A Supreme Court Justice’s Legacy in Edtech

Policy and Government

A Supreme Court Justice’s Legacy in Edtech

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Nov 2, 2018

A Supreme Court Justice’s Legacy in Edtech

With the contentious Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh still weighing on many Americans’ minds and a closely-watched midterm election just days away, now seems as good a time as any for educators to teach their students some civics.

But “now” is always the right time to promote civics education, according to Sandra Day O’Connor. The former Supreme Court Justice—and the first woman to serve on the country’s highest court—devoted herself to advocating for higher quality and higher priority civics education after she retired from the Court in 2006. In her letter to the nation last week announcing that she would be withdrawing from public life for health reasons, O’Connor, who is 88, took the opportunity to emphasize once more how critical it is for U.S. citizens to understand their government and participate in democracy.

“It is my great hope that our nation will commit to educating our youth about civics, and to helping young people understand their crucial role as informed, active citizens in our nation,” she writes. “I feel so strongly about this topic because I’ve seen first-hand how vital it is for all citizens to understand our Constitution and our unique system of government, and participate actively in their communities.”

Most K-12 students are too young to remember the historic tie-breaking votes O’Connor cast on the Supreme Court. But millions of students are using civics-education games developed by her nonprofit: iCivics.

In 2009, O’Connor founded iCivics as a way to make the core tenets of civics “relevant and remarkably effective” for middle and high school students through online, interactive games and resources.

“I made a commitment to myself, my family, and my country that I would use whatever years I had left to advance civic learning and engagement,” she writes in the letter, which was published and read widely in the days following her announcement on Oct. 23.

Since that day—whether timed with O’Connor’s announcement or in anticipation of the midterm election is unclear—several edtech organizations have taken up the mantle on civics education. The nonprofit Khan Academy is launching a video-based civics series for students “interested in how government works in the United States,” according to a press release. And Flocabulary, the company that makes educational hip-hop songs and videos for K-12, offers seven units on civics and added an eighth, focused on voting, ahead of the midterms on Tuesday, Nov. 6. Three more are listed as “coming soon.”

All 19 iCivics games are free and nonpartisan. They run the gamut of civics topics, including the Bill of Rights and immigration law. A recent addition is a media-literacy game called “news feed defenders.” Students serve as the editors of a publishing platform and must make quick judgment calls on what is accurate and fair, but also popular.

In addition to games, iCivics features a comprehensive curriculum with 170 different lesson plans. When teachers log in, they can search for resources by state standards, grade level or topic, according to Louise Dubé, executive director of iCivics.

Though O’Connor has not been active with iCivics since 2015, the nonprofit remains “pretty much all her, in terms of design,” Dubé tells EdSurge.

“The Justice was very, very clear we had to get to kids early,” she says. “She was really the visionary.”

Even the idea of creating interactive games was O’Connor’s. “She was looking for a way to reimagine civics education,” Dubé says. “She felt it was boring, and that we needed a way to reach this new generation of kids.” And she figured that games are not only fun and engaging, but they allow for greater agency and more room for failure, according to Dubé.

Nine years later, and with an estimated presence in half of U.S. schools, iCivics is still in pursuit of its original goal: reaching every student in America.

“That remains,” Dubé says. “The Justice is a very determined person. She doesn’t take no for an answer, doesn’t accept that things can’t get done. That value imbues everybody’s work here at iCivics. We believe that when you set your mind to it, things must get done.”

The charge they have at iCivics is more important now than ever before, Dubé says. Ahead of the 2016 election, the site experienced an “enormous burst,” she says; its traffic rivaled that of commercial gaming sites.

Yet the attention iCivics games have garnered this year eclipses what they saw in 2016, she adds.

At a time when “fake news” has become a punchline, and seemingly every conversation can become divisive, iCivics feels it has a responsibility to teach kids not only how their system of government works but how they can be a part of it.

“The world has gotten very, very complicated,” Dubé says. “It’s very easy now to get duped.”

The best way to navigate these new challenges—such as discerning between a fake news story and a real one—is to develop the skills necessary to outsmart those trying to deceive voters, Dubé says. Students need to learn how to consume information, think critically and independently, find evidence and construct arguments, she says. They also need to learn an important skill many people have lost: agreeing to disagree.

“The American democratic system is very unique, but it’s very, very fragile,” she says. “We must understand the fragility of what we have and hand it over to young people as a gift—a gift they must be prepared to take on.”

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