In April, Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Neil Gorsuch called for improving civics education, saying the future of the republic depends on it. Indeed, the United States has never needed civics education more. The differences between opposing parties on the governing principles of our country are greater today than at any time in our history, even during the Civil War.
That’s not hyperbole. Looking at the Constitution of the Confederate States, it’s clear that both sides felt they were defending the U.S. Constitution. On the other hand, today’s battle is between two opposing views of how we govern ourselves.
There is a lot at stake. Congress is debating major changes to the core constitutional principle of checks and balances by increasing the number of Supreme Court justices and abolishing the electoral college. If implemented, these ideas would fundamentally change the Constitution. Our citizens, especially our student citizens, should understand the ramifications, whether they believe the country needs such dramatic changes or not.
The answer, of course, is a strong civics curriculum that starts in high school and continues with lifelong learning.
Interestingly, the pandemic may have had an unexpected silver lining when it comes to civics education: teaching students about the idea of self-government–and also how to selfgovern.
Teachers who were forced to quickly pivot their instruction to remote learning found that they needed to change the way they taught. Classes often were shortened, students didn’t show up for Zoom sessions, and online classrooms didn’t work like in-person instruction.
I’ve talked with a number of teachers to learn how they adapted their teaching during COVID-19, and a common thread among successful teachers is that if they delivered materials to students in the proper way, they didn’t need to lecture anymore. Instead, students would come to online classes prepared to discuss ideas. Teachers would be freed up to impart knowledge and wisdom, instead of lecturing about facts.
In other words, students learned how to self-govern their studies. And this is a wonderful way to impart a key lesson of civics education: how to become a self-governing people.
In order for this to work, civics curriculum must be designed correctly. This includes combining a digestible amount of reading with media and activities that are meaningful to students. Pop-culture tends to be especially good at illustrating important points while capturing the attention of students–for example, educators can use a clip from “Family Guy” to illustrate the concept of Federalism in a way that is interesting to digital native students.
Teachers who encourage students to do the reading and watch the accompanying media prior to class find that students get more enjoyment and are more challenged by the open exchange of ideas that take place when the class meets.
As students gain confidence in debating ideas, they tend to value preparedness and take control of their learning. They are learning to govern themselves.
As teachers return to the classroom, they can take these practices with them. Using digital curriculum, teachers can assign content to be read and watched at home, while monitoring their engagement. This allows valuable classroom time to be spent interacting.
Self-government has never been easy, and we are witnessing a true division of opinion about how our government should work. A solid civics education can prepare students to understand the debate so they can make informed decisions for the future, while also teaching them how to self-govern their own lives.
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