Next Generation Civics Education

As Americans gear up to celebrate the 4th of July, we face some unsettling questions about the state of our polity.  One of the most interesting is: What should the next generation of civics education look like?   A recent essay series at The Atlantic offers some ideas about how we can prepare future generations for public participation in a democracy, in particular a democracy that exists in an era of rapid technological change.  This post discusses some of their ideas, and how they can be implemented in the classroom using WorldView Software’s Civics program.In the introduction to the series, Adrienne LaFrance, Irina Raicu, and Eric Goldman write:

Everyone who participated in this series believes there is hope yet—for democracy, and for the institutions that support it. They also believe that technology can help, though it will take time and money to make it so. Democracy can still thrive in this uncertain age, they argue, but not without deliberate and immediate action from the people who believe it is worth protecting.

Debbie Chachra, a professor at Olin College of Engineering, writes in Gratitude for Invisible Systems about the complexity of the systems that undergird modern life, and the need for raising awareness of how systems both physical and regulatory work to fulfill the bottom layers of the pyramid of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; to keep us safe, fed, and housed as well as informed and connected:

When we think about caring for our neighbors, we think about local churches, and charities—systems embedded in our communities. But I see these technological systems [infrastructure] as one of the main ways that we take care of each other at scale…If I were to make a suggestion for how technology could be used to improve our democracy, I would want to make these systems more visible, understandable, and valued by the general public.

Any course of study in civics has to study how national institutions such as the constellation of bureaucracies work, but also how non-government linking institutions such as the media and political parties work.  All of these institutions are complex creatures, worthy of lifetimes devoted to their study.  But a good outline, such as in WorldView Software’s Civics program — with chapters on each national institution — is a good place to start.

Alexander B. Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, makes the point in Protecting the Public Commons that civics education is inherently about active participation:

Every member of civil society and institution has a role in informing communities about how government works. A core component of a high school education should include teaching people how to judge risk, statistical literacy, and how to exercise our rights to access public information.

WorldView’s Civics starts students on the right path with projects requiring students to track down public data, and case studies demonstrating the kind of risks that are easiest to personalize, such as insurance, fraud, and consumer rights.screen capture of civics title page

Finally, in the essay Lessons From Isaac Asimov’s Multivac, Shannon Vallor, a professor of philosophy at Santa Clara University writes that

Technology’s threat to democracy is not, at its root, that of poorly designed systems (though certainly design improvements can be made). The real threat is when technical progress is relied upon as a substitute for moral progress in cultivating the civic virtues, norms, and values that sustain functional democracies.

A related point is made over at The Scholarly Kitchen, where blogger Kent Anderson draws our attention to the algorithms that impact both what information is aggregated and what information we receive.  Filter bubbles are just part of that picture, possibly even worse is the way algorithms act and interact:

…we have helped to create an information space that is controlled in ways we can only guess at. Algorithms that even their creators don’t fully understand are increasingly exerting control over what we know and believe to be true.

Vallor recommends that platforms such as social media stop assuming users possess civic virtues such as “integrity, courage, empathy, perspective, benevolence, and respect for truth” and start trying to cultivate them. Anderson warns us to be careful there as well: reasserting a human moral compass may require some version of Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” updated for algorithms.

Educators can encourage the growth of these traits as well: WorldView’s Civics program has a theme called “Participating in Public Life” which gathers together materials (overview sections, art images, projects, etc.) that illustrate and/or require students to demonstrate civic virtues through active participation in politics and government, whether local or national, virtual or in-real-life.


BulbgraphOnOffUse the outline page in guided essays to spark in-class discussion on using supporting evidence. Click on “Hint” for ideas.


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PROGRAM UPDATE: Judicial Decision-Making

New for 2017, WorldView Software’s U.S. Government: An Interactive Approach has new resources for learning more about how judges and justices makes decisions.

The overview of Chapter 11: The Judiciary contains a new discussion of the doctrine of originalism, along with ancillary factual and conceptual questions and glossary terms that support learning and assessment:

Screenshot of Chapter 11: The Judiciary
Screenshot of new factual question

BulbgraphOnOffUse a video capture tool like Recap for formative assessment: have students describe the readings in their own words, using the Questions for Thought as prompts.


Preview WorldView Software’s programs for free at company logohttp://www.worldviewsoftware.com/preview/

PROGRAM UPDATE: Presidential Powers

New for 2017, WorldView Software’s U.S. Government: An Interactive Approach has new resources for learning more about the president of the United States.

Chapter 9: The Presidency has a new image with introduction and questions called Graph: Executive Orders, which shows the use of these orders in comparison by president from FDR through Obama:

Screenshot of Graph: Executive Orders

Chapter 9: The Presidency also has an updated overview and revised conceptual questions that reflect President Trump’s use of social media, and new glossary terms (which are linked from their context in the overview).

Screenshot of Chapter 9: The Presidency overview showing linked terms that are defined in the glossary.

BulbgraphOnOffUse our databank of study questions in a polling service such as in Google Classroom to do quick mid-stream assessments.


Preview WorldView Software’s programs for free at company logohttp://www.worldviewsoftware.com/preview/

Tiny Fish Brain GPS

What’s the value of discovering that fish larva, about the size of my thumbnail, has a compass in its brain?

Source: Tiny Fish Brain GPS

[Great post that ties together basic and applied scientific research, and the importance of both for policy.  Recommended for starting discussions for civics, U.S. government, and economics classes.]

Finding Patterns in Political Money

If your U.S. Government class is up to Chapter 7: Campaigns and Voting, you’re probably discussing the ins and outs of campaign finance.  Want to take the discussion even further?  Try exploring some of the data sets annotated below.

The Anomaly Tracker from OpenSecrets tracks six kinds of money-in-politics data:

  1. Lawmakers sponsoring legislation that was lobbied by only one company or other organization whose employees or PAC also donated to the sponsoring lawmakers.
  2. Lawmakers receiving twice as much in contributions from their top donors as their next highest donors.
  3. Lawmakers receiving twice as much in contributions from their top donor industries as their next highest donor industries.
  4. Lawmakers receiving more than 50 percent of their itemized contributions from out of state.
  5. More than 50 percent of a committee or candidate’s spending is paid to a single vendor.
  6. PACs giving at least $7,500 to a candidate’s Leadership PAC but nothing to the candidate’s committee.

Of course, the existence of an anomaly is not by itself evidence of shenanigans!  But since patterns can be studied for systemic meaning, anomalies in those patterns should be investigated and explained.

There are other databases to explore that might shed light on political money.  One is the Database on Ideology, Money in Politics, and Elections (DIME) at Stanford University which “contains over 100 million political contributions made by individuals and organizations to local, state, and federal elections spanning a period from 1979 to 2012. A corresponding database of candidates and committees provides additional information on state and federal elections.”

The other is the Money, Politics and Transparency database, which scores countries on five issues:

  1. Direct and Indirect Public Funding during Campaigns
  2. Restrictions on Contribution and Expenditure
  3. Reporting Requirements and Public Disclosure
  4. Third-Party Actors
  5. Monitoring and Enforcement
MPT scorecard for Thailand, Trinidad & Tobago, and Turkey
Each country has two scores: in law (which measures the strength of its existing regulations), and in practice (which measures how well the laws are enforced). The scores are then averaged and weighted to give a composite score.

Comparisons to other systems can help people figure out what works and what doesn’t in terms of keeping politics free from the corruption of money.  Both databases are funded in part by the Sunlight Foundation, which works to make governments open, transparent, and accountable.

[The featured image is a screen grab of Graph: Political Party Finances from WorldView Software’s U.S. Government.]


BulbgraphOnOffUse social media such as a Twitter hashtag to create a running stream of questions during lectures, then go back and discuss.


Preview WorldView Software’s programs for free at company logohttp://www.worldviewsoftware.com/preview/

 

United and divided responses to complex urban issues

“There are increasing suggestions that extreme weather events and climate change will have the greatest impact in cities, where people are concentrated and many of the natural systems that could provide buffers against extreme weather have been removed or degraded. When one starts to deconstruct the causes and impacts of natural disasters, the messiness and interconnectedness of contributing factors quickly become evident. Natural disasters occur at the intersection of social, political and environmental systems.”

— from Geography Directions

[Raises some interesting issues about community preparedness; useful discussion points if your class is reading any of the following:

  • Chapter 18: The U.S. Adapts to a Post-9/11 World in American History II
  • Case Study: Insurance in Civics and in Economics
  • Chapter 10: The Federal Bureaucracy in U.S. Government
  • Chapter 23: Search for Solutions to Global Problems, Graph/Chart: Growth of Cities in the Middle East, or Graph/Chart: Urbanization in Latin America in World History B

 

How Do Polls Work?

By now, many of you have no doubt seen more presidential polling results than you ever wanted to see!  But too many people equate internet polls such as the one featured above (from cheezburger.com) with scientific polls conducted by major news organizations.  How can you tell which of them are valid measures of public opinion, and which are not?

Start with Project: Conducting a Poll in WorldView Software’s U.S. Government.  Try it out, and then critically evaluate the results.  Here are some guiding points for questions students should be asking about their data:

  1. What was the difference between the total population of people whose opinion they wanted to know and the number of people who actually answered the poll?
  2. Did people have a choice to take the poll or not?
  3. Could people respond to the poll more than once?
  4. Was one group of people more represented in the poll than another? Why or why not?
  5. How were the questions asked — did they notice they got a better response rate from one method over another, such as internet over in-person?
  6. How were the questions asked — did the questions use loaded language that hinted at the “right” answer?
  7. How were the questions asked — were they yes-or-no, multiple choice, etc.?
  8. and so on…

Then apply this methodology to the polls out there.  Count the differences between this poll from Breitbart (warning: overlay popup ad):

"You watched at home — now make your voice heard! Who won the third debate? Vote below to tell us who you believe was tonight’s winner: Hillary Clinton/Donald Trump"Donald Trump 52.82% (145,324 votes), Hillary Clinton 47.18% (129,785 votes)

 

 

 

 

and these polls, aggregated at RealClear Politics:

polling results from multiple polls

For a deeper dive into how polling works, visit the Pew Research Center’s Methods page.  There, you’ll find all sorts of information, such as how to figure out a poll’s margin of error.  Especially recommended reading: the overview “Flashpoints in Polling” by Claudia Deane, Courtney Kennedy, Scott Keeter and Kyley McGeeney.

UPDATE 12/06/2016: Very nice video from Scientific American explaining the math behind polling.


BulbgraphOnOffStudy questions can be used for formative assessment in the beginning of a lesson or for summative assessment at the end.


Preview WorldView Software’s programs for free at company logohttp://www.worldviewsoftware.com/preview/