MARCH 27, 2018
Anton is in class1. The teacher had assigned a worksheet on the electoral system. He barely started, stopped, and started talking with his neighbor Amber about events from the night before. I was observing the class and could not follow the details of the conversation but what he described seemed fairly compelling from Amber’s reaction. After some time, Amber told Anton that they were supposed to be doing the assignment. Anton said that this stuff was useless: White people will do what white people will do.
Many students will experience dissonance between what is taught about American institutions in social studies class and what is happening in the world they live in. As a nation, we are questioning whether the values that infused the design of our American institutions as envisaged by our founders - fairness, majority rule without oppression, self-determination within a representative democracy - continue to be represented in the actual workings of our government today. These institutions are – from Anton’s perspective – perpetuating a system of power that he is not a part of and which does not represent him. The job of educators today – and it is a very tricky one - is to navigate the gulf between what students perceive and what they can do about it.
Anton does not understand how the electoral system is relevant to him or more broadly how the role of the citizen is relevant. Research shows that when it comes to education (and to many other things), it’s all about you. We are not likely to be engaged in deep lasting learning without finding personal relevance in the process. Relevance is not direct applicability of what is learned but rather the connection between your identity and the instructional purpose. When Anton is in English class, he gets that he has to learn to read. Whether or not he enjoys the process of reading novels, he gets that he needs to develop reading fluency to be competent in the world. In that setting, minimal relevance is established prima facie.
Civics requires focus, time and attention, just like other subjects. The difference is that relevance is not clear to students when they walk into class. Ultimately though, it is the point of teaching civics. Feeling like you are a part of our democracy, and that you hold responsibility for our country and its future IS the civic mission of schools. Establishing this connection between the individual and the role of the citizen is necessary for civic learning to be effective long-term. Middle school students don’t vote, that is why learning must be developmentally appropriate teaching students that civic life is more than voting. Civic learning is about understanding the institutions that are at play in your community and our country and your role in this system. iCivics makes the link very personal through role-playing games and other active learning activities where the player is in charge, like running a campaign for president.
The research is clear. When a youth connects with civic life, s/he is more likely to vote and voting once is a strong predictor of lifelong voting2. Connecting civic learning to the students’ social context in ways that feel relevant is not a luxury, it is a necessity. the minimum level from which students build a civic identity. Education is the building block of our democracy - the original civic mission of schools - the civic infrastructure if you will for our system of government. Ensuring that education functions as the engine for civic preparedness and engagement will require that every student feels the relevance of civic learning. That is our challenge.
-iCivics Executive Director, Louise Dubé
Read more about How civics must stay relevant in a changing democracy!
1 The names have been modified to respect student privacy.
2 Celio, C., Durlak, J. and Dymnick, A. Meta-analysis 2011 and Guardian of Democracy report, 2011