John Dewey Would Hate Your Digital Citizenship Curriculum

There. I said it. Someone had to.

Everyone is talking about #digcit right now. Maybe the term is finally catching on. Maybe it’s just the buzzword phrase school districts are using as they roll out 1:1 initiatives. Maybe these lessons have staying power; maybe they don’t. But I do know one thing….John Dewey would hate your #digcit curriculum.

“Who is this John Dewey?” you ask. If you’ve ever taken a course in educational psychology, his name should ring a bell. Dewey was an educational reformist known for his advocacy of both progressive education and democracy.

Over 100 years ago, John Dewey (1909) argued for better citizenship education in schools. He believed that the school’s definition of a citizen as an informed voter and follower of the law was too narrow and asserted that a good citizen was many things – a voter and a rule follower, but also a community member who must function as a worker, a leader, a parent or mentor who can use the sum of their experiences and skills to “contribute to the values of life [and] add to the decencies and graces of civilization wherever he is” (p. 10).

To fill these roles as an adult, Dewey contended that a child must learn how to lead and when to follow; how to think, ask questions, and explore for answers; how to persevere; and how to communicate, collaborate, and contribute to help move society forward. Dewey so eloquently pointed out that citizenship and moral training in education were nothing without context.

There was no one program of study or course a child could take that would turn him into a good citizen. It was simply not enough to lecture children about how to behave in society; instead, Dewey felt that the school should become the society through which children learned citizenship skills.

He subsequently called for an overhaul of the educational experience in order to help students develop into good citizens (Dewey 1909, 1916).  

Schools have made tremendous strides since Dewey’s sentiments emerged in the early twentieth century. Research into, and implementation of, social and emotional learning, classroom communities, and democratic schools all stem from the visions Dewey had of the school as a society. But just as educators seemed to be on the verge of getting it right, a new type of citizenship emerged.

While Dewey focused on students as citizens of their classrooms, families, and communities, he could have never predicted the digital movement that would turn society into an interconnected global community accessible at the touch of a button.

If Dewey were here today, he would caution us to step back and look at the messages being delivered through digital citizenship curriculum. These messages, by and large, do not encourage students to engage in global conversation or consider the possibilities of collaboration unhindered by boundaries. Our lessons do not recognize the accomplishments of citizens coming together for a good cause, or ask students to consider the power of their voice in tough digital conversations about gender, race, religion or issues of politics and social injustices.

In fact, many of our digital citizenship lessons do not even ask kids to think beyond themselves: What should they do to maintain privacy? What should they do if someone is mean to them? How should they positively brand themselves to look good to future employers? What should they avoid posting to keep from being arrested or suspended?

Dewey would remind us that being a citizen means more than just following rules. A citizen is part of a  community, and being a citizen of a community means interacting with each other, supporting one another, and working together to make our corner of the world a better place. Isn’t it time for our digital citizenship lessons to start reflecting some of his ideals?



Dewey, J. (1909). Moral principles in education. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Dewey, J. (1916). Education and democracy. New York.

Bust portrait of John Dewey, facing slightly left


By Underwood & Underwood – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a51565.
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8 thoughts on “John Dewey Would Hate Your Digital Citizenship Curriculum

  1. I am glad you write this. Digital Citizenship is about controlling kids and making sure they are not “rule breakers” it has so little to do with what Dewey envisioned. It is why I renounced my digital citizenship and focus on being human.


    1. I agree with you, Greg! Part of my dissertation work was to highlight all of those power structures within prepackaged curricula for high school students. I’m not ready to denounce my digital citizenship just yet, but would like to be a powerful voice in shifting the conversation and helping students and teachers see the possibilities of engaging in a global community the way Dewey envisioned. Thanks for reading and commenting!


  2. You might benefit from investigating more of the resources being used to discuss digital citizenship with students before painting the entire intiative with such a wide brush stroke. Many of us working on digital citizenship are very familiar with Dewey and more importantly are striving to help all of us make better decisions about how we use our tools, not simply provide rules to follow.
    Our program encourages thoughtful decision making and provides guidelines for promoting evaluation of the use of digital tools.
    I agree about the ideals of John Dewey, but disagree that he would hate our digital citizenship initiative.


    1. Matt, thank you for your thoughtful reply. While your curriculum does sound like it empowers kids more than restricts them, many of the examples you gave in your comment still focus on the personal responsibility of individual technology users. My argument is that we have to help students see digital tools for more than personal gain (whether social, entertainment or for learning) and develop curricula that foster both participatory and justice oriented citizens. While I have not dug into your curriculum with depth, I have spent the last year conducting a critical discourse analysis on three popular digital citizenship curricula for high school students. 80% of the total data set was written from a purely individualistic point of view. It’s hard to get people thinking about community and the greater good of our lessons do not model ways to do so. Check out this example of a class using digital tools (as well as non-digital ones!) to make a difference.


  3. Interesting discussion above. I teach in a primary school and do a lot of work getting kids to not only keep themselves safe online but also to understand and practice netiquette. To appreciate that everyone is entitled to respect – be it online or face-to-face – regardless of opinions, culture or creed. ‘Words can hurt’ others – so think before you post! I’m also passionate about putting the above into practice in a real life situation. Bring on well designed global projects that satisfy curriculum objectives! These projects encourage kids to put into practice not only digital citizenship but to use higher order thinking as they grapple with global issues, communicate and discuss ideas with students in different countries, then co-create new digital resources to demonstrate their understanding and showcase their solutions to a wide audience! Real world learning – John Dewey could only be impressed!


  4. Great post Kristen. Much of my experience is what I describe as FBL (Fear Based Learning). I documented an example here

    Your post also reminded me of Bryan Alexander’s recent presentation on digital literacies Alexander discusses the active nature of digital literacies, highlighting the problems with the idea of digital citizenship. He suggests that it often counters our usual notion of democracy and civility, instead providing the tools to speak out. This lack of control that often puts people off. For me, this is epitomised in the Aaron Swartz documentry “The Internet’s Own Boy”.


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