This post was written by Chris Berdik, a science journalist, and was produced and originally published by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. It is reprinted here with permission.
The rap on kids these days is that they don’t know much about civic life and they care even less. But a growing group of scholars say the problem isn’t with the kids, but rather with an outdated approach to teaching civics.
The public square is increasingly online, they argue, and that’s where civics education needs to go, too. Instead of addressing our civics shortcomings by just adding more classes and mandating tests, we should tap technology to better engage young people in both the learning and the doing of democracy.
Most educators agree that civics should be a higher priority in schools. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, aka The Nation’s Report Card, recently released the latest dismal results from its quadrennial civics test. Less than a quarter of eighth graders had a “proficient” understanding about the fundamental values and functions of our democracy, continuing a flatline trend stretching back more than a decade.
In response, many states are bolstering their civics requirements. But mandates alone won’t solve the problem, according to Louise Dubé, executive director of iCivics, a nonprofit founded in 2009 by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The iCivics team creates free online role-playing games for middle-school social studies classes, such as “Do I have a Right?” “Executive Command,” and “Win the White House.” More than 72,000 educators have used the games and the accompanying lesson plans.
We need to make civics lessons more meaningful to students, Dubé said, “by putting [the students] in the center of the action.”
Others push that idea even further, using digital media to help kids get involved with issues in their communities. Joseph Kahne, an education professor at Mills College in Oakland, California, is a principal investigator for the Youth and Participatory Politics research network, which studies young people’s use of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and other online platforms to share information, debate, and mobilize around social and political issues.
“Why are we teaching democracy like a game show?” Kahne asked in a recent Education Week commentary, criticizing the plans of several states to make the American citizenship test a graduation requirement. The test asks questions like “How many justices are on the Supreme Court of the United States?” Real civics education shouldn’t be regurgitating facts, Kahne argues. It should empower young people to speak up and take part in civic life, and technology is key to that effort.
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