Director at Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University
This month’s CivXNow featured member is Dr. Danielle Allen, the Director of Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. Allen is also the principal investigator for the Democratic Knowledge Project, which is working with the state of Massachusetts and districts across the state to develop a yearlong 8th-grade civics course in response to new state standards — along with professional development and assessments for the Commonwealth’s new civic education law.
Q: What do you think should be the centerpiece of an innovative civic education curriculum?
Allen: The field has been polarized over the last few decades between those who focus on civic knowledge and those who focus on action or lived civics. The curriculum that we are designing merges those two perspectives. We teach traditional civics content through agency-centered pedagogies using a lot of case studies and simulations. And the curriculum we are building scaffolds from acquiring core knowledge to the development of agency and culminates in an action project at the end of the year.
From our point of view, the most important thing is that people learn how to bring together civic knowledge and action civics.
Q: How do you do that?
Allen: As an example, the 8th-grade curriculum we’re creating has six units. One of them is centered on the case of Prince Hall.
He drew on the text of the Declaration of Independence and was able to use its language in order to bring a petition before the Massachusetts Assembly for the abolition of slavery. First, we center the unit on the petition because Hall drew from ideas that shaped the founding of the nation — that are included in the Massachusetts standards — for example, the ideas of Locke and Aristotle. And it teaches other core concepts such as abolitionism.
But then, we focus on Hall later on during the 1780s. At that point, he is frustrated that despite the official abolition of slavery, things are not improving for African Americans. So he draws up another petition trying to raise resources to support a return to Africa for himself and others.
He has a life in which he is making very hard choices — loyalty and voice or exit. Those choices are fundamentally about whether you choose to stay thereby implicitly consenting to the form of Government, stay but give voice to dissent, or exit if you can’t achieve the change you want.
The structure of his life is a good way of teaching social contract theory, and the petitions in which he articulates his ideas draw on — through reference and paraphrase — the texts that are suggested in the state framework.
So you can teach foundational ideas, core concepts in democratic theory, and the related texts through the case of Prince Hall. But then we also use simulations and role-play to engage students in making decisions themselves that are structured in similar ways.
Q: When will you start piloting the 8th-grade curriculum?
Allen: In about a week we will start piloting the Prince Hall unit. Then we will start piloting other units we’re working on later in the spring.
Q: What role should academic institutions and research institutions play in the civic education movement?
Allen: Strong civic education needs to rest on strong research and development, as with anything else. The research universes in the space of history, political science, sociology, etc. have been rich and active for the last three decades. I’m not sure if the civics field has had a chance to take advantage of all of that R&D work that’s already going on inside of our universities.
We feel really excited, honored and privileged to take research from the last decade and a half on things like the Declaration of Independence, and research on the impact of new media on the youth experience — and to convert that research into tools and resources that teachers can use, but then secondly to work with teachers to turn that into curricula.
Our method of work, particularly in partnering with districts and teachers, is important. We focus on co-design. We have resources. We have frameworks. We have questions we think you should ask if you are aiming for a quality civics curriculum. But we want to work together with teachers and district leaders to design the curriculum.
We don’t come in with the curriculum. We want to work with districts to design a curriculum that meets their objectives for their civics courses.
Q: How can the civic education movement engage with more research institutions?
Allen: For one thing it is important to say “Here is the R&D that the civics world needs.” And, in order to succeed, the system needs research in those areas.
The civics space has not been defined as an R&D space, so I think that you have to rename it as such. Start drawing up what should be on the research agenda, and then make sure that academics and universities and the people who fund universities see that there is a really pressing R&D need in this space.
But it’s also important to note that there has already been a lot of R&D in other spaces that we can tap into.
Q: What R&D is needed and what existing research can be applied in a useful way to civic education?
Allen: There is a really clear need for research into civic learning indicators. What are the indicators of healthy civic learning at different levels? What happens in specific schools? What happens in terms of the civic health of a specific community? And then what is happening at the level of the district and state and the country as a whole.
Political science works at the level of the nation, and then you have urban specialists who work at the level of the city and the level of community while education specialists look at what is happening inside the walls of the school building.
We have a hodgepodge of content that we can use to measure how well civic education is being delivered and what the results are for our civic culture. What we have not really done is look at how those concepts relate to each other and how everything links from micro to macro. A well-planned, well-funded collaborative research agenda could help us establish greater clarity around what really counts as high-quality civics learning and education.
Q: What needs to be done?
Allen: We also don’t have a good K-16 developmental model for civic learning. It makes it hard to look at civic learning vertically across the grades. That is work that can be done.
Q: How do you get funding for this and what has been the hold up?
Allen: Once you split the research and development parts from the implementation parts, I think you get an easier picture. Colleges and universities know how to secure R&D funding, and I think they can secure R&D funding in this space. They have to be activated to do that, and the civics community should push colleges and universities to invest in this research domain.
But then there is the field of implementation and delivery. There I think that the field needs an ecosystem shift. The field has been built on a model of charitable philanthropy where folks are really dependent on foundations and philanthropic giving, and there is very little earned income. I think the field as a whole has to transition to an earned income model for implementing and delivering civic learning opportunities.
It’s not about making money, but it’s a nonprofit model where revenue goes back into the organizations and back into the missions. It should always be nonprofit and not about generating wealth for the owners, but the organizations should be looking for earned income. I think there are ways to do that in the field, particularly around assessment. It’s not clear to me that the assessment field is presently structured in a form that is in the best interests of learners, districts, and states.
Share Dr. Allen’s ideas on social media:
“The field has been polarized over the last few decades between those who focus on civic knowledge and those who focus on action or lived civics. The curriculum that we are designing merges those two perspectives.” @dsallentess #CivXNow
“Strong civic education needs to rest on strong research and development… I’m not sure if the civics field has had a chance to take advantage of all of that R&D work that’s already going on inside of our universities.” @dsallentess #CivXNow
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Post originally from Tuesday, March 19th, 2019 CivXNow Coalition Newsletter.