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Straight Up Conversation: Reimagining Civic Education for the Digital Age

By Rick Hess — July 23, 2020 11 min read
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Louise Dubé is the executive director of iCivics, a digital platform that provides civics education resources for middle and high school students. Founded by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 2009 with the goal of reimagining civics education, iCivics today reaches more than 7 million students in all 50 states. Louise has led iCivics since 2014. Prior to iCivics, she was the managing director of digital learning at WGBH—a PBS station in Boston. I recently chatted with Louise about iCivics and civic education. Here’s what she had to say. (Full disclosure: I’m co-chairing a task force that is working to implement the NEH and U.S. DOE-funded “Roadmap for Excellence in Civics Education” coordinated by iCivics).

—Rick Hess

Rick: What is iCivics?

Louise: In short, iCivics is the largest digital civic education provider in the country. Our mission is to reimagine civic education for civic strength.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor founded the organization in 2009 with the goal of transforming civic education and making it accessible to every student in America. We do this by creating educational video games and digital lessons that teach the fundamentals of how American democracy and its institutions work. Over the past decade, we’ve developed 16 interactive games that simulate everything from how to run for president to how to run a local county government to how to accurately understand today’s complicated media—as well as hundreds of digital lesson plans for teachers. All of this is free to use and completely nonpartisan. iCivics is currently used by more than 120,000 educators and 7.5 million students each year. Recently, due to COVID-19, our new registrations are up 120 percent.

In 2017, we realized that no matter how much we grew, we would not fulfill the vision of Justice O’Connor unless the country made a fundamental change in how civic education was viewed and made it a priority to educate students for American democracy. So we founded CivXNow, a coalition of 132 civic education providers, presidential libraries, after-school programs, philanthropic leaders, researchers, and others who are working to re-establish civic education as a priority in K-12 schools.

Rick: How did iCivics get started?

Louise: During the latter part of her career, Justice O’Connor became increasingly aware that Americans simply did not understand how our system of government works and was concerned that this would lead to civic disengagement. She realized that civics had been deprioritized from schools since the 1960s, and it was still by and large taught the way it had been during the 1950s. It wasn’t designed for today’s students. When she retired in 2006, she made it her mission to solve this problem and researched different avenues with a small group of confidants, most of them her former clerks.

They thought about interactive books, and even started a website with civic-lesson plans, but it didn’t work. She then had a meeting with James Gee, a professor of literacy studies at Arizona State University who is widely considered the godfather of game-based learning. Over the course of a 45-minute meeting, Gee introduced her to educational games and why they are so effective. For instance, instead of a teacher telling a student about the process of running a campaign, we can simulate the experience of polling, raising funds, and picking a platform—and it can be fun. Justice O’Connor and video games may seem an odd couple, but she bought in. Ten years and 16 games later, we’re certain she made the right decision.

Rick: What’s your philosophy for trying to do this work?

Louise: To me, building the civic strength of the United States is perhaps the most essential thing we can do in the current time. Our future depends on the resilience and civic bonds we build. Right now, these bonds are frayed and under severe stress, which is understandable in a nation as diverse and complex as ours—the oldest democracy in the world. Schools have a critical role to play, as a significant point of aggregation. We seek to educate and to find common, yet substantial, ground from which to evolve our constitutional democracy. Our goal must be to educate FOR civic agency and to build commitment to our nation. For us at iCivics, that means that our instructional materials need to lead to a greater and deeper understanding of our system of government and a commitment to be involved in civic life.

We also have a duty to support every student. This is part of our commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion. We must tell the full story of our country: the great achievements and the ugly histories. Guided by Justice Sotomayor, we’ve spent a tremendous amount of effort making all of our new games ELL accessible. But we also know that games won’t work for every student. It’s up to us as a field to create opportunities—whether it’s simulations or research projects or case studies or civic projects—that bring civics to life and show students that civics isn’t just a piece of a social studies curriculum but a way to solve the challenges they and their communities face.

Rick: What’s involved in synthesizing and building out the knowledge base of civic education?

Louise: In many ways, the challenges to building the civic-knowledge base in our country are no different from the challenges to education more broadly: How do you ensure that instruction is provided with purpose and yields deeper learning? Can students recall facts or can they notice patterns, make connections, develop skills that will remain with them over the course of their civic lives? This struggle is one we have in every discipline.

I think there is broad agreement about what students need to know but less about how to get there. We need a shift in the pedagogical approach, which needs to be developed in partnership with educators. As an illustration, you can teach myriad historical facts that populate the current state standards, such as the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, and the Tea Act, and have a student never connect any of these to the main arguments in the Declaration of Independence. We need to make explicit the goals of instruction. Historical context and depth of knowledge are incredibly important. And that requires a different conversation from whether knowledge is more important than action. Knowledge without understanding is not useful. Action without knowledge is dangerous. Depth of understanding matters, as does how this understanding applies today. That is long-term and difficult work, but it is critical.

Rick: Last year, your organization was the recipient of a major National Endowment for the Humanities grant to assess the state of teaching of American history, civics, and government in K-12 education. Can you talk a bit about how you’re approaching that work?

Louise: The NEH and the U.S. Department of Education are funding a project that we’re calling “Educating for American Democracy; A Roadmap for Excellence in Civics Education.” Our goal is to create a new instructional direction for history and civics for today’s learners, with the explicit purpose to bind students to our constitutional democracy.

While iCivics is the grantee organization, the project was designed as a deep collaboration with Arizona State, Harvard, and Tufts universities. This truly is a project of the collective. Many different voices, across political viewpoints, are joining to create a “Roadmap” that schools can use. The project calls for two convenings, one at Louisiana State University and one at Arizona State University, where more than 100 scholars and practitioners in history, political science, and education will discuss how to integrate history and civics education in America’s K-12 schools. Once the “Roadmap” is complete, we will present a written report at a large convening in Washington. The “Roadmap” will highlight how to integrate history and civics instruction by grade band; contain seven themes across history, political science and civics and directly address the challenges still present in our nation; suggest approaches for teaching the “Roadmap"; illustrate the “Roadmap” across various instructional contexts; and lay out action steps for how to move instruction in this direction.

Rick: You’ve been at the helm of iCivics for nearly six years. What’s surprised you about the work in that time and what have you learned that you didn’t know going in?

Louise: Civic education was getting little attention when I came. The field operated with almost no funding, tepid demand from teachers, and little innovation. Much of that has changed. The field is undergoing a transformation in leadership and a rethinking about how diversity and equity must be addressed. I believe there is more innovation now and more demand from educators. There are still enormous challenges in diversity, equity, and inclusion that need to be addressed.

The protests in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd shed light on just how far we still need to go in order to create a truly equitable civic education. It’s not just about access and inclusion. It’s about realizing that we have been teaching civics primarily from one perspective, that of the white male. We need to make sure that we are teaching civics from the perspective of all Americans, and that means giving better historical context to what we are teaching so that we no longer gloss over systemic racism, but give students the tools to address it.

Beyond that, I don’t think I understood how difficult the funding challenges would be nor how difficult it would be to make the case. Even though it is essentially a public responsibility, the government barely funds civic education. The STEM field had a Sputnik moment, and our country rallied to increase resources and support the field. We have made tremendous progress in STEM as a result. But STEM will not thrive without a functioning democracy. While you’re correct that the field is getting more attention, it has not had an infusion of resources to match that need. The deterioration of the conditions of our constitutional democracy took decades. The scale of what needs to happen is substantial, and this is a long-term project. We need to build support in the funding community for such a long-term investment, and show how it will pay off. That is proving the most difficult part of our work.

Rick: I frequently feel like a lot of the interest around civic education is largely a product of the fact that many funders and advocates were horrified by the election of Donald Trump. Is this a fair assessment? Either way, what are the implications of this for the future of this work?

Louise: Some advocates were spurred by the election of Donald Trump certainly, but many of us in the field have been concerned about the marginalization of civics since long before the 2016 election. We were, and continue to be, concerned about the lack of faith in democracy as a system of government among young people worldwide. Democracy is messy at all times. But over many years, some of our institutions have become corroded, and in many cases no longer reflect the values they were built to secure. Add to that a digital commons that amplifies the extremes, and you have a recipe for deteriorating civic resilience. The lead up to the 2016 election, its aftermath, and the current political arena demonstrate very starkly just how polarized our country is and how much work we need to do in order to re-establish positive civil discourse. Wherever the impetus is coming from, we are seeing increased interest in shoring up civil discourse, building civic knowledge, and developing civic agency in young people. I find that incredibly rewarding.

Rick: There’s a lot of bipartisan support when it comes to civics education, but it often seems facile—a mile wide and an inch deep. It can feel like there are substantial disagreements over what we want students to learn but that it’s tough to surface or address these in constructive ways. Is that fair? How do you see us dealing with these tensions?

Louise: I agree with you. We need to provide the spaces for people who come from diverse perspectives to have what will be difficult conversations. If people come to the issue of civics education as a way to get a “win” for their political point of view, they have come to the wrong field.

There is energy in civics education at the state level. You can see that in the fact that last legislative session, state governments across the country heard more than 80 bills on civic education, many with unanimous bipartisan support. We know from surveys that civic education has a great deal of support among the population and that it is getting attention from governors across the political spectrum. But you’re right to point out that it means different things to different people. There are often disagreements about what civic education legislation should and could look like. There are debates over certain topics such as the Immigration and Naturalization test and action civics. And there are differing ideas about logistics such as how to fund legislation and how much a state can mandate over individual school districts. These debates need to be resolved locally.

Rick: OK, last question. What’s one big thing that would make a big difference for civics education?

Louise: We need to take civic education seriously and see it as a requirement for our unique democracy. If we were able to achieve that, we would see changes in policy and in practice that would pay off. The resources needed to make this a reality are substantial, but they are not unrealistic. People—from parents to educators to people in positions of power—need to commit themselves to the importance of sustaining our constitutional democracy by educating every generation. That is going to mean a lot of things need to be done differently from how we do them now. The path we are on now is very dangerous.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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