Sunday, February 27, 2022

On the Importance of Civics Classes

On Monday, I did a five minute bit on CBC Radio's Metro Morning with Ismaila Alfa about teaching civics. They called me last Sunday afternoon, having exhausted all other avenues, because I happened to tweet this the previous day:

It wasn't even a particularly well-liked tweet! 

And then right after that interview, I was called to do it all again on Thursday on CBC-KW with Craig Norris, who tweeted out my profile picture. I update that picture ever ten years, so this one is six years old, but seeing it spread around all big and everything just brought it home that I've aged about 20 years in the last six! It's been quite a time!

I'm generally happy to help anyone in a pinch, so I don't mind explaining some basic civics live on air, although I regretted saying 'yes' both times during the few minutes of anticipation while I was waiting for the call. The pre-interview on the phone Sunday was entirely about teaching and nothing about the Emergencies Act, so I was lucky to have happened upon a comparison between the Emergencies Act and the War Measures Act moments before talking with Ismaila because that was his question out of the gate! 

I pretty much immediately forgot everything I said as soon as I hung up from both interviews, so hopefully I didn't sound like a complete idiot! I was introduced as an "expert" in civics, which feels like a far cry from the truth, in spite of teaching it for decades. There's always so much more to learn! But perhaps I'm not taking into consideration the dearth of understanding out there. And, if teaching a course for decades doesn't make one an expert in some manner, then what does? One lovely person that I don't even know emailed me: "Your explanation of rights, responsibilities, freedoms and how to discuss these concepts with students was clear and concise. I loved how you responded that students would benefit from the repetition of key concepts and skills in many subjects." So it couldn't have been too bad.

Here are some of the things I may have said and some things I would have liked to discuss more:

ON RETENTION (also known as learning)

How we get graduates to have a functional foundational knowledge when they leave our buildings is a vital question. An educated populace is absolutely necessary for a working democracy. We know how learning works, that it requires repetition over time -- at the end of the day, then after a week, then after a month and yearly -- but we chunk learning into a limited timeframe and sometimes don't ever revisit it again to make it stick permanently. Some of the best students in my grade 10 civics class, that later take one of my grade 12 courses, reveal that they've forgotten much of what was taught despite my attempts to make it stick in those ten weeks. But grade 12 social science and history courses at least offer an opportunity for yet another review of the parliamentary process and levels of government. Many (most?) students never take another history or social science course after grade 10. We're counting on having a population informed enough to vote based on a couple months of education when they were 15. I do think grade 10 is the place for civics, and I'm not actually sure how much it matters if it's offered as a full year of study, even though, psychologically, a half-credit makes it seem less important. So we need other measures to increase the stickiness of the content.

One concept to foster repetition over time that I tossed out off the top of my head during the pre-interview is some kind of regular overview of basic concepts each year in school. I have no idea how to make it work, but I imagine starting each term with a round-robin of teachers visiting classrooms to review concepts they should have learned last semester all in a fun gamified way that can also serve to sell their senior courses to students on the fence about what to take the following year. More involved, back in July 2017, I drafted a Real-World Curriculum as a selection of information that should be reviewed in a separate course each year throughout high school to adequately prepared kids for being effective and engaged citizens able to do their own taxes as well as they can cook a meal! I'm not really sure how to get from here to there, but more creative minds than mine could surely figure something out. 

But what's also necessary is more learning outside of our courses and outside the building! One thing I suggested on air was something like Schoolhouse Rock. I can recite the Preamble to the American Constitution because it was set to music with vibrant animation and repeated between all the cartoons I glued myself to every Saturday morning for about a decade of my life. Sure, we have our Heritage Minutes here, but they just don't cut it next to a personified bill waiting to be passed into law or the love affair between Mr. Morton and his neighbour that taught me principle clauses. The music and storylines are key, and they mainly came from the serious musical talents of Lynn Ahrens, Dave Frishberg, and Bob Dorough. The short spots also really helped increase our ability to remember basic grammar and multiplication facts. We have the talent in Canada; we just need the funding. We have to decide that an educated population is important enough to make it happen. Democracy is not a spectator sport. We need everyone to participate, and for that to happen, we need everyone to understand how it works.

PROJECTS > EXAMS explains, in part, why we don't have a breadth of basic knowledge

Since Covid started, and we've shifted focus towards a more compassionate, trauma-informed practice that includes officially eliminating final exams, I've moved to projects and short, daily, open-book quizzes. But I cautioned my students that they can get a good mark in the course by doing the work assigned during class, but that to actually learn the material, they should review their notes at night, and again every Sunday, and again at the end of each month, and then once more at the end of it all. Review must be regular and cumulative. Quizzes, tests, and exams provoke review, and reviewing ideas is how we learn them. Even though I've switched to open-book quizzes to help alleviate stress in the moment, I've also offered a final exam that only counts if it raises their mark, and I've already seen less retention by the end of each course. 

The shift to assessing through projects instead of exams started long before Covid, though. I know we remember the projects we did back in high school better than we remember any test we took, and projects are great for in-depth learning, but the repetition of ideas prompted by tests allows for a breadth of content to be understood that I believe won't happen without closed-book tests and exams. The depth of learning in a few projects each course can't be at the expense of the necessary breadth of learning developed through repeatedly reviewing content. The best we can do under our current rules is to suggest they review as if a final exam counted in order to learn anything.

LEARNING > MARKS is the ideal focus

I'd hazard to guess that most kids want the credit more than they want new information well imbedded in their brains! There's not much motivation for most to review for the sake of developing their own core knowledge without the foresight to understand how useful it would be, so opportunities to review have to be brought to them. We talk a lot about the need to foster a love of learning instead of an obsession with marks, some taking it to an extreme of not telling kids their marks until the very end, which I find just exacerbates their stress instead of obliterating it. But schools can't make this happen on their own because none of us can enjoy the process of discovery for its own sake when we're worried about basic survival. This problem requires different solutions than hiding marks.

We can't create a love of learning in an insecure environment, so this requires a shift in economic policy; ya, that's all! Kids are terrified they won't get into university or college, and, without that, and without entrance scholarships to help pay for it if they do get in, then they fear they won't be employable. I grew up at a time when kids could drop out in grade 10 to work at one of the many factories in our cities that have all since become lofts, and we used to say OSAP stood for Ontario Stereo Assistance Program because university was so cheap that we used the grants to fund our entertainment. It's this fear of survival that's making kids and their parents obsessed with their marks, not the knowledge of their marks. This is the reason I have parents calling fighting for an additional 2% rise in a student's marks despite them doing nothing to deserve a randomly elevated mark. They just need help to assure their place in the market

Reversing outsourcing is unlikely, so the simplest fix would be to go back to the system we once had that included a wider spread of graduated taxes, which saw a top marginal tax rate of over 90% at one point for people who make over, what would be in our dollars, $3.5 million in a year. NOTE: That doesn't mean the government took 90% of that 3.5 mill, but that they only took 90% of money made that was in excess of 3.5 mill. And they used this money to fund universities and social welfare programs. The early 80s, when I went to school, was nearing the end of our years of taxing the rich to fund universities.

From Policy Alternatives

Gone would be all the fighting for scholarships or any struggle to get in beyond having the basic requirements to do the work. And the money generated could be also used to fund a Universal Basic Income scheme tied to local rent rates in order to ensure it provides a livable wage. Some Canadian studies have found that just an 8% increase in taxation of those making over $20 million/year would fund UBI entirely. Only when students no longer see marks as intricately enmeshed with their very survival will they be able to enjoy school for the opportunity to satiate their curiosity about themselves and the world, and then take the time to embed content in their heads for future use.

SKILLS > CONTENT explains why we have so many misconceptions

Another recent shift in education policies sees us focusing much more on skills than content to the point that I've had a few colleagues argue with me that even history courses should focus entirely on skills of researching. I completely agree that the skill of lateral research is vital, of course, but content is pivotal to an educated population! Without basic content rattling around in your head, you won't know what you don't know enough to know when you need to use those skills to do some research into a topic. If you have no idea what the Charter says, and someone confidently tells you that it says you can honk your horn all night long, then why would you doubt them? Without basic, foundational knowledge to draw on, we can be easily led to believe all sorts of inane ideas as if they're facts. 

We're living in the shadow of American media, so it's really not a surprise that so many people expect the laws and policies to be the same: Miranda Rights, 1st Amendment, pleading the 5th, etc. They won't be motivated to look up the differences if they believe those are Canadian laws. And they won't know those aren't Canadian policies unless they're explicitly taught content: specifically, what are some of the primary documents used and the basic processes influencing the creation of legislation. 

What happens when you're arrested, and your legal rights, clearly needs to be covered so that we don't have people yelling "I don't consent" or waving white flags as they're being arrested as if that's some magic way to stop the police. It would be funny if we didn't just witness what a horror show mass ignorance can create in our own country.

FREEDOM TO > FREEDOM FROM explains the convoy behaviour

Understanding civics and political engagement and debating issues around us in order to develop the best policies and laws all comes down to trying to find the perfect sweet spot between our freedoms TO do things and our freedoms FROM having things done to us or in our presence. All of our freedoms have limits. We have the right to protest, but we don't have the right to make noise all night. 

A great issue to illustrate this happened back in 1994 when we enacted smoking bans inside restaurants. I took a night course in grade 12 that had adults in it, so they were allowed to smoke in the back two rows of the classroom. Can you even imagine! Although people wanted the freedom to smoke, other people wanted the freedom to eat a meal without smoke surrounding them. The fact that secondhand smoke causes cancer sealed the deal, and we leaned on the side of freedom from eating smoke with our dessert. And then think for a bit about the choices we have with masking indoors! We seem to be on the cusp of leaning towards the side of freedom to spread a virus by going anywhere without a mask on instead of the freedom from potentially being surrounded by air tainted with Covid in our classrooms. Curious.

With our freedom of speech, we have to remember why it's vital to be allowed to speak our mind. It's not to yell angry racist or bigoted things at our neighbour, but in order to openly scrutinize those in positions of power to watch if their choices are wise or nefarious and call them out as needed. As long as we can openly criticize the government, we have a freedom than many other countries are missing. It's not an infringement of freedoms if abusive words are met with consequences.

CIVICS IS FUN!! (It is too!)

The content in civics makes for an amazing course that I love to teach. BUT it can be hard to get into politics. It's like my feelings around sports. I don't get why people care about someone being traded to another team because I have no idea who these people are or the implications of a trade on what might happen next. And I have absolutely zero interested in finding out more because that learning curve is too steep, and I have better things to do. So with politics. It takes a bit to figure out who's who and what role they play and how their actions can affect things, and the initial learning can feel like drudgery, like doing scales over and over when learning the piano, BUT the difference is that what happens in political arena affects your life no matter who you are. There's a much bigger payoff for everyone if we all have this information solidified.

It helps to start with the issues before getting to the players. And the issues are endless. Think of anything that anyone might complain about, and there you go! What don't you like right now about your country, province, city, street, school...? People love to complain, and civics can tap into that and craft complaints into viable suggestions.

Avoiding polarization in the classroom in order to have civil debates is easy if we don't ask kids what they think about an issue, but instead ask what are all the arguments for and against this issue. Then look at the facts around the issue and which arguments most closely align with the facts and which appear to oppose them. And then they need to know who to talk to if they want to make any changes in our society. This is where the players come in, and here's the most exiting part about civics: It's all about getting your voice HEARD! So they need to understand jurisdiction and levels of government to avoid calling the Governor General about an annoying pothole in the street. They need to learn this well and remember it later because their voices matter!


Owen Gray said...

I taught Civics for a while before I retired, Marie. I was surprised at how little students knew about current events.

Laura said...

Great read. I've shared w/ our Civics teachers. I haven't taught the course in 10 years or so but thought it was such a great & interesting course. I learned so much about the students in my class through it as well.
As for learning retention for facts & breadth ... my strategy is Kahoot! I make a huge bank of questions that we play on shuffle. We don't play the whole set every time - far from. Sometimes we skip questions they have yet to learn about. Sometimes they ask to make predictions for them & see if they can answer it already anyway. It's a lot of fun. Students are into it. A way to have them review without the "threat" of a test to study for. I wrote about how we Kahoot here:
Thanks again for this.