamie McKenzie
About author

This article is based on a keynote delivered at the November 2007 annual conference of the National Council of the Social Studies.

In essence, social studies promotes knowledge of and involvement in civic affairs. And because civic issues - such as health care, crime, and foreign policy - are multidisciplinary in nature, understanding these issues and developing resolutions to them require multidisciplinary education. These characteristics are the key defining aspects of social studies. NCSS Standards

Thomas Jefferson, among others, emphasized that the vitality of a democracy depends upon the education and participation of its citizens. NCSS Standards

Statue of Thomas Jefferson
in Paris
Photo ©2007 Jamie McKenzie

New technologies promise all kinds of great miracles like stronger thinking and better writing, but it turns out that many of those promises amount to Fool's Gold, unless good teachers and good schools combat much of the marketing and pressure to substitute templates, wizards and short-cuts for careful research, logic and questioning.

These technologies bring a mix of peril and promise as they may promote and nurture desirable citizenship behaviors or may do the very opposite, spawning a generation content with the glib, the superficial and the well-packaged.

We must be on guard against the onset of "mentalsoftness" characterized by a preference for platitudes, near truths, slogans, jingles, catch phrases and buzzwords as well as vulnerability to propaganda, demagoguery and mass movements based on appeals to emotions, fears and prejudice.

Smart uses of new technologies such as mind-mapping software combined with strong questioning and the pursuit of "difficult truths" can serve as antidotes to the disturbing cultural drift brought on by an uncritical embrace of all things new and digital.


A cartoon by Michael Leunig “Vasco Pajama in the strait of a thousand lighthouses” provides a vivid image of the challenge facing schools and social studies teachers as they struggle with the impact of new technologies and new media on the society and their students.

Schools must sort through the claims, predictions and threats made by self-proclaimed visionaries, evangelists and futurists who welcome the social changes with little real consideration of the impact these changes will have on the nature of social and political discourse, let alone citizenship and political behavior. They tend to exaggerate the benefits and ignore the risks. They also tend to contradict each other and point in many different directions like the light houses in Leunig's cartoon. It is easy to understand how might Eric Hoffer might have said that "Guru is a word for those who cannot spell charlatan."

Leunig's character, Vasco Pajama, seeking truth finds the task daunting, the beacons bewildering rather than enlightening. So will our students find the search difficult as they contend with media outlets that often distort the truth rather than reporting it. Virtual reality is a daily offering on many of these outlets.

Promises, promises, promises

For two decades now we have been hearing that computers will transform classrooms and bring amazing benefits to students in the form of improved performance, yet the evidence to support these claims is scarce.

  • Better thinking
  • Better writing
  • A global view
  • Collaborative students

Possibly because attention has focused on equipment rather than program and professional development, few of these promises have been delivered, but this article will argue that smart uses of new technologies can enhance students' thinking skills while building the foundation for strong citizenship behavior.

Fool’s Gold?

One group, The Alliance for Childhood, issued an October 2000 report Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood., warning especially about the impact of new technologies on the very young.   http://www.allianceforchildhood.net/projects/computers/

As social studies teachers weigh the value of blending the use of these tools into their programs, it seems wise to focus on the most important goals of social studies education over recent decades as outlined in various NCSS documents such as the NCSS Standards.

Every student a thinker!
Every student a citizen!

Most social studies teachers would agree that programs should seek to develop the thinking skills of all students so they are capable of making up their own minds about the pressing issues of their times. Few would settle for the notion that mere cutting and pasting of ideas will suffice. Imitation and parroting of others' beliefs makes a poor and even dangerous foundation for a democratic society as such citizens are easily swayed by the emotional appeals of manipulative leaders and usually quite impatient with careful analysis.

The wisdom of the crowd can easily shift to the violence of the mob.

What is a thinker and how could new technologies strengthen or weaken citizenship and thinking?

A thinker prefers to figure out independently what to think and believe. Consulting others is fine, but copying their thinking is a kind of surrender.

The thinker will test the claims and ideas of others to see if they stand up to scrutiny. How reliable is the evidence used to bolster those claims? How coherent is the logic used?

In an age of sound bites, mind bytes, eye candy and mind candy, the thinker is guarded and skeptical. Back in 1961, William J. Lederer published "A Nation of Sheep." Not a pretty picture. He also coauthored "The Ugly American." Fortunately, a thinker is unlikely to join the herd, the crowd or the mob when it comes to puzzling through the crucial issues of our times. Perhaps that is why NCSS standards emphasize action.

The Difficult Truth

Michael Leunig is a poet as well as a cartoonist, and his poem about verity is well suited for any serious look at the goals of a social studies program. It is especially pointed in stressing the importance of the considering the "difficult truth."


While much of the society seems preoccupied with celebrity scandals and entertainment rather than news and the media are quick to serve up what they prefer, the NCSS has long stood for the value of the young learning about issues of import like those quoted above.

In essence, social studies promotes knowledge of and involvement in civic affairs. And because civic issues - such as health care, crime, and foreign policy - are multidisciplinary in nature, understanding these issues and developing resolutions to them require multidisciplinary education. These characteristics are the key defining aspects of social studies.

Sadly, much of the media has shifted from reporting those stories to the latest exploits of Paris Hilton, Barry Bonds or O.J. Simpson. (Note article "Photoshopping Reality: Journalistic Ethics in a Time of Virtual Truth") The difficult truth is often hidden from view as much of the population seeks the scintillating. Ratings drive editorial decisions for many news outlets.

Traits of a good citizen?

Not everybody would agree on the traits of a good citizen. Some would focus on loyalty and obedience while others might stress dissent and activism. Some traits likely to win broad acceptance:

  • Involved?
  • Knowledgeable?
  • Logical?
  • Temperate?
  • Tolerant?
  • Empathic?
  • Questioning?
  • Open-minded?
  • Brave?
  • ?
  • ?

What would appear on your list?

The not-so-good citizen

Even though well-meaning social studies teachers might disagree on the list of desirable traits, the NCSS Standards do provide guidance and some clear statements.

For sure, most would find the image below in dramatic conflict with the kinds of thinking expected of a leader or citizen. This kind of citizen is confident and sure of himself - so much so that he has stopped checking the facts and has begun to operate on faith or ideology rather than grounding decisions in reality.

The Corporate Head

Terry Allen (sculptor)
Phillip Levine (poet)

“What me worry?”

Good citizens and leaders ask powerful questions.
But sometimes it takes courage as well as skill.

This cartoon comes from my new book, Leading Questions. Each chapter offers a cartoon.

Questions are not always welcomed by bosses or leaders. Those in power sometimes challenge the loyalty or the patriotism of those who challenge the current policy. The cost of questioning can be shame, humiliation and the loss of one's job or future. Throughout history we have seen many examples of questioners who paid a heavy price, whether it be Thomas More's questioning of the King's marriage, Socrates teaching the young to question or various whistle-blowers who lost their jobs thanks to questioning.

The Emperor's New Clothes is a classic story illustrating the reluctance of many members of a court to challenge the Emperor's wisdom or taste in fashion. Healthy organizations reward questioning.


Definition: The often silly and distracting use of special effects and transitions combined with pages overflowing with too many words and an overall fixation on flash rather than substance. (Term coined by Barb Jenkins in Australia)

While presentation software can be very effective, many times students as well as adults create slides that suffer from aesthetic limitations. These flaws can be corrected if the communicator is shown how to combine artful slides with careful thought and supporting documents as outlined in the article "Scoring PowerPoints," but without such tutoring it is easy to produce yawns or to misrepresent key ideas, as outlined by Edward Tufte in his article "PowerPoint is Evil."

The Age of Glib

Sometimes the gathering of information proceeds without careful thought, understanding or actual reading.

I recall working with 3rd graders back in 1993 using Boolean Logic to identify the main threats to Antarctica and being surprised to see them listing ducks as a threat. They had searched for "threats and Antarctica" and when an article on ducks appeared, they listed it without actually reading it. The word "threat" appeared late in the article with the word "Antarctica" in the mid section. If they had taken time to read, they would have seen that there was nothing proving ducks a threat. I realized then that new electronic text could lead to some superficial discoveries and for some time I employed the saying "Hits are not truth!" in the signature of my email.


"This is the essence of wikilobbying, when money determines Wikipedia entries, reality has become a commodity." Steven Colbert speaking on Comedy Central. A number of articles have appeared since then identifying the efforts of many organizations such as Wal-Mart and the CIA to edit material on Wikipedia to reflect well on their work.

The New York Times reported these efforts in "Seeing Corporate Fingerprints in Wikipedia Edits" (August 19, 2007).

Since Wikipedia dominates results on almost all Google searches, no matter what the topic, the issue of alerting students to weigh the reliability of Web information is heightened by recognizing that amateurism is on the rise. Andrew Keen has sounded the alarm in his book The Cult of the Amateur: How today's Internet is killing our culture.

Our most valued cultural institutions, Keen warns - our professional newspapers, magazines, music and movies - are being overtaken by an avalanche of amateur, user-generated free content.

Keen substantiates his claims by examining in turn phenomena such as YouTube, Wikipedia and Craigslist. He vilifies several proponents of Web 2.0 as irresponsible radicals who would by removing copyright controls take away much of the incentive for true writers and thinkers to share their works. He decries the decline of record stores with the advent of digital music and widespread piracy. Pointing to the often mediocre but popular material cropping up on sites like UTube and various blogs, he sees this trend shoving aside really good works as the public is submerged in hundreds of thousands of works.


Sadly, new media and new technologies can encourage a degree of intellectual laziness. In 2000, I published an article "Beyond Information Power" warning of mentalsoftness:

Unless we take care to develop the foundations for rigorous independent thought, we risk raising a generation of young people inclined to accept the sound bites, mind bytes, eye candy and mind candy so typical of the new information landscape. There are, after all, millions being spent on marketing to shape the thinking of consumers and citizens. Misinformation and infotainment are rampant, with simple answers to complex questions appearing like the dandelions of spring - bright, appealing, widespread and persistent.

Amid complaints of a new plagiarism and much glib thinking, we must keep a watch for the following indicators of MentalSoftness™ - the product of lazy thinking, intellectual channel surfing and the entertainerizing of knowledge work.


Prime Indicators of MentalSoftness™

Fondness for clichés and clichéd thinking - simple statements that are time worn, familiar and likely to carry surface appeal.
Reliance upon maxims - truisms, platitudes, banalities and hackneyed sayings - to handle demanding, complex situations requiring deep thought and careful consideration.
Appetite for bromides - the quick fix, the easy answer, the sugar coated pill, the great escape, the short cut, the template, the cheat sheet.
Preference for platitudes, near truths, slogans, jingles, catch phrases and buzzwords.
Vulnerability to propaganda, demagoguery and mass movements based on appeals to emotions, fears and prejudice.
Impatience with thorough and dispassionate analysis.
Eagerness to join some crowd or other - wear, do and think what is fashionable, cool, hip, fab, or the opposite or whatever . . .
Hunger for vivid and dramatic packaging.
Fascination with the story, the play, the drama, the show, the episode and the epic rather than the idea, the question, the argument, the premise, the logic or the substance. We're not talking good stories or story lines here. We're talking pulp fiction.
Fascination with cults, personalities, celebrities, chat, gossip, hype, speculation, buzz and blather.


Without schooling in critical thinking, the young may grow into citizens who easily succumb to the seductive efforts of the demagogue. In his book, "THE TRUE BELIEVER: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements," Eric Hoffer wrote way back in 1951:

The true believer is “without wonder and hesitation.” “An active mass movement rejects the present and centers its interest on the future.” (p. 82) The mass movement hates independence and individualism. The focus is on “obedience” and “one mindedness.” “Uniformity” must be developed. (p. 101) Members must be “deindividualized” and “incorporated” into the mass movement. “When we lose our individual independence in the incorporateness of a mass movement, we find a new freedom—freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame and remorse.” (p. 100)

Unless we do a good job of promoting thinking, the young will leave school vulnerable to propaganda, to demagoguery, and to mass movements based on appeals to emotions, fears and prejudice.

Templates, Wizards and Short-cuts

Technology companies are quick to offer short-cuts even when it comes to thinking. One bus company once used the slogan "Leave the driving to us!" but many technology companies seem to be saying "Leave the thinking to us!"

Thinking for Dummies
Creativity for Dummies
Voting for Dummies


There are many offers of help when thinking and questioning becomes a bit too challenging. Go to Google, for example, enter the words "the truth" in the search box, select "I'm feeling lucky!" and in just a few seconds, Google gives you a Web site that purports to deliver what you are looking for.


Is this the truth? Is it really that easy to find the truth?

In her excellent article in The New Atlantis "The Age of Egocasting," Christine Rosen warns that we are limiting our access to information, essentially reading only what we want to hear and listening to only those sources that reinforce our beliefs.

Photoshopping Reality

Reality is not quite what it used to be.

"Photoshopping Reality: Journalistic Ethics in a Time of Virtual Truth"

Three good examples from UTube:

  1. Dove Make-over
  2. Dove Evolution Parody
  3. Dove Onslaught

Dove has chosen to challenge the prevailing marketing strategies aimed at young women with a series of ads that is really quite critical.

The young are bombarded, as this series dramatizes, with often troubling messages about what it means to be a young girl, a cool person and a hip citizen. Can they resist the onslaught and develop an independent view?

Perception Management

Many organizations are intent on shaping how we see events so we will behave the way they want us to behave. The term "perception management" was coined by the Pentagon and seems like a euphemism for propaganda or marketing.

Actions to convey and/or deny selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, and objective reasoning as well as to intelligence systems and leaders at all levels to influence official estimates, ultimately resulting in foreign behaviors and official actions favorable to the originator's objectives. In various ways, perception management combines truth projection, operations security, cover and deception, and psychological operations. (DOD)

As the United States government has dabbled in the torture of prisoners since 9/11, it is telling that citizens have had few images of water boarding to help frame their views. The VP can joke about "a dunk in water" because it brings up images of dunking for apples at Halloween rather than the disturbing images of water torture that took place in Argentina and is vividly demonstrated by the sculpture of "El Mudo." Note article "What's Missing? Visual Literacy 3.0"


To convey information or cast another person's remarks or actions in a biased or slanted way so as to favorably influence public opinion; information provided in such a fashion.

Smart Use of New Technologies

Given the challenges outlined above, the focus of social studies teachers should be on strategies likely to equip students with the thinking skills to resist the onslaught and create well grounded personal views and positions. The diagram below suggests several promising strategies that employ new technologies while enhancing critical thinking and problem-solving skills..


Mind-mapping software like Inspiration™ serves well to map out a research strategy and then gather pertinent findings in a coherent manner.

A student researching the character of Matthew Flinders, an Australian who was the first European to successfully circumnavigate the continent in the late 1700s might produce a diagram like the one below, with the essential question at the center and a series of suppositions surrounding it to be proven or disproven by checking primary sources like correspondence.

The student might also employ Inspiration™ to make a collection of images (Paintings and Statues) depicting the man, some of which would be more accurate than others. Such as collection is not presented here because many are copyrighted.

Inspiration™ serves well when a student is picking a city in which to live or a leader. This kind of decision-making is at the top of Bloom's Taxonomy - the skill of evaluation - making a wise choice based on criteria and evidence. For each question, the student or team of students must decide what traits they want in a city or a captain. For each trait like climate (city) or navigational skill (captain) they must then pose "telling" subsidiary questions:

What is the average annual rainfall? (City)

Did he know how to use all the best instruments of his time?
Did he keep a careful log?
Did he usually know where they were?
Did he ever get lost?
Did he seem to know what he was doing?
Did his ships have to wander around very much?
Did he stay clear of known hazards?
Did he know how to make the best of prevailing winds?
Did he know how to maneuver during a sea battle?
Did he have mates that could help him when he needed it?
Did he know when to ask for directions?

Once posed, these questions guide the student's research and organize the findings.

For a more detailed explanation of these strategies, note the article "Inspired Investigations."

Authentic Learning

In many countries, social studies teachers are under increased pressure to meet challenging objectives set by state or provincial curriculum standards.  To meet these thinking, problem-solving and communicating standards, it pays to involve students in seeing how these skills are practiced outside of school in a variety of organizations contending with social issues. As much as possible, it makes sense to involve them in such work, either through internships, visits, interviews or simulations. Alternatively, much of this work can also be staged as historical simulations calling for decision-making set in the past.

By employing such learning strategies within a real world context, students sharpen their abilities while gaining an appetite for the work at hand. Because they are rooted in the here and now, young ones find the challenges invigorating and intriguing. Caring about the tasks, they invest to a greater degree and emerge with a firmer and deeper grasp of the key concepts. If properly staged, historical simulations can also deliver passionate connections to provoke deep learning.

Such is the promise of Fred Newmann's concept of "authentic teaching" that involves students in "authentic intellectual work" - often outside of school. Instead of busy work - repetitive tasks that require little thought and involve mere scooping, smushing, memorizing and regurgitating - Newmann's approach immerses students in challenges that demand imagination, resourcefulness, persistence and stamina.1

Even though some of these activities may be staged or simulated, they still pass the test of authenticity because they meet the following criteria:

  • They are rooted in issues, challenges or decisions that people face in the world.
  • They are genuine.
  • The act of wrestling with these challenges is purposive - saturated with meaning and significance.
  • A student can see a payoff in the future for work well done and skills acquired.

1. Five Standards of Authentic Instruction - Fred M. Newmann and Gary G.Wehlage http://www.learner.org/channel/workshops/socialstudies/

"If you were making recommendations to a local, state or federal government agency to address one of the following problems, what would be the five most important actions steps you would urge?"

acid rain global warming urban decay
violent crime drunken driving smog
traffic congestion water pollution declining fish harvests
endangered species unemployment government corruption
health care costs AIDS teen pregnancy
racial conflict gangs illegal immigration
hunger homelessness voter apathy

For more on this approach note the article "Teaching Social Studies Authentically."

Simulation and Document-Based Learning

"Some historians suggest that Louis XV was brought down in part by hunger and starvation. Imagine you and your team members are advising the King in the years from 1785-89. How should the King address the issues of hunger and starvation as well as taxation and wheat speculation?"

The Project Gutenberg EBook of The French Revolution, by R. M. Johnston at


But popular resentment, the bitter cry of the starving, applied the same name to all of them:
. . . from Louis XV to the inconspicuous monk they were all accapareurs de blé, cornerers of wheat. And their profits rose as did hunger and starvation. The computation has been put forward that in the year 1789 one-half of the population of France had known from experience the meaning of the word hunger; can it be wondered if the curse of a whole people was attached to any man of whom it might be said that he was an accapareur de blé?

As they read about taxation in France coupled at the time with speculation driving up the price of wheat, they begin to formulate changes in policies that might have saved the King from the guillotine. The king lacked foresight. Students have the advantage of 20-20 hindsight. Hunger seems especially real to them because they began with a visit to the food bank. If the King had made such visits, perhaps he would have been more alert to his danger and responsibility.

They can then create persuasive multimedia products to help show the King what his choices are.

For more on this approach note the article "Teaching Social Studies Authentically."

Communication and Persuasion

While visiting and interviewing the director of the agency they have selected, the students focus on identifying the main challenges facing the organization. As a result of their questions, they recognize what work needs to be done and they follow their visit with the creation of authentic work products, many of which might be used by the agency.

For more on this approach note the article "Teaching Social Studies Authentically."

Probing, Data-Gathering & Investigating

Are there data to substantiate the claim that there are Milennial Kids?
Are there data to substantiate the claim that there are Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants?

Visualization & Synthesis

We can combine these two thinking strategies to enhance the creative power of our students.

“Puzzling and Weaving Toward Insight”

Planning and Scenario-Building
Computer Modeling

New technologies can provide forecasting to help guide decision-making. By acquainting our students with computer modeling, we give them the tools to create a better future. A number of these Land Use Planning tools are listed at SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT DECISION SUPPORT TOOLS

Global Invention

There are many project-based learning sites that promote inventive work by students working in groups that often extend beyond state and national borders. One example is ThinkQuest.

ThinkQuest inspires students to think, connect, create, and share. Students work in teams to build innovative and educational web sites to share with the world. Along the way, they learn research, writing, teamwork, and technology skills and compete for exciting prizes.

TechLearning provides an extensive list of such PBL sites.


"Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants." Marc Prensky. On the Horizon (NCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, October 2001)

Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood. The Alliance for Childhood.  October, 2000. http://www.allianceforchildhood.net/projects/computers/

"Generation M - Media in the Lives of 8–18 Year-0lds." March 2005. A Kaiser Family Foundation Study. Authors: Donald F. Roberts, Ph.D., Stanford University; Ulla G. Foehr, M.A., Stanford University; Victoria Rideout, M.A., Kaiser Family Foundation www.kff.org.

Towards a New Literacy of Technology. Alliance for Childhood. 2004. http://www.allianceforchildhood.net/projects/computers/

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