Usable Knowledge Called to Action How a new civics curriculum empowers students to become democratic participants — even in a pandemic Posted April 8, 2020 By Emily Boudreau Civics education has often asked students to think about what they can do for their country but hasn’t always shown them how to gain civic knowledge or given them the tools to put it into action. This current year, with both the presidential election and a national pandemic crisis, demonstrates how important knowledgeable and engaged civic actors are in decision-making and policy implementation. How citizens and communities understand, respond, and voice dissent or approval of leaders’ decisions is a key component of a healthy democracy. Harvard professor Danielle Allen and her colleagues at the Democratic Knowledge Project (DKP) are reimagining civics education as more than just learning the three branches of government or getting students registered to vote. "We’re not just interested in students being able to acquire knowledge that will help them on a multiple-choice test. Rather, we want to ensure they build foundational knowledge and understand disciplinary standards as valuable for direct use in active civic practice," Allen says. In order to integrate student agency with disciplinary mastery, the DKP has introduced a curriculum that is bolstered by research on successful and effective project-based learning and supports students in building a civic identity and becoming informed citizens in their communities. "We’re not just interested in students being able to acquire knowledge that will help them on a multiple-choice test. Rather, we want to ensure they build foundational knowledge and understand disciplinary standards as valuable for direct use in active civic practice." The recent transition to remote learning for all school districts in Massachusetts and many more across the country due to coronavirus has heightened a need for engaging students remotely through technology and independent research assignments. School closures have also shed an even greater light on the systemic perpetuation of inequality in terms of who can access online education resources. The DKP team continues to find ways to support educators in this work, even at a distance. "We’ve been maintaining ongoing support for our community of practice, equipping them with digital and printable resources, and seeking to learn from the situation how better to support digital learning," Allen says. Reinvigorating Civics Education Recent research has found that fewer than 30% of millenials (people age 25-40) think democracy is essential, comapred to 70% of Americans born before World War II. “Our society has failed in one of its most fundamental responsibilities: the generational transfer of a way of life. There are a lot of reasons for that, including significant disinvestment in civic education over the last 50 years. The simple fact, though, is that you can’t have a democracy if people don’t want one. Effective, equitable civic education is one critical ingredient in reversing these dynamics,” Allen says. As a result, civics education has become a requirement for public schools in many states. Massachusetts, like several other states, has implemented civics standards for students as an antidote for civic disengagement. The state also requires students to participate in a student-led civics project in both eighth grade and again by the end of high school. However, this legislation exposes a common curricular conundrum: how to support students in acquiring enough deep civic content so that students feel empowered to actively participate, using their influence or voice, throughout their lifetime. DKP’s curriculum asks students to start by thinking about who they are, what they value, and how identities and values form a civic identity. Over the course of the eighth-grade year, the rigorous curriculum engages students in learning about the philosophical foundations and political institutions of our democracy and scaffolds the development of critical-thinking skills. The year culminates in a final project that asks students to integrate their values with their knowledge of civic institutions to push for a change that matters to them and their communities. “Authentic learning experiences activate the student as an owner of discussion, an owner of the learning. In other words, they’re not passive recipients of information. They shape the conversation.” Currently piloted with 15 Massachusetts educators, Allen and her team at the DKP have also been running a research study alongside curriculum and professional development implementation. Eventually, this research will help identify best practices and articulate frameworks for excellence in civics education nationally. Starting civic education initiatives now Here, Allen provides ideas and inspiration for school and department leaders who are beginning to roll out civics education initiatives. Expand teachers’ knowledge and skills with targeted professional development Depending on strengths and needs, support and professional development opportunities could take a variety of forms. However, new civics education asks teachers to push the boundaries of traditional instructional formats. Think about opportunities that target the following: Deep and engaging civics education may require knowledge not only of history but of economics, philosophy, and political science. Active learning strategies are also key to creating authentic civics learning experiences. Design instruction together, not from the top down To ensure that content is rigorous and effective, expertise from all instructional levels needs to be incorporated. Think strategically about forming partnerships that: Link university-level content experts with classroom teachers, district leaders, and instructional coaches. Help amplify the impact of student projects and initiatives as they begin to work on their projects. Consider partnering with other schools and district to increase impact. Support student inquiry and authenticity “Authentic learning experiences activate the student as an owner of discussion, an owner of the learning. In other words, they’re not passive recipients of information. They shape the conversation,” Allen says. Leaders at all levels can help: Give students a chance to figure out what matters to them and engage with their communities — this may require some flexibility in the curriculum and timeline. Consider reaching out to other community leaders to prepare them to be partners in this work as well. Let students work together on projects — whether that’s within the classroom or within the district. There are important civics lessons to be learned from reaching a consensus as well. Use flexible determinants of project success Due to the nature of project-based learning, students will be tackling different problems using a variety of strategies. As a result, success will look different on a project-by-project basis. To keep everyone on the same page: Focus on the goal of developing student voice and capacity to effect change. What do students need to know in order to achieve that goal? Additional Resources Danielle Allen speaks about the importance of democracy The Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics on the importance of democracy in the time of COVID-19 The Lou Frey Institute at the University of Central Florida provides a civics curriculum co-design model The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education provides a Civic Project Guidebook Additional, low-cost curricular resources for civics educators Usable Knowledge Connecting education research to practice — with timely insights for educators, families, and communities Explore All Articles Related Articles Usable Knowledge How to Help Kids Become Skilled Citizens Active citizenship requires a broad set of skills, new study finds Education Now How to Help Kids Become Skilled Citizens An exploration of ways in which educators can instill civic identity in students Usable Knowledge Rebuilding Democracy New standards from a sweeping civic learning initiative reinvigorate civics education on a national scale.