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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Social morphogenesis and the limitations of political modelling

“If we rely on past and present data to predict future events, the weakness of the model we use will reside in its capacity to cope with genuine novelty. One response to this might be to account for such novelty as once-in-a-lifetime chance occurrence. But one of the conclusions we might draw from the Centre for Social Ontology’s Social Morphogenesis project is that social novelty is being generated at an ever-increasing rate.”

— Source: Mark Carrigan

[Interesting discussion of the concept of novelty, using the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign for examples.  Brainstorming or scaffolding about novelty with the class is a tremendous way to introduce or conclude units!]

A World Without Children, or at Least a Policy Without Them!

The thought experiments of certain social theories are not far off from such stories. So very many people have attempted to imagine the nature of a human isolated from social connections. Chapter XIII in Thomas Hobbes’ book, The Leviathan would be a good example. So, would be the calculations of many rational choice theorists, those attempting to find the self-interest in just about any human interaction.

— Source: northierthanthou

An interesting meditation on how the best (certainly the most widely read and influential) science fiction is always about social science.

Whether your class is studying politics, history, economics, or geography, there is fiction that imagines what changing a particular parameter or two of that world would do to social relations.  From the fantasy world of L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz series, which can be read as an allegory of late 19th century American politics, to Ursula K. Le Guin, author of The Left Hand of Darkness, which examined gender roles and relations, science fiction can provide a window into examining your subject, helping students to make connections and evaluate arguments.

Spring Equinox

The March equinox is when the days and nights are of equal length as the days get longer and the nights get shorter in the northern hemisphere and vice versa in the southern hemisphere.  This change in the angle of the sun is the result of the earth’s orbit, which causes its tilting axis to point in a different direction.  And it means that spring is starting in the northern hemisphere and fall is starting in the southern hemisphere.  In 2017, the vernal equinox falls on Monday, March 20th.

Learn more about how the earth’s orbit and axis tilt work in WorldView Software’s World Geography Chapter 2: The Earth.  For example, you can use this graphic (with introduction and questions) to spark class discussion, or as a starting point for a demonstration:

Screen grab from World Geography

The equinoxes (like the solstices) are events that have huge impacts on life on earth (think: growing food).  And given that importance, they’ve had a tremendous impact on the development of methods to keep track of and predict their occurrence: mathematics.  For example, it’s thought that Stonehenge’s purpose is tracking solar and lunar movements:

Screen grab from World History A

WorldView Software’s World History A also has a terrific series of tutorials explaining how mathematics based on observance of astronomical phenomena developed in different civilizations:

  • Ancient Chinese Science, Technology, and Mathematics
  • Ancient Indian Science and Mathematics
  • Greek Accomplishments in Science, Technology, and Mathematics
  • Math and Technology in the River Valley Civilizations
  • Science, Mathematics, and Technology in the Islamic Caliphates
  • Technical Trends in Pre-Columbian Latin America

Use the equinox as a springboard into history!

BulbgraphOnOffUse the chronology entries to gain context for an event or an era, or as a starting point for further research.

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Famous Women Inventors for #WomensHistoryMonth

For Women’s History Month, check out one of the inventors profiled at Famous Women Inventors.  For example, Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr (pictured above):

Although better known for her Silver Screen exploits, Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr (born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler) also became a pioneer in the field of wireless communications following her emigration to the United States. The international beauty icon, along with co-inventor George Anthiel, developed a “Secret Communications System” to help combat the Nazis in World War II. By manipulating radio frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception, the invention formed an unbreakable code to prevent classified messages from being intercepted by enemy personnel.

Lamarr is a great example of someone who doesn’t fit the geek stereotype, which can lead to a fruitful classroom discussion.  And hat tip to Gringa of the Barrio for alerting me to this resource!

[Image is a publicity still from the movie Comrade X (1940). By MGM / Clarence Bull – eBay item 262147225708 – Archive copy at the Wayback Machine (archived on 18 November 2015), Public Domain,

Resource Highlight: Global Voices and Watching America

Ever wonder what the rest of the world is thinking? Global Voices is a collection of news articles and opinion pieces from around the world.

We curate, verify and translate trending news and stories you might be missing on the Internet, from blogs, independent press and social media in 167 countries.

If you’re wondering what the rest of the world is thinking about America specifically, look no further than Watching America.  This is a collection of translations by volunteers, with quick links to more content translated by machine.

WatchingAmerica makes available in English articles written about the U.S. by foreigners, often for foreign audiences, and often in other languages. Since WatchingAmerica offers its own translations, regular users of our site will enjoy articles not available in English anywhere else. We are a unique window into world opinion.

Particularly in an era dominated by fake news (and charges of fake news), news from diverse sources is extremely important. Break out of the bubble!

#EdTech Posts of Interest

Two very interesting recent posts from blog Seattle Education about edtech — where it came from, and where it’s going.

computer motherboard

You cannot fully understand what is happening with Future Ready school redesign, 1:1 device programs, embedded assessments, gamification, classroom management apps, and the push for students in neighborhood schools to supplement instruction with online courses until you grasp the role the federal government and the Department of Defense more specifically have played in bringing us to where we are today.

— Source: “How exactly did the Department of Defense end up in my child’s classroom?” by Seattle Education

Focus group results have been refined into sophisticated campaigns designed to convince us that digital education for children is superior to face-to-face instruction with a certified teacher. The goal? Put technology front and center in 21st century school redesign, and push human beings to the sidelines…If it’s innovative, it must be good. Personalization? Bring it on! And for students in underfunded schools with leaky roofs and tainted water, the arrival of technology brings a glimmer of hope that someone actually cares. But are we bridging a digital divide? Or are we setting our schools up for digital dehumanization down the road?

— Source: “Hybrid Learning, Cicada Killers & the Next Big Fight” by Seattle Education

As a very small social studies publisher, we see these developments from both ends: the DoD/DARPA connection is dominated by large companies and foundations with a particular guiding educational philosophy — one we don’t share.  We believe that learning requires true interactivity, and that true interactivity requires software that can respond to different interests.  Our design makes it possible for students and teachers to proceed as they see fit through our wealth of content, whether they want to get a basic grasp of a subject or explore it in depth.  Our software uses your web browser, which makes it as accessible as possible, to as wide a range of students as possible.

And while we provide in-program assessments at several levels, as well as reporting for teachers — although quite rudimentary compared to the meta data and para data described in the post! — we do not envision our software as a teacher replacement.  Everything we design rests on the assumption that a human teacher is guiding the learning process, and will be there to explain, assist, and evaluate.

It is possible to use digital educational tools that don’t demand souls as payment!