Academic Exchange Quarterly     Winter  2009    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  13, Issue  4

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Elementary Social Studies and the Internet



Alison A. Dobrick, William Paterson University, NJ


Dobrick, Ed.D. is Assistant Professor of Elementary and Early Childhood Education in the College of Education.



Elementary teachers face many challenges when they integrate the internet into their Social Studies instruction. This article examines the internet’s relationship with cognition; effective practices in Social Studies education; and findings from a study in which teachers reported their internet-based instructional activities. This article provides suggestions for teachers who wish to more effectively harness the opportunities of and address the concerns related to using the internet in the classroom.



The internet is ubiquitous in modern life and education. The question of whether to use the internet as an instructional tool is no longer relevant; instead, educators must determine how to effectively and responsibly use the internet to help students of all ages meaningfully understand content. This article examines research about the internet and its relationships with cognition, education, and literacy. In addition, primary, empirical findings from a recent study examining teachers’ instructional decisions related to the internet are examined. This research provides specific examples of the nature of relevant issues related to internet-based instruction in elementary level Social Studies. Exploring this research leads, finally, to suggestions for teachers who wish to harness the incredible opportunities offered by the internet in their classrooms.


Challenges Presented by the Internet

In a recent article in the Atlantic provocatively entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” Nicholas Carr (2008) bemoans the fact that he is “not thinking the way [he] used to think…the deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle” (p. 57). Carr supports the assertion that this has become a common phenomenon, using studies oriented toward both social life and brain chemistry that claim that our pervasive use of the internet has begun to shape the way we think:


The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded...But that boon comes at a price…media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation (Carr, 2008, p. 57).


Carr’s assertion demonstrates a sharp contrast between how the internet may affect cognition and how teachers wish students to understand content. Historical studies must promote a deep and meaningful understanding of the many, complex perspectives of multiple eras, events, and cultures. Teachers commonly use the internet both to find resources of information and to guide students in independent research. As teachers engage in these processes, they must contend with the fact that the internet does not encourage deep thinking about a given topic. Rather, in Carr’s words, the internet presents information as “a swiftly moving stream of particles” (p. 57) upon which students drift, finding bits of information as needed rather than engaging in meaningful consideration of the nuances of selected topics.


Researchers have proposed that consumers of information on the internet must become proficient in a variety of skills if they are to meaningfully enhance their knowledge through internet research. The number of skills one needs in order to maximally benefit from the offerings of the Internet is vast, especially for young students who are just beginning to engage in abstract thought. Selber (2004) describes the notion that today’s “functional computer literacy” includes a multitude of skills:


…computer literacy is a vexing and ongoing problem…for more than two decades, the discipline has attempted to make some sense – in social, political, historical, professional, pedagogical, and functional terms – of computers not as computational machines but as literacy environments, environments that leave very few activities, individuals, or structures entirely unaffected (Selber, 2004, p. 471).


Selber's description of computer literacy as “a set of interconnected capacities” (p. 472), ranging from using a word processor to interacting with others in online discussions to searching successfully for desired information, demonstrates the challenges facing teachers who seek to use the bounty of information on the internet as a basis for or supplement to their curriculum.  Many elementary students come to the classroom with some aspects of “functional computer literacy,” from basic skills like typing to complex abilities like interacting in online virtual “worlds” (Valentine and Holloway, 2002). A recent study (Kuiper, Volman & Terwel [2009]) found that elementary students’ internet searches were often characterized by “inconsistency, impulsiveness, and impatience” even when they possessed the adequate basic skills needed for internet use. Villano (2008) describes the movement, based in the United Kingdom, to define “digital citizenship” as a crucial set of skills surrounding “the responsibility of all online users to interact with each other with dignity and respect.” Many areas of young students’ computer literacy, in its most complex sense, must be addressed and monitored alongside the content of a given lesson.


Specific Concerns about Teaching Social Studies to Elementary Students Using the Internet

The challenges inherent in internet use discussed above have profound implications for the use of the internet in teaching social studies content to students. The National Council for the Social Studies (2002)  provides “essential characteristics for powerful Social Studies” that offer teachers a research-based understanding of the concepts and attitudes that should ideally shape their instruction. Keeping these characteristics in mind while using the internet as a teaching tool allows educators to enhance the goals of Social Studies education and not to work against them by, for example, addressing historical topics in the quick and surface manner often associated with the internet. Some of these characteristics include ensuring that students:


… learn connected networks of knowledge, skills, beliefs and attitudes that they will find useful both in and outside of school…become aware of the values, complexities, and dilemmas involved in an issue…[recognize] opposing points of view…[and] engage in reflective thinking and decision-making

(NCSS, 2002, p. 12-13).


The use of the internet in Social Studies classrooms has mostly been examined at the high school and college levels. Examples of successful uses of the internet in high school Social Studies instruction include the encouragement of critical discussion on teacher-selected primary sources on the Vietnam War (Warren, Memory, & Bolinger, 2004) and the guiding of students to create their own Advanced Placement Examination-style Document Based Questions using primary sources they found online (Kotzin, 2001). Newmark (1997) notes that the use of primary sources is vital in Social Studies instruction, and that the internet is by far the best place to find primary sources, particularly from the perspectives of traditionally underrepresented groups of people; future research should focus on ways to make these primary sources more accessible and meaningful for young students.


Unfortunately, the unique concerns related to using the internet to teach about Social Studies at the elementary level are not frequently addressed in the literature. In her discussion of the “pitfalls” of using the internet to teach history at the college level, Noonan (1998) states that “the place of the web in higher education is quite different from elementary and secondary schools where the emphasis has been on constructing sites for use in the classroom rather than on how to navigate the web” (p. 205-206). For example, Risinger’s (2006) study examined classroom websites that elementary teachers created and successfully used as resources for instruction, but did not explore more general classroom implications of using the internet in social studies instruction. However, as will be shown in the next section of this article, elementary teachers frequently report that they allow their students to engage in research on the internet, rather than just on classroom-specific websites. Young students must at times engage in such navigation in presumably less than effective and meaningful ways, demonstrating the need for further research on elementary students’ internet experiences in the classroom.


One example of a historical topic that presents particularly difficult problems for elementary teachers, yet is required or encouraged by many states, is the Holocaust. Multiple states mandate its inclusion in elementary teachers’ Social Studies curricula (Weeden, 2005). Scholars of Holocaust education (for example, Totten, 1999), recommend that age-appropriate resources must be used with young students. This recommendation must be adhered to when selecting internet resources as part of elementary level Holocaust instruction and Social Studies instruction more generally. In addition, when including the internet in instruction about the Holocaust, teachers must be aware that the internet presents information from both highly reliable and extremely questionable perspectives.


The example of teaching about the Holocaust provides a particularly clear example of the importance of media literacy, one important aspect of which is the ability to critically consider the sources behind any website (or any media in general). Reliable, fact-filled websites for learning about the Holocaust, such as that of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, as well as racist, false, Holocaust denial oriented websites may emerge as parts of the same Google search. A report entitled “White Supremacist Use of the Internet to Fuel Racial Hate” (1999), commissioned by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, found that “white supremacy is growing online.” The history of the Holocaust becomes astonishingly relevant to today’s world when one realizes that today’s heirs of Hitler’s message continue to spread hateful behavior and beliefs online. Teachers need to consider how to address the distinct possibility that their students might encounter this kind of hateful website in their quests to find information about certain historical events. Teachers who lead their young students to evaluate and critically think about what they read online can positively affect young people’s lives as they seek to make sense of an increasingly digital world.


Learning from Teachers’ Experiences

Studies about teachers’ experiences with internet-based instructional approaches are often small-scale case studies that examine the classroom experiences of high school or college level students, or, as mentioned above, investigations of specific websites’ use and content. However, because elementary teachers are expected to include complex historical topics in their instruction, more research that examines the integration of the internet into the elementary Social Studies curriculum must be accomplished. The author of this article attempted to address the need for increased research on elementary teachers’ decision making and actions in relation to their Social Studies instruction with a study focusing on elementary teachers’ decisions to teach about the Holocaust in a large school district in southern Florida (Dobrick, 2008). Florida is one of the eleven states with state mandates to include the Holocaust in K-12 instruction (Weeden, 2005).


In this study (Dobrick, 2008), 128 fifth-grade teachers described through survey responses a range of practices related to the nature and extent of their instruction on the Holocaust, but only responses dealing with their use of the internet are considered here. Teachers in this study used the internet both as a source of information for themselves and to inform their students’ own, independent research. Teachers reported that they used the surveyed county’s paper version of their school district-published guide, which had been distributed to all of its schools, more frequently than the same guide provided on the district’s website (43.6% of them used the paper guide, while 25.7% of respondents used the guide in its online form). It may be surmised that some teachers simply did not know that it was available online, or that some teachers did not possess the level of familiarity with the internet needed to access the mandated guide.


A further finding must be considered alongside the data on the school district’s guide. A full 20.8% of teachers used the comprehensive, authoritative guide published online by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (2001). This guide was not a mandated instructional material offered to Florida teachers, yet over a fifth of the teachers who taught about the Holocaust to their students went above and beyond what was mandated to draw upon an online source that was more comprehensive and fact-based than the district’s extremely brief, literature-based guide. Furthermore, an overlapping 29.7% of respondents who taught about the Holocaust reported that they used resources other than any of the national, state, or district guides mentioned. Of these teachers who used other resources, it is important to note that an overwhelming 76% characterized the other resources they used as internet-based. They used a variety of online sources, including Google, Wikipedia, United Streaming (a website instructional films), and leading students in “internet research”. Teachers’ determination to bring outside, non-mandated sources into their classroom led to one of the most interesting overarching findings of this study: teachers act as “gatekeepers” of history, the final deciders of what sources, information, and voices to include in their historical instruction.



Suggestion 1: Promote the Use of Single, Comprehensive Guides

Several suggestions can be drawn from an examination of the above concerns related to the use of the internet in elementary Social Studies instruction. If users of the internet tend to prefer a research approach characterized by quick searches for surface information, as described by Carr, a possible counterbalance might be to direct teachers toward comprehensive guides or databases that present relevant, meaningful information in one, convenient location. In the Florida study (Dobrick, 2008), the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum provides an excellent, comprehensive guide (USHMM, 2001) that includes both relevant content and effective teaching methods.


Having a set of comprehensive facts and methods in an approved guide can also address concerns related to developmental appropriateness. Schrum (2001) encourages the use of history databases that organize the immense number of primary and secondary sources available on the internet so that students can be helped to effectively assess the validity of online sources of information (p. 329). Teaching about the Holocaust is a clear example of the concerns that emerge when teaching history to young students, but many historical events bring up similar concerns of being considered objectionable, controversial, or psychologically difficult for elementary students.  Central guides and databases produced by experts in a given field promote accuracy and consistency in teachers’ curricula. However, it is important to note that this practice does not add to teachers’ or students’ ability to sort through and evaluate multiple sources of information.                                                                          


Suggestion 2: Create Professional Development Opportunities on Computer Literacy

As mentioned above, computer literacy is comprised of multiple complex and basic skills. Professional development must be encouraged that helps teachers to attain and constantly improve a diverse set of technology skills. Norton & Hathaway (2008) describe a successful graduate course in “Web 2.0” technology, which included topics from basic computer literacy to an overview of social networking models on the internet; such a graduate course could be modified to fit the needs of in-service teachers who are not in a formal academic program. Professional development opportunities, ranging from onsite workshops at elementary schools to activities in pre-service teachers’ undergraduate courses, must offer interactive, hands-on instruction in a wide assortment of skills so that teachers can learn to build upon their own, diverse levels of understanding. Teachers, like their young students, possess different levels of knowledge and skills considered part of a comprehensive computer literacy. Guiding teachers toward an understanding of how to promote meaningful, directed student research must be part of any professional development experience in computer literacy.


Suggestion 3: Engage in Deep, Not Surface Teaching of Historical Content

Teachers and prospective teachers must be encouraged to teach about culture and history in a meaningful, not simply surface manner. This is true regardless of the source of information, but is especially relevant when considering the previously mentioned pitfalls of internet-based instruction (Carr, 2008). Pang (2005) discusses the difference between surface and deep cultural studies. She describes three levels of culture and encourages teachers to draw from all three levels, not from just “surface” cultural items when teaching students about cultures other than their own:


Level 1: Language, Symbols, and Artifacts

Level 2: Customs, Practices, and Interactional Patterns

Level 3: Shared Values, Beliefs, Norms, and Expectations (Pang, 2005, p.1)


Pang’s three levels of cultural expressions demonstrate a belief in the importance of teaching students to consider aspects of cultural groups that are deeper than surface, external details like clothing and foods. When using the internet in Social Studies instruction, teachers must be careful to lead students toward meaningful understandings of the events, people, and themes they learn about. Students who are left on their own to “research” a given group of people or historical event are likely to quickly find and report on Level 1 cultural items and ignore the more complex realities of the aspects of culture that comprise Levels 2 and 3. Teachers who guide their students toward a realistic understanding of the dynamic complexities of culture, for example,  leading students to learn about how children live their daily lives in multiple cultures, will be more effectively harness the opportunities provided by the internet in the area of Social Studies education.





Challenges faced by elementary teachers who integrate the internet into Social Studies instruction include ensuring that websites are age-appropriate and developing media literacy among young students. This article provided several suggestions for improving teachers’ use of the internet with young students. First, teachers should be provided with personalized professional learning opportunities in computer and media literacy. Also, teachers should be encouraged to use comprehensive online guides that provide meaningful content and effective methods. Finally, teachers must approach Social Studies education in a “deep” rather than in a “surface” manner. Implementing these suggestions may help elementary level teachers to more effectively use the ubiquitous internet in their Social Studies instruction.





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