Teaching Social Issues Using the Internet

 

C. Frederick Risinger

One of the most prominent items on the NCSS home page (www.socialstudies.org) is the slogan “Creating Effective Citizens.” Below it appears the statement, “Social studies educators teach students the content knowledge, intellectual skills, and civic values necessary for fulfilling the duties of citizenship in a participatory democracy.” Frequently, leaders in our field make the claim that the primary goal of our endeavors is “citizenship education.” In a presidential election year, we social studies educators enthusiastically seek to show our students, their parents, policymakers, and the public how important social studies is to the continued success of the American republic.

Social studies educators have been linking the discussion of issues to citizenship education from the very beginning of social studies. The first NCSS Yearbook, published in 1931, includes an article titled “Objectives in History” by Avery Craven, a history professor at the University of Chicago. The article explores the purpose of history in the school curriculum, contends that contemporary issues must be examined, and argues that “newspapers of our day, the propaganda of interests, the claptrap of the politician—these are things that need to be carefully weighed and evaluated before the individual reaches conclusions….” Avery concludes the paragraph by saying, “Democracy, itself, needs intelligent conduct.”1

Five years later, two New Jersey high school teachers described the struggle to have “current events and current questions” included in the curriculum. Their list of ten objectives for the effective teaching of current events includes: (1) to achieve an appreciation of free government, its nature and significance, how it functions, what its foes are, and wherein lie its weaknesses and strengths; (4) to develop the critical faculty through a healthy skepticism toward the printed word; (5) to understand better the interrelation and implications of our vast socio-economic system; and (7) to establish a tolerant set of social values through the day-to-day study of the customs and problems of other peoples in comparison with our own.2

Educational researchers have studied the use of social or controversial issues in the classroom. In her 1991 review of research on this topic, Carole Hahn reported on studies suggesting that students who discuss issues in class are more likely to believe that people can have an impact on the political system, exhibit higher levels of support for the Bill of Rights, and have an increased interest in social studies.3

As in many other areas of social studies instruction, the Internet brings tremendous opportunities and resources —as well as some tough challenges—to the use of social or controversial issues in the classroom. The ability to locate and use dozens of websites on every conceivable social, political, economic, and cultural issue provides both teachers and students with an array of resources and information that is often mind-boggling. Moreover, while careful planning and use of appropriate instructional strategies are essential when teaching about “hot topic” issues, these problems are compounded when websites containing misleading or false information, racist and bigoted opinion, and demagogic exhortations are as available as those which present a balanced approach or a reasonable presentation of views. As I’ve stated before, teachers and librarians no longer control access to information as we’ve done in the past. I’ve argued that “the rules have changed. Students have access to a vast pool of information—much of which is excellent…and some of which is inaccurate, confused, scurrilous, hateful, and a pack of lies.”4

But, isn’t that what Gathany and Fraser, the high school teachers writing in the 1936 NCSS Yearbook, meant by “develop the critical faculty through a healthy skepticism toward the printed word as an objective for using current events and questions in the classroom?” Isn’t the ability to evaluate and discriminate among information sources one of the most valuable skills students can learn in social studies? Shouldn’t we be preparing students for effective citizenship by helping them to detect bias and evaluate points of view?

This is not an impossible task. There are many resources—in print and on the Internet—that provide models for evaluating online information. Many are specifically designed for use by K-12 students and teachers. For example, Cornell University’s library site (www.library.cornell.edu) has a useful document, “Five criteria for evaluating Web pages” which can easily be used by middle and high school students.
A similar guide, also designed for K-12 students, is available at the University of Wisconsin library’s site at kids.library.wisc.edu/selection. One of the best sites for helping students, especially those in elementary and middle school, is found at KidsClick (www.worldsofsearching.org). It helps students learn how to search the Web and discusses the comparative advantages and disadvantages of filtering or the use of pre-selected websites. This latter strategy is used in many schools with a high degree of success. The Madison (Wisconsin) Public Schools (danenet.wicip.org/lms/social.html) is just one of many schools to provide pre-selected websites for many social studies areas, including a listing of eleven links to Internet resources on social issues. While there’s no guarantee that students won’t web-surf to other sites, many are glad that a group of useful sites has been developed to help them with homework or projects.

For help with instructional strategies for teaching social issues, there is no better resource than the NCSS Handbook on Teaching Social Issues (1996) edited by Ron Evans, Fred Newmann, and David W. Saxe. The authors identify four main principles that serve as the foundation for building an issues-centered curriculum. Teachers or supervisors who want even more professional development assistance on this topic should look at the excellent module, “Teaching Social Issues,” located on the Center for Technology and Teacher Education’s website at www.citeforum.org/social/resources/modules/socialissues/rcf.html.

It is important not to separate traditional social studies content from social issues. Teaching about controversial issues should not be confined to U.S. government or problems-oriented courses. Teachers should help students see the linkages of all social studies courses to contemporary social issues. For example, the recent Olympic Games in Australia highlighted issues related to the treatment of Australia’s aboriginal population. Issues associated with indigenous peoples are receiving a great deal of attention today and world history provides an excellent avenue into the background of this issue. For an excellent site listing more than fifty Native American and indigenous peoples Web pages, check out www.neravt.com/left/native.htm.

Trying to list even a fraction of the websites that provide information for both students and teachers on contemporary social issues would be folly. Each major political party, as well as several minor parties, has its own site. Key in “social issues” and “education” or “teaching” in any search engine and hundreds of sites pop up. However, after many hours of surfing, I can recommend the following sites for classroom teachers. These are almost like “portal sites” in that they focus on social issues and policy and include lists of links to other sites in specific categories.

The best site for teachers to put in their bookmarks or favorites folder is the Current Events section of the Awesome Library site (www.awsomelibrary.org/Classroom/Social_Studies/Current_Events/Current_Events.html). It includes multiple pages of issues-oriented sites grouped by subject, several lesson plan sites, sites with quizzes for students, and current news links. For elementary and middle school teachers, take a look at the Children’s Express site at www.cenews.org. Students help create this site and there are interactive components, including a poll that gives students a voice on such questions as, “What education-related issue is most important to you?”

One of the most comprehensive issues-oriented sites is Oingo’s Social Issues page (www.oingo.com/topic/56/56264.html). Everything from adoption to immigration to youth rights is listed as a category for further investigation. However, this site also includes discussions about abortion, sexual abuse and assault, and gay/lesbian issues. Some teachers may want to include some, but not all, of Oingo’s subjects on pre-selected lists of sites. Finally, the Policy.com website (policy.voxcap.com) is both comprehensive and excellently designed. Daily briefings on selected policy issues are balanced. Political cartoons are frequently used. Recently, visitors to the site were given opportunities to voice their opinion on the IMF and World Bank, whether or not the government should release the oil reserve, and the tension between civil liberties and stopping terrorism.

Using contemporary social issues in the classroom is not for the faint of heart … or for the lazy teacher. It takes careful planning and effective instructional strategies to help students see controversial topics from multiple perspectives. But civil discourse about issues is a key to decision-making in a democracy. Students will benefit from learning how to evaluate and use resources; and, more importantly, how to make decisions based on knowledge, perspective, and careful consideration of alternatives.

Note: Here’s follow-up to a recent column on “porta#148; sites.5 I discussed the idea of school district or even individual building portals that served students, parents, and other citizens in a variety of ways. I mentioned that portals required considerably more Web mastery skills than just setting up a Web page. Through a colleague at Indiana University, I’ve learned of a company headed by a former teacher who has designed a template-type product designed especially for schools. It is particularly good for small, rural schools where technical expertise may be hard to find. A schoo#146;s or school district’s site can be maintained using a typical word processing program. The site can be maintained by the school or hosted by the company for a fairly reasonable cost. While there are probably other products or services like this, you might want to check out www.updatesoftware.com. You can visit the Edinburg (IN) School site, located in a very small Indiana town.

 

Notes

1. Avery Craven, “Objectives in History,” in First Yearbook: Some Aspects Of The Social Sciences In The Schools (Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1931), 23.

2. J. Madison Gathany and Russell Fraser, “The Consideration of Current Events and Current Questions,” in Sixth Yearbook: Elements Of The Social Studies Program (Washington, DC, National Council for the Social Studies, 1936), 148.

3. Carole Hahn, “Controversial Issues in Social Studies,” in James P. Shaver, ed., Handbook Of Research On Teaching And Learning In Social Studies (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991), 470-480.

4. C. Frederick Risinger, “Separating Wheat from Chaff: Why Dirty Pictures Are Not the Real Dilemma in Using the Internet to Teach Social Studies,” Social Education 62, no. 3 (March, 1998), 148-150.

5. C. Frederick Risinger, “Social Studies Portals: More Than Just a Web Page,” Social Education 64, no. 3 (April 2000): 150-151.

 

C. Frederick Risinger is the coordinator for Social Studies Education and director of Professional Development, School Services, and Summer Sessions at Indiana University, Bloomington. He spends far too much time looking at social issues websites.