Friday, December 23, 2016

Civics Education in the spotlight


Civics education--or perhaps more accurately, the harmful consequences resulting from the erosion of civics education--has become a hot topic in education circles. 


Statue of Liberty, photo by David Restivo, National Park Service

By Penny Messinger

In response to the impact of a "fake news" epidemic and widespread discussion of ignorance of how the government works, educators are rediscovering the importance of the disciplines of History and Political Science. Not only is the knowledge of History and Political Science essential for the education of citizens, but they also play a crucial role in creating a base of factual knowledge that helps people to evaluate the information they encounter.

As it turns out, that there is great importance in learning how to "think like an historian" and to evaluate sources for reliability, accuracy, and perspective. Framed as "media literacy," the fundamental toolkit of the historian is important for everyone. An article from the December 21, 2016, issue of Slate magazine entitled "Media literacy courses help high school students spot fake news" emphasizes the importance and effectiveness of the historian's toolkit by detailing a pilot effort by Standford History Education Group to address the epidemic of fake news. As the article explains,
"The news literacy initiative is based in the Stanford History Education Group that [education professor Sam] Wineburg founded in 2002 to train teachers how to use primary sources and help students critically evaluate historical claims. The group also created a free digital curriculum called “Reading Like a Historian” that’s been downloaded more than 3 million times, according to Wineburg."

Link to Stanford History Education Group's curriculum

The media literacy initiative is a response to widespread evidence of the power of fake news in shaping Americans' perceptions of politics. Fake news has been identified as an important factor in shaping voters' decision-making in the 2016 presidential election, a problem that was heightened by the echo chamber of social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter. (See, for example, Vox's Nov. 16 story, "Facebook's Fake News Problem, Explained")

Image from's "Field Guide to Fake News Sites & Hoax Purveyors"

A November 30, 2016, story published in The Heckinger Report revealed that a substantial majority of high school and college students were not able to distinguish fake news from real news:
"Among the hair-raising findings: 93 percent of college students tested were unable to flag a lobbyist’s website as a biased source of information. Younger students fared poorly, too. Fewer than 20 percent of high school students knew that simply looking at one photo online is not enough research to gauge if something is really happening. And among middle school students, 80 percent did not understand that “sponsored content” on a news organization’s website is paid advertising."
How can we evaluate the validity of online sources? As it turns out, the same approach that historians use for evaluating primary sources can be used to teach media literacy. As Slate author Chris Berdik notes:

Even before a deluge of fibs and fakery swamped our recent election cycle, [education professor Sam] Wineburg and company realized that readers of online news need many of the same skills used by a good historian, such as identifying the sources of claims and asking questions about their evidence. After all, what shows up in your Twitter or Facebook feed can come from anywhere, and a post-election BuzzFeed analysis suggested the fake stuff spreads faster than real news, thanks to hyper-partisan readers blindly sharing sensational headlines.
What does it mean to "read like an historian"? As the Stanford History Education Group's website explains, "This curriculum teaches students how to investigate historical questions by employing reading strategies such as sourcing, contextualizing, corroborating, and close reading. Instead of memorizing historical facts, students evaluate the trustworthiness of multiple perspectives on historical issues. They learn to make historical claims backed by documentary evidence."

Check out the online history curriculum developed by the Stanford Education Group, available here. Or, better yet, enroll in a history class at Daemen where you can apply these approaches yourself.

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The erosion of civics education is also to blame for the lack of basic knowledge of how the political system functions. Some states are re-examining the curricula used in K-12 classrooms and calling for revisions. A December 23, 2016, story from Education Week magazine, entitled "Civics Tests as a Graduation Requirement: Coming Soon to a State Near You?", provides a good overview of the state-level effort to mandate a civics tests for high school seniors.

Immigrants becoming citizens in Atlanta naturalization ceremony, 2012 (CNN)

While all states have some version of a civics education requirement for high school students, the adequacy and effectiveness of these requirements are being questioned. In response, some states have adopted laws requiring high school students to pass a test similar to the National Citizenship Test that is a part of the naturalization test for immigrants seeking to become American citizens. 
Could you pass the National Citizenship Test? Check out the list of the 100 questions included on the test, at this link.  When immigrants seek to become naturalized citizens, they are given a test consisting of 10 questions from the list of 100 questions, and must correctly answer 6 of the 10 questions to pass the test. You can find more information about this test at the US Citizenship and Immigration Services website.