Sunday, November 13, 2011

Notes On Civics Education

Yesterday I attended the annual meeting of the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska (AFCON). This year's topic was “Reviving Civics Education in Nebraska,” with a particular emphasis on transforming civics education from passive lessons on how government works to an active habit of becoming personally informed and involved.

A panel of speakers from the Civics Nebraska Partnership Advisory Committee (CNPAC) explained how they had been appointed by the Nebraska State Board of Education to research and make recommendations on improving civics education. This task came with some restrictions. Additional funding was off the table. Nor did the committee think yet another standardized test would be effective, which would mean they had to do without that motivating influence on school administrators.

Civics Portfolios

Instead of standardized testing, the committee promotes the concept of civics portfolios for students. Think of it as an art portfolio except with an ongoing record of various kinds of civic engagement. (Art is another subject focused on doing, not merely knowing.) The key element here is student choice. It's one thing to be assigned a particular task, quite another to be given the freedom to choose and take ownership of a kind of task within wide boundaries. This also allows students to choose partisan projects the school itself could not specifically assign.

I recommend taking a look at these guidelines for a pilot program in civics portfolios going on right now. Some of this is happening in higher education as well.

Legislative Action

Earlier this year, State Sen. Rich Pahls introduced a bill to put this change of perspective on civics education into state law. LB544 passed and was signed by the Governor on April 26. What did this bill accomplish, exactly? There was already a requirement for every Nebraska high school to teach civics in at least two grades, with a variety of specific topics to be covered. One such topic was, “The duties of citizenship.” This bill expanded that language to:
The duties of citizenship, including active participation in the improvement of a citizen's community, state, country, and world and the value and practice of civil discourse between opposing interests.
Civics portfolios are not mentioned, but they are an effective means to the newly prescribed end.

I find it interesting that this newly expanded requirement immediately follows a requirement to teach: "The benefits and advantages of our form of government and the dangers and fallacies of Nazism, Communism, and similar ideologies," which is less about critical thinking and more about assigning the 'proper' conclusions. You can read the entire statute here.

What About Me?

I found this panel discussion highly relevant to my budding career as a librarian. Students working on their civics portfolios will need to research such areas as local demographics, local conflicts of interest, entrenched societal debates, means–ends solutions, laws, and cultural differences. They may need assistance working with creative media and with writing papers. Think what will happen if this whole “civics engagement” thing actually sticks with students and carries through beyond school requirements! Our reference desks could see a dramatic increase in activity, particularly if we take the opportunity to market libraries in this area. Count me in.

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