A New Way to Teach

As a former history teacher, I am upset with the fact that only about a third of American adults can name all three branches of government, and a third can’t name any. Fewer than a third of eighth graders could identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence. And that a Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who recently misstated the number of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor developed iCivics, an  online program aimed at middle school students.  This free curriculum includes lesson plans and games that are linked to subjects and skills that various states require students to master. The program also promotes public service projects.

Civics education involves explaining the structure of U.S. government, including the meaning and influence of the Constitution and its evolution over time.   Limited knowledge about the three branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial — emerges starkly in Annenberg surveys, which also found that 15% of adults correctly named John Roberts as United States chief justice, but almost twice as many (27%) could identify Randy Jackson as a judge on the television show “American Idol.”

The iCivics effort avoids ideological battles, but its games delve deeply into government process. In one, a player can take on the role of president, addressing Congress, choosing policy priorities, managing federal departments and selecting legislation to sign or veto.  Another game allows students to step into the role of advocate on famous Supreme Court cases, many of which resonate still, such as Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, which outlawed segregation but failed to accomplish full integration.

Part of the problem is that No Child Left Behind Act, which emphasized reading and math instruction with required testing and omits the testing of history and science.  The failure to emphasize history will result (and is resulting) in a less knowledgeable electorate.  But maybe that is the aim.