Amid Partisan Divide, Teachers Turn to Digital Game for Civics Lessons

By Benjamin Herold — February 28, 2017 8 min read
Teacher Kymberli Wregglesworth, left, assists Andrea Madison, a junior at Onaway High School in Michigan, navigate the iCivics digital game during a civics class.
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Civics education is having an extended moment in the spotlight, and technology is playing a critical role.

On the one hand, technology is feeding new problems: The rise of digital news and social media means that students are now exposed to a torrent of highly partisan information (and misinformation) about politics and current events.

But technology is also offering fresh solutions.

Take iCivics, a set of free online educational games developed by a nonprofit organization founded by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Last November, as the contentious presidential election came and went, the game was played roughly 3 million times, nearly twice as many as the year prior.

Much of that uptick was fueled by teachers hoping to engage their students without further inflaming often-raw emotions.

“One of the things I like about iCivics is that it’s a place for students to go where they’re not going to get angry, because you know it’s not going to be slanted,” said Jo Phillips, a veteran civics teacher at West Virginia’s Ripley High.

That’s the goal, said Louise Dubé, the group’s executive director. Classrooms in both red and blue states need to remain focused on the processes by which government is supposed to operate, she said.

Every state now requires students to take courses in social studies or civics in order to graduate from high school, and 17 states now include social studies or civics-test results in their accountability systems, according to a December report from the Education Commission of the States’ National Center for Learning and Civic Engagement.

Other digital and online games, such as the “Mission US” series or even the popular strategy game “Civilization,” are also used in the classroom to teach civics, history, and social studies. They may not captivate students’ attention quite like “Assassin’s Creed” or “Minecraft,” but they’re likely more compelling for many students than a textbook.

Many educators have turned to iCivics, with its highly vetted content, because it can help inexperienced teachers provide a baseline of foundational knowledge, while also allowing classroom veterans to explore issues much further.

Still, even such well-regarded tools have been at times hard-pressed to stay relevant in the current political environment.

Elected officials from both parties are subjecting governmental institutions and norms to new stresses. And President Donald Trump has begun pushing a nationalist-populist agenda that often falls outside the familiar conservative-liberal political spectrum. Both present new challenges for civics educators, said Shawn Healy, a program director at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, which seeks to foster a more engaged citizenry.

“Are we doing students justice by teaching ‘how a bill becomes a law,’ when it doesn’t really work that way?” Healy asked. “It would be good if the whole field grappled with that.”

Dubé of iCivics acknowledges the challenges. But the U.S. system of government was designed to adapt, and with the help of technology, civics education should be expected to do the same, Dubé maintained.

“As the system evolves, we need to keep pace and stay relevant,” she said.

To better understand how schools are using digital games to teach civics, Education Week spoke with teachers from three different parts of the country.


Trusting a Digital Game to Find Middle Ground

Jo Phillips grew up in this small, strongly pro-Trump town of 3,200 near the Ohio line. She’s taught some combination of civics and U.S. government at the local high school since 2007.

As the country’s political discourse has become more sharply divided, iCivics has become her “right arm” in the classroom, Phillips said. Partly, that’s because she can trust the game not to be biased.

“I try to point out both sides of everything, and I remind my students not to forget about the middle,” Phillips said.

iCivics has also become a more integral part of her instruction as the school has added more technology. At first, students got the occasional chance to play the game in Ripley’s computer lab. Now, every student has his or her own school-issued digital device.

As a result, Phillips and her students have started to branch out into the full iCivics library, which now includes nearly 20 games. There’s “Win the White House,” about the electoral process. “Executive Command” focuses on the roles and responsibilities of the president. “Do I Have a Right?” aims to help students learn about the Bill of Rights.

Olivia Ludtman, 17, finds the games more engaging than the textbooks and paper articles her school used previously.


“You get a hands-on experience,” Ludtman said. “When we play iCivics in class, you can hear a pin drop.”

There can, however, be a downside to all that engagement, said Joseph Kahne, a senior researcher in the civic-engagement research group at Mills College in Oakland, Calif.

A wide partisan divide combined with strong emotions on different sides of key issues can make classroom discussions treacherous terrain, Kahne said.

And as political institutions are stressed in new ways, he said, teachers have to find ways to incorporate that reality into their instruction.

It’s a challenge that Phillips is still mulling, in part because she worries that the news media are being overly dire in how they portray the changes Trump has brought to Washington.

“We survived Nixon, we survived wars. The republic still works,” Phillips said. “If we focus on the chaos, it’s only going to paralyze us.”


Ensuring All Students Can Voice Opinions

For 13 years, Jeff Caron has taught U.S. history to 7th and 8th graders in this diverse working-class community in Los Angeles County, which went overwhelmingly for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.

This year, he said, it’s been a particular challenge balancing the needs of his class.

Many Mayfair students are closely watching the news, he said, in part because they’re stressed about what the new direction in Washington will mean for their own lives.

“These kids are politicized like I’ve never seen before,” Caron said. “During the Obama presidency, they were more fascinated by the man. But now, with the changes in immigration policy and reports of roundups [of undocumented immigrants], the discussions are more fraught with tension.”

At the same time, though, Caron said a typical Mayfair class of 35 might include half a dozen students who strongly support the new Republican president. A lot of the teacher’s attention goes to making sure those students feel comfortable getting their say, he said. That’s especially true because many students with the majority opinion aren’t shy about expressing their disapproval of President Donald Trump.

“Middle school students can be cruel,” Caron said. “It’s up to me to make sure that everybody can be heard and can express themselves without being shot down.”


A game like iCivics helps, he said, by serving as a classroom “anchor” when a hot-button topic arises.

Take the president’s recent executive order halting the nation’s refugee program and temporarily banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. The order was quickly put on hold by a federal appeals-court judge.

Some of Caron’s students sought to steer the conversation toward their personal dislike of Trump.

But their common experience playing iCivics—and the fact that some of the content had stuck with the students because they enjoyed the game—presented an opportunity to channel that energy in a different direction, Caron said.

“It got us back to asking, ‘What is the structure of government?’” he said. “We could start to judge what the president does by looking at the Constitution.”


Teaching in a Sharply Divided Community

Kymberli Wregglesworth, who grew up in this small logging town at the northeastern tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula, faces a different dilemma.

Her classroom, like her state, is sharply split. Michigan went for Donald Trump by a total of just 10,704 votes in the 2016 election.


While Wregglesworth is a big fan of iCivics, she worries that the game can’t keep up with how quickly things have changed.

“This year is very different. People’s emotions are running much higher,” said Wregglesworth, who has taught civics and world history at Onaway High for nearly two decades. “Probably 75 percent of my students have strong feelings about the new administration, and they’re pretty evenly split for and against.”

In the past, Wregglesworth said, she’s used iCivics to “prime the pump.” The challenge was getting students interested enough to care about the larger lessons and discussions she had planned. But now, she said, her students don’t hesitate to express their opinions—even if they might not be well-supported or appropriate for the classroom

“Things that would have been extremely controversial four or eight years ago, students will just come out and say now,” Wregglesworth said. She described a recent class discussion that quickly escalated into an argument in which a student said, “All those people are terrorists anyway,” referring to immigrants from countries affected by Trump’s travel ban.

A sculpture of George Washington is displayed on a hillside at the Moran Iron Works in Onaway, Mich.

That kind of highly controversial policy isn’t found in Executive Command, the iCivics game in which users assume the role of the president during his or her first 100 days in office. Instead, the game focuses on policy proposals that fall well within traditional mainstream Democratic and Republican positions.

“The bottom line is that life as a nonpartisan content developer has become radically more difficult because of the polarization that we see,” said Louise Dubé, the executive director of the nonprofit developer that makes iCivics. “Positions previously fell along a narrow band, and now, that’s being challenged.”

Wregglesworth said curricular materials that better reflected the current policy environment might benefit some Onaway students, especially those who may not feel their positions currently have a place in the classroom.

Ostensibly, a digital game should be easier to update than a textbook might have been. But there’s also a worry about moving too rashly, Dubé said. Even as American democracy evolves, she said, iCivics wants to remain true to its basic mission.

“We believe the American democratic system and the way it is embodied in our Constitution and the rule of law is something that needs to be taught and defended,” Dubé said. “We won’t move with the wind or respond to any particular policy.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2017 edition of Education Week as Teachers Turning to Digital Games for Civics Lessons


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