Saturday, July 11, 2009

"Rules of Thumb" for Civic Education

"Education: That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding." --Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

An important goal for teachers is to teach for understanding. However, if students understand something without an open mind they will ultimately fail to question their own understandings leading to a failure of civic education. Do we want citizens who understand a lot of things, but who fail to question the very things they understand? Education in the 21st century is not just about developing understanding, it is also about developing a frame of mind that values creativity, empathy and inquiry.

Teaching for understanding is difficult enough considering the demands that state standards and assessments place on the curriculum to deliver tangible evidence of "educational" progress. This "educational" data can measure a degree of understanding, but how can it effectively measure ones creativity, empathy and inquiry? Since what is measured is an indication of what is valued, teaching students to be creative, empathetic and inquisitive citizens has become more difficult in our data driven society.

Fortunately, there is a book that contains nuggets of wisdom that teachers and school leaders should consider. Alan Webber's business book Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business without Losing Your Self is full of wisdom for educators concerned with the "business" of education. The three most useful Rules from the book for teaching beyond understanding in order to prepare effective citizens upon graduation are:
  • Ask the last question first
  • Facts are facts; stories are how we learn
  • Knowing it ain't the same as doing it
"To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means that you better understand where you are now so that the steps you take are always in the right direction" --Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

In explaining rule #3, Alan Webber states that, "If you have no clear definition of victory, how do you know when-or if-you've won? For that matter, how do you know why you're fighting in the first place?" For teachers this can be translated to, "If you don't know what the essential questions and big ideas are that you are teaching, how do you know when-or if-students have learned what you have taught? For that matter, what are you teaching and why are you teaching it in the first place?" Webber boils it down to a simple, yet difficult, question to answer--"What's the point of the exercise?"

So, what is the point of school? It seems that the point of school is to pass the mandated state assessments, or other graduation requirements, that demonstrate the acquisition of basic knowledge and skills. Unfortunately, what is being measured is a decreasing part of the necessary requirements students need in order to be successful in the 21st century.

The following has changed what the last question needs to be:
  • The advent of the global knowledge economy
  • The saturation of immediate information, and communication access at our fingertips
  • the immense impact of media and technology on how young people live and learn
Educational consultant and author Tony Wagner provocatively points out in his book The Global Achievement Gap, that "Schools haven't changed; the world has. And so our schools are not failing. Rather, they are obsolete--even the ones that score best on standardized tests. This is a very different problem requiring an altogether different solution." Wagner's solution is to alter how schools function so that they teach, what he calls, the seven survival skills--Critical thinking and problem solving; Collaboration across networks and Leading by influence; Agility and adaptability; Initiative and Entrepreneurialism; Effective oral and written communication; Accessing and Analyzing information; and, Curiosity and Imagination.

So, what is the point of school in the new realities of the 21st century? Last question first--let's just ask the right last question first!

My answer is to prepare students to be knowledgable and skillful citizens on the local, national, and global level. For this to happen students need to be creative and empathetic problem solvers, who are able to understand how to ask the right questions. They are able to do this because they have had experiences in school working with people from around the block and around the globe on well designed collaborative and authentic projects. This may actually empower students and be an important step in reinvigorating failing schools, as well as schools that are viewed as premier educational institutions, but who graduate students adept at test taking and inept at communication and imagination.

"We are our stories. We compress years of experience, thought, and emotion into a few compact narratives that we convey to others and tell to ourselves. That has always been true. But personal narrative has become more prevalent, and perhaps more urgent, in a time of abundance, when many of us are freer to seek a deeper understanding of ourselves and our purpose." --Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind

Not taking away anything from the importance of facts, but stories are how we learn. Stories help us understand our world and ourselves. It is wired into who we are as humans. According to Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist and author of Why Don't Students Like School?, "The human mind seems exquisitively tuned to understand and remember stories--so much so that psychologists sometimes refer to stories as 'psychologically privileged,' meaning that they are treated differently in memory than other types of material. . . organizing a lesson plan like a story is an effective way to help students comprehend and remember." O.k., I agree, but can stories do more than help students remember?

I believe that stories are essential in creating effective 21st century citizens who are creative, empathetic and inquisitive. Understanding how to craft a story to elicit meaning from data or images teaches students valuable communication skills, but more importantly it teaches students how one can easily craft a story that spins the truth to the liking of certain interest groups. Is there a better way to teach how to detect propaganda than to have students create their own propaganda? Is there a better way to teach students how music and images can tell a story that manipulates emotions than by having students match music and images to create a public service video ad for a cause of their choice? Teaching students to use the ever increasingly available data to critically consume stories is essential if we want students to be effective citizens in an age of media saturation.

Story is a powerful force in our lives. It may actually be gaining influence on how we think and live. We want to be entertained and we tend to believe stories that we want to believe. Therefore, we need students to leave high school who are not only media literate, but media savvy.

"We all love experts. They're so smart and reassuring to have around. But the problem comes inside companies when a culture of knowers overwhelms a culture of doers."
--Alan Webber, Rules of Thumb

Are we educating students to be knowers or doers?

Unfortunately, the evidence is plain to me that we educate students to be knowers. They need to "know" answers to get good grades on tests. They need to "know" how to write an effective essay within the lines provided to get a proficient writing score. They need to "know" how to answer a question in class so they don't look foolish in front of their peers. Instead, shouldn't we be educating students in a way that empowers and engages them in ways that make their time in class more interesting and relavent?

Is there a better way to groom an active citizen than by having them actually take an active role in making their community better through influencing public policy? The Center for Civic Education sponsors an excellent civics program, Project Citizen, that teaches students the various facets of public policy and then empowers students to use their knowledge to influence a public policy of their choice on a local level.

I have used Project Citizen with my classes and it has been the most important learning project for my students because it made them doers, instead of just knowers. One class chose as their policy a local smoking ban (this was prior to the statewide smoking ban). The students research was not contained in the school's library, but actually extended to interviewing local business owners and citizens, and in gathering information from other local smoking ban ordinances, various health organizations, and even tobacco companies. The research helped formulate their policy that was then presented to the Superintendent of the School District and two local Township Supervisors. The presentation went so well that the class was invited to a Township meeting to formally present their plan. At the meeting the students discovered that since there was a state smoking ban bill being considered in both House and Senate committees, the Township wanted to take a wait and see approach to instituting a local smoking ban, since the state could pass a comprehensive ban at any time. The students were hooked and didn't want the issue to die, so a trip to the state capital was arranged. The students lobbied for the passage of the bill with both House and Senate members and staffers, and even got to meet the sponsor of the bill on the Senate floor. Regardless of whether the smoking ban bill passed or not (it eventually did a year and a half later) the students learned more about how government works in the few hours they spent in front of the Township Supervisors and in meeting with House and Senate members and staffers. No classroom instruction could ever come close to having the same impact on understanding how our government works. Those students were doers, and not just knowers. And it is my belief that they are more likely to be doers because of that experience.

Another great example of students being doers in school is the story of how the fifth grade students in room 405 of the Richard E. Byrd Academy in Chicago used Project Citizen to lobby for a new school. Check out their Room 405 website and I'm sure you will agree that despite their project being over the experience the students gained will stay with them long after they have left school. Instead of being powerless these students learned skills that enable empowerment and civic engagement.

Whether it's Project Citizen or some other authentic project that gets students to work on real issues, schools need to embrace the idea of students as doers. When students graduate they need to have had plenty of experiences with working with other people to creatively solve real problems in order to be prepared for a world teeming with real problems to be solved.

Teaching for understanding is just not good enough anymore. We need to be teaching beyond understanding to empower students with the tools they need to be active citizens in the 21st century. This should be the focus of every school. Every student needs to graduate with an open mind that is creative in its approach to solving problems, empathetic in its approach with dealing with people, and inquisitive in its approach to understanding knowledge. Asking the last question first, engaging students with the power of story, and allowing students to be doers rather than just knowers will go a long way in creating a citizenship laboratory instead of just a school --and we will all benefit from this shift in focus.

Next Post--"Rules of Thumb" for Student Success

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