Social Media, Google and Independent Thinking: Giving Students the Tools They Need

While the last 10 years of my career have been dedicated to being an administrator, in my heart, I still consider myself a history teacher. Learning and teaching history is not only a passion, but it has compelled me to be a more empathetic person. In its essence history gives us a tremendous gift: the ability to see the world through many lenses; a consciousness that there are perhaps many right answers to our questions. 
Historian Sam Weinstein says: 
“History is an understanding that counters narcissism. For the narcissist sees the world –both past and present- in his own image. Mature historical knowing teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born. History educates (“leads outward” in Latin) in the deepest sense.”
As educators we believe that our role is to open the minds of our students, helping them build a critical lens that will enable them to navigate our world which is so often full of bias. One of our partners in helping students seek out a wide array of information, is the internet. The depth and breadth of  information that we can now access is truly astounding.  

This week  I was reminded once again that our interactions with the internet are not always benign.  In How Social Media Silences Debate, Claire Cain Miller reveals the latest research about how social networks can potentially create more homogeneous views and limit people's perspectives.  She writes: 

"Social media, like Twitter and Facebook, has the effect of tamping down diversity of opinion and stifling debate about public affairs. It makes people less likely to voice opinions, particularly when they think their views differ from those of their friends, according to a report published Tuesday by researchers at Pew Research Center and Rutgers University.The researchers also found that those who use social media regularly are more reluctant to express dissenting views in the offline world.
This article reminded me of Eli Pariser's TED Talk called Beware Online Filter Bubbles.  Pariser uncovers the nefarious way in which the algorithms built into Facebook, Google and other search engines narrow our perspectives.

It is strange to think that the internet, which has the power to connect us all together, could also be used to segment us further, and drive us deeper into our own limited world views.  And this is where our role as educators becomes so important.  If we are passive in confronting this monolith, and do not actively push our students (and ourselves) to burst these bubbles, we will be helpless in stemming the tide of bigotry, xenophobia and intolerance that will follow. 

One of the most damaging myths in education that hurts us in pushing our students to be more critical consumers of information, is the idea that they are "digital natives", who naturally master the use of the internet and technology.  This myth leads educators to be passive in how we direct and guide our students in the use of these powerful resources.  Alan November provides us with some excellent ideas about how we as teachers can guide our students effectively in this process.  November states, "My biggest concern is that we have a lot of kids who are overconfident about their use of technology... and that overconfidence is quite dangerous."  In the short video below, November talks about the complex task of designing learning experiences for students that allow them to "own the learning".

The lesson, as I have stated in a previous post, is that, in the era of free and connected information, teachers are more important than ever.  And, as November so clearly proves, educators need to shift practices in order to be effective in this new world. If teachers can take with them the spirit of Weinstein's "mature historical knowing", they will remember that this task is about more than merely helping our students become powerful critical thinkers; it is also about turning them into thoughtful empathetic global citizens.


  1. Obrigada por partilhar seu pensamento e provocar reflex√£o.

    Thank you for helping me think through some questions I am exploring about empathy and technology...and teaching empathy...and appropriate use of technology - You may have seen this - i just watched it - well worth the time. Thank you Jeff!

    1. Thanks Bett. I have seen Sherry Turkle's TED talk and have read parts of her book Alone Together. Great stuff!

  3. Thought provoking stuff, Jeff. The myth of the 'digital native'.

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