Guardians of Democracy in a Digital World

Independence Day  is a good time to explore civic education.  Our students get less of it in school even though most schools say something in their mission statement or goals about producing some variation of “informed, engaged citizens.”.  If you define civic education as helping students learn to be good citizens instead of learning about civics, we must also help them develop skills and “dispositions” in addition to knowledge, what the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools calls civic competencies.

The 2011  “Guardian of Democracy: the Civic Mission of Schools” describes the sad state of civic education and research on these six proven practices to teach students  to be effective/engaged citizens.  1. Classroom Instruction, 2. Discussion of Current Events and Controversial Issues 3. Service-Learning  4. Extracurricular Activities 5. School Governance 6. Simulations of Democratic Processes.

Good stuff  but a year old.  What could I find that is research-based and newer?  How about a February 2012 Progress of Education Reform report from the Education Commission of States entitled “Civic Engagement through Digital Citizenship”.  It looks at research about how “Digital Natives” engage in civic action.  They report that those of us born before the digital revolution are more likely to view civic engagement in a dutiful way.  For Digital Natives, “civic actions originate from their “personally expressive politics” and “peer-to-peer relationships that promote engagement.”.  The report calls this “Actualizing Citizenship”,  characterized by more peer to peer training and action as well as self-determined expression and network development. This report emphasizes the issue of mostly “dutiful” teachers trying to reach “actualizing” students primarily using pedagogy that isn’t a good fit.

The report includes references to resources that look like fabulous support for teachers.  I especially liked their policy recommendations, taken directly from page 5 of their report:

“1. Digital natives learn and think about citizenship in fundamentally different ways than previous generations. If schools are to meet their civic mission, education policies and practices need to take digital natives’ conceptions of citizenship into account.

2. Broadband availability, accessibility and affordability are the determining factors separating youth who are digital natives and youth who are not. If policymakers do not address these factors, non-digital native youth, who are largely poor and
largely minority, will continue to be less likely to be civically engaged than their digital native peers.

3. Policymakers should carefully consider how technology usage policies impact civic learning, as well as potential civic engagement, for digital natives. While well-intended, policies that forbid student use of Facebook, Twitter, message boards,
blogs and texting during the school day effectively close off many suitable and worthwhile opportunities for civic learning, participation and activism for digital natives.

4. Young citizens, digital natives included, need educational opportunities to prepare them for participation in digital media. Students do not possess inborn skills for technology and civic participation. These skills must be taught and therefore should be addressed in school standards and curricula.”

So here we are at that place where an interesting summary of research meets the daily grind of the classroom.  Citizenship isn’t just taught in civics class, it is taught across the curriculum.  How do you help your students become informed and engaged citizens?  How might it look different in light of what Digital Natives need to know about how to be a citizen?   Can’t wait to hear your thoughts!!

4 thoughts on “Guardians of Democracy in a Digital World

  1. Mruch says:

    Excellent and appropriate topic. This reminds me of a passage in one of Jen’s posts, relating to how social media impacts political campaigning. While I was not surprised to read that “those…born before the digital revolution are more likely to view civic engagement in a dutiful way”, I wonder if it is technology or just changes in society that have effected this research.
    I do believe schools are addressing this topic. I am always impressed at what my students have learned about their government and their well-informed opinions on everything from progressive taxation to the Occupy Movement. However, I am unsure if it is translating to true civic engagement and responsibility.
    Could it be because we know too much about what occurs in the world? Our President can hardly out for ice cream with his family without it becoming a scrolling headline.
    English is a great subject in terms of keeping my students informed and engaged citizens. The one course I teach, Money, Power and Social Justice, thematically addressed many current topics and how they connect to both fiction and non-fiction. It is easy to see that many authors, when trying to promote change, effectively turn to writing. We also read many news articles and discuss current topics related to our readings.
    Much like these famous authors, if individuals want change, they need to take an active role. As teachers, we are constantly encouraging our students to take an active role in their education. We can easily translate this same drive to an active role as a citizen.

  2. mrslwalls says:

    I agree this is a very appropriate topic for this week. Your statement “those of us born before the digital revolution are more likely to view civic engagement in a dutiful way” really rings true for me. I take this civic duty not as a chore but as a right.

    I feel my school does a good job covering the indicators and evidence that is clearly stated in the article you provided by the Robert R McCormick foundation Six Proven Practices. Of the eight indicators I feel one would fall short in some schools; this indicator describes that a well-structured curriculum must feature material not contained in a text book. History and civics classes at my school contain many visits from outside sources as well as field trips (provided through fundraisers) throughout the community and state. We have student council elections held as close to a real election as a high school can get.

    Another article you mentioned, Civic Engagement through Digital Citizenship , contains research stating that previous generations were provided with information by teachers, news, reports… and today the digital natives are looking for “information created and shared by peers”. I feel that this is not only the case for civics classes but almost all classes. Students want to create and share their knowledge instead of being lectured to throughout the class. A few years ago I attended many workshops on Power Teaching in Math, these workshops restructured the classroom to contain very little instruction and provided more time for students to work in small groups for self-discovery and peer sharing

    I find it hard to incorporate civics into a math class. Only a few of the story problems contain information concerning civic or history related topics. I did find two articles, Mathematics and Civic Engagement: New Opportunities for Students in the 21st Century
    Century and Incorporating Quantitative Reasoning and Civic Engagement in a College Algebra Course Through a Lesson on Interest Rates, Debt and Student Loan that were very informative on how to incorporate civics into a math course. I feel I could adapt these ideas and integrate them into my classroom throughout various lessons.

  3. Gayle says:

    Both very interesting comments! I’m glad you found the topic appropriate and agree that social networking and other read/write web tools have changed not only civic education but virtually every content area. One of the contrasts was also very intriguing – how civics is easy to integrate into English and difficult to integrate into Math! Michelle, I would love to take your “Money, Power and Social Justice” class! (sidenote – Shelly Billig, a premiere researcher in Service Learning, has seen some convincing evidence that high school boys benefit particularly from service learning when it has a social justice component, an issue she is going to investigate further.) Lori, I was very impressed with the articles you found relating civics to math. One of the favorite Representative Democracy in America resources is one that analyzes the federal budget, comparing how students think it is divided to how it actually is. It’s a perfect lesson, very interactive, on pie charts. You can find it at , scrolling down to Federal Budget Allocation and clicking on the chart.

    I love Michelle’s last statement, “if individuals want change, they need to take an active role. As teachers, we are constantly encouraging our students to take an active role in their education. We can easily translate this same drive to an active role as a citizen.”

    Can’t wait to see what Government teacher Jen has to say!

  4. jreedduka says:

    I am finally getting caught up and somehow missed that this was posted because I already replied to Michelle’s. Great topic Gayle!! In my government course, we spend a unit examining Citizenship and the rights and responsibilities that accompany it. The unit ends with the students having to create a citizenship scrapbook where they have to defend what rights and responsibilities are important to them and how they will carry out those responsibilities as well as several other components. I know I am only asking the students to think about those responsibilities, but we spend a great deal of time talking about what it means. I agree with what the article on Civic Engagement through Digital Citizenship states in #4; school needs to include implementation in the curriculum and discussion about the importance of participating in the political process.

    Despite the discussion in class, I still feel that students are not fully engaged in the political process because it requires them to stay current on government policies and political platforms (which I believe is part of the reason adults do not get involved as well). When there is an important general election, my students have to research the different candidates on line and decide who they would vote for so that they are at least knowledgeable of the current candidates. I am truly excited to utilize my NetVibe site and blog to get the students further engaged in thinking about politics.

    As far as being born before or after the digital age, I am not sure if before or after matters. Times have changed for all of us and politicians need to utilize the new resources to engage all constituents which we have seen in recent elections. I was born before the digital age and yet that is how I get all of my political news. I also support what the article said about #3….schools need to allow students to utilize those social mediums to be engaged in the process.

    Gayle your response to Lori was also excellent. Math can help in exposing students to current events and citizenship by looking at the federal budget. There are several “balance the budget” websites that are easy for students to use. Science can also through discussion of environmental problems and possible political solutions to those problems.


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