Civics Education Goes Digital, Empowering Youth in an Election Season

October 09, 2012
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, United States
CATEGORIES In the Classroom, Students, Technology Integration, Tools

With an election on the horizon, it's imperative that today’s youth understand the importance of civic duty – especially at a time when only 27 percent of fourth graders understand the purpose of the Constitution. (They're not alone. As one survey by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center found, fully one-third of adults cannot name all three branches of the U.S. government.) Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acknowledged that civics education appears “dusty” and “boring” to today’s youth. “We need to update it,” he said at the Educating for Democracy in the Digital Age conference last year.

The recent paper "Fault Lines in Our Democracy" (pdf) by researchers Richard J. Coley and Andrew Sum found that only about 25 percent of U.S. students in Grades 4, 8, and 12 were “proficient” on civics issues. For an eighth grader, that means understanding at least one role of the Supreme Court. Even actor and national civics advocate Richard Dreyfuss said in a KPBS interview, “Civics has reached the iconic level of most boring word in the history of the English language.” The actor launched The Dreyfuss Initiative in 2009 to better teach students about civic duty and government.

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has also been one of several advocates to suggest that a decline of civic education is linked to students' serious lack of understanding of basic U.S. history and civic responsibility. Although other factors are likely behind this shift as well, but it isn't a stretch to think that students would feel separated from the civic process if they aren’t taught its relevance in school.

A report on U.S. education reform released by the Council on Foreign Relations earlier this year found that schools are producing adults without the necessary skills to safeguard the country’s future leadership, causing a national-security risk. The report found that civics education, in particular, is lacking in American schools, and that, in general, U.S. students are “ill prepared to compete with their global peers.”

Without a foundation in civics, voting also is more likely to decline. According to findings by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, since 1972, voting by those aged 18 to 29 has declined by about 10 percentage points, albeit with a small rebound in 2008. This decrease is coincidentally aligns with the steady phasing out of civics and government education, which is no longer a mandatory subject in U.S. schools. It also aligns with a steady erosion of trust in government since the 1980s among this age group. As noted political scientist William Galston has noted, the more knowledge we have of civic affairs, the less likely we are to have a generalized mistrust and fear of public life.

So how can we revamp civics education and convey that it is a relevant and necessary part of their education while also encouraging young adults to vote? More and more experts say digital media is the key.

For years former Supreme Court justice O’Connor has been championing “iCivics,” the online interactive program designed to prepare students to be twenty-first century citizens. According to its website, O’Connor developed the initiative in 2009 to help reverse American’s declining civic knowledge and participation. She and her team have since produced a handful of educational video games, as well as plenty of teaching materials that have been used in classrooms nationwide.

Preliminary research gauging the effectiveness of the iCivics program finds that not only were the students testing iCivics enraptured by the games, but there were significant improvements in their understanding of civics and government.

iCivics also has incorporated an election-themed section on its site, with games that relate directly to today’s political climate. One game, "Win the White House," allows users to manage their own presidential campaigns by debating “hot issues” like alternative energy and health care. There is also a section for teachers to register for lesson plans that incorporate this year’s election into the classroom.

Similarly, Rand McNally just announced the launch of their digital educational game, "Play the Election." The game is designed as a collaborative tool to teach students about this year’s election, as well as the general election process, through a mix of resources and competitive games. The company is also sponsoring a Dear Mr. President Essay Contest, in which students can express their ideas on this election season’s toughest issues as if they were writing to the president himself. The contest, running until Nov. 27, will reward ten finalists by publishing their essays in an ebook. There will also be two grand prize winners eligible for $5,000 scholarships.

Digital platforms are an excellent tool for engaging kids in civics both in and outside the classroom. It is exciting to see more education officials recognizing the importance of teaching civics, and jumping on board the digital bandwagon.

As O’Connor said, “Knowledge of our system of government is not handed down through a gene pool. It must be learned by each new generation,” and the responsibility lies with today’s education innovators to meet this new generation where they are most comfortable – online.