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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. When I interviewed her for The Washington Post in 2012, former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor described her post-jurist venture. iCivics. Free to play virtual games to teach government to America’s civically deprived youth. We need a focus, a requirement, a concern she said, passionately.
You don’t need legislation, you need a commitment. That should be the objective of every high school and middle school in America.
Amen, I say. Recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s Creative and Effective Institutions Award for Reinvigorating Civics Education for a New Generation of Americans, iCivics titles ripped from Hollywood, Supreme Decision, Lawcraft, Executive Command and We the Jury, are employed across the country in an estimated 50 percent of middle school social studies classrooms. Justice O’Connor has partnered with today’s education luminary to pave new frontiers in digital learning, to fill the troubling civic education void.
ICivics executive director Louise Dubé was formerly managing director of digital learning at Boston-based WGBH, where she launched PBS Learning Media, a platform of digital resources that reached one and a half million educators.
Since its launch in 2009, iCivics has empowered teachers with dynamic resources to educate the next generation of citizens, so the organization has already bred in effect a first cohort of more civically enterprising youngsters, and I’m wondering, Louise, if that can be correlated with greater youth participation.
DUBÉ: It, it’s going to have to. Right? We’re going to have to get there, and we’re gonna have to make some very serious concerted effort to get there. So we’re gonna do that partially by focusing on this electoral process.
We start in middle school, most of our, all of our curriculum is designed primarily for middle school, um, but we have found recently that about 30 percent of our traffic which we think translates to about 15 percent of high school, uh, government or uh, politics or um, uh, economics or history teachers are actually using the iCivics platform now.
So that means that iCivics has not only been effective in middle schools but is now starting to be effective in high schools. We need to take that seriously, uh, Justice O’Connor was at our, recently at our board meeting and we’ve all agreed that high school is our next step.
So we’re going to uh, take high schools by storm in America, um, and we’re going to not only make sure that we, that all of our kids really understand our founding documents, how our democracy works, how the electoral process works, but also are active in their community. That we partner with other organizations where we can see that if you do something, something happens in your community.
At that point, we’ve made the link for the student, and at that point, they feel responsible for the health of our community and our democracy, that’s our hope. Um, we’re gonna start focusing on that probably next year, because the electoral campaign is an enormous opportunity for all of us in civic education, uh, to focus attention, media attention, parents’ attention, teachers’ attention on this issue.
We’ve had such incredibly low voter turnout from youth, uh, voters, it’s really appalling. It’s appalling on the international scale. I think we are ranked as a 138th, uh, in nation, among, uh, nations in, in the world, uh, in terms of voter participation from youth. That is unacceptable from the biggest democracy in the world, um, and we need to do something about that.
So what we will do at iCivics is release a new game, uh, essentially a sequel game for our very, very popular Win the White House. Uh, Win the White House starts you at the primary, uh, process, and ends you at the election, um, and you as a, as a player can decide to invest in, uh, appearances in any state you can uh, generate, go fundraise in any state, if you fail, that’s it.
DUBÉ: [LAUGHS] Exactly. Um, and we hope that uh, releasing this new game and having a campaign with other organizations that are focused on this issue to make sure that teachers actually teach about the electoral process during the campaign is going to lead to more youth voters, because you’ve got some kids who are, you know, just about ready to vote in high school, right? So we have…
HEFFNER: And ready to vote after presumably those first iCivics learners, beginning in 2009, 2010. Fast forward 5 or 6 years, it’s your first time voting opportunity.
HEFFNER: Are you tracking those young people who were first exposed to iCivics in 2009 or 2010?
DUBÉ: Unfortunately, we made our platform so easy to use that you can go on and use it without actually our knowing who you are or why, and I think that’s part of our success, right? Uh, that’s been part of why we’ve reached, uh, over 7 million kids, uh, in the US. And so we don’t actually track you and uh, today with the issue with the student privacy, we probably don’t want to be doing that. Um, we want to make sure that uh…
HEFFNER: But you’re aware of individual school districts that have employed these resources…
DUBÉ: Yes. Yes.
HEFFNER: So you can knock on their door and see well, I wonder if in this county, youth voter turnout improved.
DUBÉ: Right. I, I think I, it, um, we have to be a little bit careful in terms of expectations. We want to make sure …we start in the middle school, there’s a lot of time, a lot of influences between the middle school and when you actually vote. So what we want to do is to make sure that we keep on uh, having the experience go through high school, have the experience go through our partners, deepen our relationship with those kids and then ultimately measure, you know, have we had a tremendous success in terms of measuring voter outcome?
And that is our goal, that’s everyone’s goal, but we have to be careful that we are fighting a popular culture that is uh, aimed directly against what we’re trying to do. Um, and while we see a lot of positive signs, we just have to measure, a little bit temper our expectations.
HEFFNER: Well your mantra is “Do something.”
HEFFNER: Whether that’s attending a town hall, writing a letter to your editor, these are the skills that are not taught. Here’s a Wall Street Journal op-ed in which Justice O’Connor wrote with uh, former senator and astronaut John Glenn, “Civics education cannot be an afterthought. Citizenship is a skill that must be taught over time with the same devotion we give to reading, math, and the pursuit of scientific knowledge…”
DUBÉ: That’s right.
HEFFNER: “…We believe it should be taught alongside and integrated with these subjects.”
DUBÉ: Absolutely. We believe that citizenship is really just a part of being a good, responsible person in America, right? It is not something different. The mission of school was originally to make uh, responsible, engaged citizens in the US.
DUBÉ: And that is what uh, we’re about, right? So um, there’s not a separate thing. So what we want to do is to make sure that we’re integrated in social studies classroom as well as science classroom as well as reading classrooms. We have two tools that will teach kids how to read primary sources and then write argumentative essays. Those are some of the hardest skills to teach kids, and we have the tools that you can use in your English class, and …but you’re not reading about nothing, right? You’re gonna be reading about something of importance. And why don’t you read about our founding documents for example, right? Why don’t you read about um, things that will let you understand as a kid how you can have impact on your community? And I think that’s, uh, what we want to do. We want to be everywhere within the school.
HEFFNER: I was asking you before if teachers’ unions and public school teachers have been a champion, have been your ally and your response was interesting.
DUBÉ: Well, we really uh, have not had either the support or criticism from unions at all. We are somewhat uh, neutral on that topic. And, and that is primarily because we’re here to ensure that the teachers have the tools to do what they need to do. And in fact, what’s interesting about iCivics is that we’ve had more success since the Common Core has become a reality in the classroom, than before. And the reason is that um, we think, I mean this is pure speculation but we think that we’ve got tools that are really easy to use. So, the teacher can take our tools and assign it as homework tomorrow. She doesn’t need to even know [LAUGHS] about some of these complicated cases, Supreme Court cases. But she can assign it and the kids can do it in the computer lab and it will always take less than your …the classrooms are usually, and instructional block is about 45 to 50 minutes, right? And so our, um, games are always played within that 20, 25, you know, 15 minute block, and so it’s easy to use, every game has a game guide, and so that … the reality was that social studies teachers became under attack after the Common Core, essentially, right? They have had to teach a lot of things that are covered by the Common Core, and they wanted, in their hearts, to teach about civic education. And we made it easy for them, so. It’s a, it’s a really a reversal of what’s happened, uh, within uh, other…
HEFFNER: So in effect this curricular innovation is being welcomed.
LOUISE DUBÉ: Yes, absolutely. I mean, this, iCivics has been more popular than most digital education sites in the country ever. Um, it has had tremendous, uh, adoption rates, uh, particularly since 2012. We’ve seen a hockey stick-like improvement in the adoption rate since 2012 so it’s, it’s rather uh, amazing … the success it’s had.
HEFFNER: How do you compete with Madden?
HEFFNER: With electro—because interestingly in your materials, it seems like you have formed something of a partnership with EA and other organizations,
DUBÉ: Yes, yes.
HEFFNER: That are creating digital games,
HEFFNER: That are not necessarily in the public interest.
DUBÉ: Right. I’ll tell you, I think that uh, the gaming mechanics and the use of video games, um, is really important to iCivics, and that’s because kids really want to do the work, right? Even though it’s hard work, our games are not easy. It is not easy in Argument Wars for you to pick the better evidence to support your argument, right? That’s hard to do. But the gaming mechanics help you sort of overcome that and find it fun and get points and be engaged and be in the action. So that, that’s one way, um, that we do that, but really that’s not the point, right? The point is the instructional goal, and that’s why teachers have taken up the games.
It’s not because we’re the best game in the world and it’s not because we’re Madden or some other, you know, Angry Birds type, um, mechanics. It’s really because it’s clear what you’re going to learn, uh, from the games. And the teachers really appreciate that we’ve taken the … the time to set out what the instructional goals are and be able to have a game that meets them.
Now, that’s not to say, um, that that’s all we do, right? The games, they’re really like an entry point to more learning. So what we’ve seen in the last year or two is that the games are great and they’re really what gets you into iCivics but ultimately, uh, the teachers start downloading lesson plans and then they do Web Quests, which are project-based learning, and then they find out about how to use their points with Ashoka, I mean it’s a whole series of um, of activities that you can do that gets you closer and closer to a relevant problem in, in your community or in the world.
HEFFNER: And you were saying to me off-camera that The Justice is committed in, in her absolute devotion to this issue. She said this is what she wants to be her legacy and therefore, iCivics has to go mobile.
DUBÉ: Right, exactly.
HEFFNER: The Justice has said that she’s taken a state-by-state approach.
DUBÉ: Mm hm.
HEFFNER: You’ve partnered most recently with Ohio and the university there,
HEFFNER: Ohio State University. How, how are you… transforming this into a national campaign, uh, if you’re taking a state-by-state approach?
DUBÉ: So it is a national campaign and our traffic is national now. We are in all 50 states. Uh, we reach uh, eighty-five percent of zip codes in America right now. Um, and uh, and we’re very proud that we reach into uh, low social economic status, uh, districts particularly. Um, to um, so proportionally …more, um, than the average. And so that, that we’re very proud of, um, but we do believe at this point, when you’ve reached into 50 percent of middle school social studies teachers in order to push the needle forward to get to close to a hundred percent, you’re gonna need to have boots on the ground within each state. Now in many states, we already have that. Um, we’re very close to partners in Arizona and in Florida. Um, but we feel like in some states, we’re gonna need more.
HEFFNER: Boots on the ground as in iCivics offices … or
DUBÉ: No, uh no …
DUBÉ we’re gonna work through partners. Yes. Well we have networks right now in all fifty states of ambassadors, um, who are sort of a high level, uh, usually from the legal field, uh, folks who are committed to our success.
Um, we have in many, many states trainers who offer services to uh, professional development training to teachers, uh, to ensure that they know how to teach with iCivics and other civic education resources. So uh, completely free to everyone and uh, easy to access. And so we had these networks. We also have a 25 person teacher’s council. You know, volunteer positions, people who are just fanatical about, um, iCivics and who want to help us and, and they’re fantastic, I mean they’re fantastic folks. They blog for us, they get their networks of teachers engaged. But in order yet again to push forward and, and Sandra Day O’Connor constantly tells me it’s not enough, [LAUGHS] we need to do more. And in order to do that, we’re gonna need to reach other types of teacher networks, um, that can only be accessed through local partners.
HEFFNER: What is the risk?
DUBÉ: Um, the risk is that we spread ourselves too thin. Um…
HEFFNER: What’s, what’s the risk of digital democratic illiteracy as opposed to digital democratic literacy? What’s, because she makes this pitch and you do too. What’s the risk to not engage our youth?
DUBÉ: I mean is there another choice really? Is there? Um, we are losing them in droves and if we don’t do this,
HEFFNER: What are we losing them to?
DUBÉ: Um, I think the popular culture is fighting us in a, in a major, major way, right? It, I have to say that even though the numbers are really appalling, and appalling is the word for it, um, I, I see some signs of op—for optimism, so some, some idea that we should be optimistic, uh, because the, the materialistic culture, the sort of popular culture of celebrity and sports and so on, um, that has its limitations I think at some point, and people, kids are uh, heading towards a career or a training or technical or college, um, find themselves sort of facing the need to, for purpose in life, right? And I, I’ve heard more and more about that, um, and about kids searching for that purpose recently. What better purpose than to be known and be effective to your community and be part of our democracy? And I think we ought to make sure that kids understand that that is … civic life is about all of those things and just creating that relationship between you and a purpose is, is really essentially saying there is a link between you and a greater good and a greater sense of community, so you are linked to others. That’s the core of having a purpose in life, right?
HEFFNER: Is one of the root problems here that that purpose has been degraded from the baby boomer generation to this generation? Or maybe not baby boomers specifically, but that children don’t see in their parents that sense of democratic purpose.
DUBÉ: Right. I do think that that’s an issue, otherwise it would be hard to explain the numbers, uh, that we have now. And I think we need to reverse that. But I am seeing, I think, the beginning of a reversal. Um, and I, at least this is, you have to remain optimistic in this work, that’s, that’s difficult. Um, but I am seeing sort of this, we all go through these cycles, right? As you were saying maybe, uh, through the generations we kind of lost that sense of community and sort of relying on each other, um, and trying to understand that we were all in this together. Um, but you know, and they, now at this stage, I think we, because that sense of purpose and reliance is now a global one, right? We’re now at a stage where we’re … we’re all over the world and we have to come back to that, right? We have to come back and the question is how are we gonna do that? Are our democratic institutions going to suffice? Um, and can they be adapted so that we can have those conversations in a different way?
HEFFNER: You have a game don’t you called Immigration Nation?
DUBÉ: Immigration Nation, yes, absolutely.
HEFFNER: I think that speaks to the issue here.
DUBÉ: Yes, yes.
HEFFNER: The purposelessness of an earlier generation that doesn’t hear the stories from Ellis Island.
HEFFNER: How we’re part, our DNA is part of this democracy.
DUBÉ: That’s right, that’s right. That’s why we want to make sure that kids can read and find purpose and meaning from primary sources. Those interviews at Ellis Island, those are beautiful, beautiful things. Um, I actually was just over the weekend, um, with uh, someone’s grandmother, and she was telling stories from India, or … all of those stories um, they may be in a different cultural context, um, but they carry a humanity message, um, that can resonate with kids and can tie them and make them understand that generation after generation, we face the same challenges. We have to learn how to be good citizens and we have to be responsible to others. And—
HEFFNER: Now you and Justice O’Connor and my friend Eric Liu are on this bandwagon in saying we’re all in this together.
HEFFNER: But there are those who deplore that message.
DUBÉ: That’s right.
HEFFNER: They think that there’s an ulterior motive, a political motive.
DUBÉ: Mm hm.
HEFFNER: Now the justice was a Republican in Arizona, Eric Liu was a speechwriter to a Democratic president. I don’t know your politics Louise besides being a champion—
DUBÉ: And you won’t. [LAUGHS]
HEFFNER: But uh, but do, do share with our viewers how we can avoid that question or if we hear that question, the skepticism towards a common good, how we can fight back against it?
DUBÉ: I, I find that, I’ve heard the argument and I’ve heard that and I’m sort of puzzled by it. I really, I don’t think it can be a politically divisive argument for kids to understand that we have a Constitution and what the Amendments are, and, and what, you know, how our democracy works and … I mean you try to go to a country that has, doesn’t have a rule of law, it doesn’t matter which end of the spectrum you are on, you are not going to like the experience, right?
So um, I think it is pretty fundamental and I think we’ve, Sandra Day O’Connor has structured iCivics in a really nonpartisan way. We are committed to being nonpartisan, um, 100 percent, yet fundamentally, um, we all go back to these basic concepts of how we operate in society, and yes, I hear the fact that we are not in this together, but, but we have to be. I mean you know, our entire survival as a nation depends on that. I, I, I just uh …
HEFFNER: Is it a suspicion of teachers? Is it a suspicion of secularism in public education?
DUBÉ: Oh maybe, but I really, I really wouldn’t know. I—
HEFFNER: You’re from, you’re from Canada.
DUBÉ: I am, I am. I am a US citizen though. [LAUGHS] I am from Canada where we had, I think we’ve had a similar problem as well, you know, I think both of our …
HEFFNER: It’s similar.
DUBÉ: …Democracies are very similar. Um, but we obviously come from a Parliamentary, uh, system that is different, uh, but uh, the fear of teachers is misplaced if that’s what it is. Uh, teachers are I think, uh, I’ve met so many over the years, are incredibly devoted professionals, uh, who are trying to do the best for kids. Um, and we need to provide them with easy to use and, and simple tools, we are trying to do that. Um, teachers, you know, I uh, uh, I know that we’ve got problems in this country with education. It’s not that we don’t, uh, admit that that’s the case, but to scale, uh, uh, reform in this country, is going to have to scale with teachers, not against teachers. Um, and I think everybody understands that.
HEFFNER: And one of the benefits is that these games don’t possess the bias or the specter, the possibility of bias in the way that they’re formulated, and so I’ve reported on it, you’ve told us about it, but there are so many examples of young people exposed to the games who then really engage in their democracy,
DUBÉ: Let me, I can actually tell you a story…
HEFFNER: What’s, tell me a story.
DUBÉ: [LAUGHS] I actually came to iCivics, uh, completely independently from Justice O’Connor or knowing about iCivics, um, so uh, in 2012, uh, my son Daniel, who is 12 now, um, was assigned a game and he came through the door and he said to mommy, I need to go play a video game and I’m like oof… In our household we don’t do that. You do your homework first and then… Um, and he said no no no, you don’t understand, Mrs. Brown, uh, she was the fourth grade teacher, uh … assigned me this uh, video game as homework and I’m like oh really, I think he’s like putting it on and whatever. Um, but I let him do it and he went off and played, um, actually Win the White House, because it was around the election time, which is exactly what I want teachers to do. Um, and he came out and he told, uh, mommy, all schools should be like iCivics. And I’m like … wow. [LAUGHS] I had been in education technology for 20 years and I had never heard this before. I was rather astonished. And uh, I had, I had made my kids, you know, be my play testers and try to click on things… Um, so I was, I, I really took note. Um, at that point, uh, and then subsequently I met uh, Justice O’Connor and Jeff, Jeff Curley, the former executive director. Um, but I think that the point of the story is not that actually. It, it’s that um, after uh, Daniel started asking me oh, what county do we live in? Middlesex. Um, who are our elected representatives? Uh, here’s who represents us in Congress, here’s who… Um, and uh, did you vote, mommy? And I was like … in the local election Daniel? Really? [LAUGHS] Um, yes, and he insisted to come with me, uh, to the voting booth. Um, I think we have a voter there, right? I think uh, I think that they’re different processes to get to voting, right? Um, and I think that experience of going with your parents, that experience of seeing it through, some folks have studied this. Um, and, and found that there, there is some, uh, inter-generational transfer there. Um, I think it’s interesting to me, um, it’s just actually what happened to me, so.
DUBÉ: Yeah, it was great.
HEFFNER: And, and Daniel
DUBÉ: Mm hm.
HEFFNER: Had been exposed to an iPhone or smart technology prior to this, but this was different.
DUBÉ: Yeah. He had been not, no iPhone at our house ’til, ’til later .. LAUGHS
DUBÉ: But um, he had played on computer games many times. He had played on, uh, technology platforms for the classrooms before, yes.
HEFFNER: Well he must have .. your iPh…
DUBÉ: Yes. My iPad yeah, absolutely.
HEFFNER: There was a moment he, right.
DUBÉ: Yeah. (LAUGHS)
HEFFNER: But I think um, in terms of the curricular design,
HEFFNER: There’s a difference between the technology and the platform of the technology.
DUBÉ: That’s right, that’s right.
HEFFNER: And that’s what your story conveyed to me.
DUBÉ: Right. I think it’s very different, this kind of game where we’re actually both engaging them but mostly in something of inter—like it’s fun, right? But it’s hard.
DUBÉ: So it’s both. I think you gotta find that kind of balance. The point of iCivics is less about sort of the technology of it.
It’s about putting kids in the action. It’s about them getting involved in an actual problem where we make it relevant for them. And they see the outcome of what they do matters. And that’s what I think, you know, voters who don’t vote, right? Um, they don’t see it matters. They, they don’t think it makes any difference and, and somehow we have to get to the point where they understand. It really matters. And whether you vote or you don’t vote, because if you did and you know, we didn’t have 22 percent voter, youth voter turnout, and you did get in the action, maybe you, we would have different results.
HEFFNER: Louise, thank you for telling us it does matter.
DUBÉ: [LAUGHS] Well I, I, I know we share that value. [LAUGHS]
HEFFNER: Thanks. And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other Open Mind interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook at OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.