I Civics: Aging up a K-12 curriculum

I recently discovered a neat little site called I Civics, a “web-based education project designed to teach students civics and inspire them to be active participants in our democracy.”  Founded by former SCOTUS Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the site features curriculum and online games aimed at different lessons in American civics.  The lesson plans are clearly designed according to active learning principles.  For example, the ‘Separation of Powers’ lesson includes a role playing exercise where students create a school lunch menu by acting as each branch of government in turn.  The lesson includes an optional PowerPoint presentation, student worksheets, a group activity, and several online games, plus a teacher’s guide for the instructor. Everything you need for a successful class!

Of course there is a drawback: the use of colored pencils, cutesy graphics, crossword puzzles and simple language clearly mark the material for a younger demographic. The worksheets are particularly juvenile, but then, occasionally, so too is American politics. I wouldn’t let this turn you off: the ideas and activities themselves with a bit of adaptation could easily work in the college classroom.  For example, one activity asks students to analyze a Supreme Court decision in the light of civil liberties, in a lesson on the 1st Amendment.  You could ask your students to do that and ignore the worksheet that goes with the exercise.

I particularly like the lesson on balancing the budget.  Not for the materials, but the exercises—having students act as Representatives and Senators and negotiating between several appropriations bills and resolutions—and for the idea of how to cover the budget process as a single lesson, which I confess I have found difficult to fit into my curriculum—though I do keep trying.  In fact, this may be the best feature of this site: it provides some neat ideas on how to edit down the immense material we can cover into smaller, easily digested bites.

Actually, that’s not true.  The best feature is all the cool games and simulations on American politics.  I’ve played through a few of them and they are hit and miss in terms of their potential to be made age-appropriate, but even the ones that can’t directly be used have helped generate some ideas on how to tackle this material better in the classroom.   In the coming weeks I’ll be giving you my feedback on these games and how they could be modified for our courses.

More on a Blog-based Simulation

This semester marks the second time I’m running my Europe1914 simulation in an introductory international relations course. I first taught this course to honors students in Fall 2008. In Fall 2009, I ran the simulation, but in a non-honors section. I had hoped that the simulation would be associated with better student performance on exams, but the data didn’t bear this out, probably because of the difference in academic abilities among students in the two groups.

In 2009, I asked students to rate themselves on how confident they were about being able to meet their goals at four different points in the simulation, before and after simulation sessions in class. Students’ confidence dropped markedly between the first and second assessments and then rebounded somewhat in the third and fourth assessments. The before and after ratings converged at the last assessment:

Student Confidence Over Time

I also asked how much control students thought they had over their success in the simulation (possible responses ranged from “I control my destiny in the simulation” to “I do not control my destiny in the simulation at all”). The results were similar – a sharp decline between the first and second assessments, followed by a rebound and convergence between the before and after scores.

My findings from the 2008/2009 comparison will appear in a 2012 issue of Journal of Political Science Education. If you’d like a copy of the Teaching and Learning Conference paper that the article is based on, please contact me.

This semester I’m teaching an honors section again, so I’m hoping to be avoid the apples-oranges problem by comparing exam scores from this semester with those from Fall 2008.

Even if my current students enjoy the simulation as much as the Fall 2009 students did, I’m questioning whether the exercise is worth the time and effort. In addition to the in-class time that the simulation eats up, I have to monitor the blogs (my inbox explodes), and students have technical problems that I can’t solve. It would be a lot more convenient if web apps like “Angry Birds” existed for instructional simulations.

If exam scores and other indicators show that the simulation has a beneficial effect on student performance, then I might continue to use this simulation. If there’s no demonstrable benefit, then I probably will not.

Floods and Famines

The march of Hurricane Irene up the East Coast reminded me of how difficult it is to get students to connect recent events with abstract concepts, especially when students lack direct experience. In students’ thinking, fate explains all. Floods, famines, and wars “just happen.” Somalia is desperately poor and violent because it’s Somalia. Students will donate money or time to a charity because they think it’s a good thing to do, but they don’t examine the role of economic or political institutions (or the lack thereof) in creating human suffering. So for lack of a better term, here is what I call the Hurricane Game:

Tell students to write down, in the form of a list, everything that they do in a typical day. Then say that a hurricane has blown through the night before while they were asleep. Select a student to begin reciting his or her list. The first item will probably be something like “wake up.” Ask the student “do you usually wake up because of an alarm clock?” If the answer is yes, respond with “there’s no electricity, you’re alarm clock didn’t ring, you’re awake, but you don’t know what time it is. What do you do next?” Go through a few more items in the student’s list in a similar fashion — you can remove heat, piped water, refrigerated food, and electronic financial transactions as needed. Students will rapidly find themselves at a loss for what to do, and at point they can form small groups to strategize if they wish. You may even wish to inject a highly contagious disease or zombies into the equation.

Getting students to realize how much of their lives are on autopilot can lead to discussions of everything from social contract theory to markets to public administration. For example, why are there emergency exits and who mandates them? What happens if this doesn’t happen? Why do some people know how to grow food but others don’t? Why do we assume food we haven’t grown ourselves is safe to eat? Why does that food go from a farm to our kitchen table? What happens if someone tries to take that food and there is no enforceable body of law prohibiting theft?

A good book that gives a real-world example of some of these questions is Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers.

Blog-based Simulations

Two years ago I created a role-play simulation for an undergraduate international relations course. Though the simulation includes an in-class component, much of the action occurs on this blog. Feel free to borrow what I’ve created — just please credit me and my employer in the process. A few thoughts on using simulations like this:

Students are increasingly unfamiliar with blogging. Not only do I need to include a training session in how to use the blog for the simulation, I need to discuss the underlying premise of blogging itself. Though students may be regularly reading blog-style publications, social networking and mobile device apps have eclipsed blogs in their collective unconscious.

A blog should have the capability of delivering real-time updates to students’ preferred means of communication. While I do not necessarily need to know that Zachary replied to Kaitlyn’s latest post with “U rock grrl ha ha,” a torrent of messages appearing on students’ smartphones helps keep the simulation at the top of their screens and at the forefront of their minds outside of class.

The instructor must emphasize to students that any communication conducted outside of the blog will not be graded and, if done in lieu of the blog, will harm a student’s grade. This goes for texting, email, and face-to-face meetings. I tell students that I’ve created the blog to be their online workspace, and it’s their responsibility to use it.

Last item, which applies generally to all team-oriented simulations: individual writing assignments prevent free riders. Student who do a task initially on their own will be less likely to think “group project” when doing the same task later on with others.