reinventing the high school government course

One of the most exciting current efforts in civic education–which also has applications far beyond civics–is a project on reinventing the high school civics course led by Walter Parker with Jane Lo and others.

Typically, a civics course involves presenting and explaining a whole lot of material to students, who then face a test to see what they have understood and remembered. Walter has noted that, all around the world, the final-year of high school tends to be dominated by courses that are fast-paced surveys of information, known for being difficult mainly because they cover so much ground. It doesn’t seem likely that students obtain advanced skills or remember much of the content from these classes.

Walter and his colleagues worked with teachers of the American Government AP course to redesign it so that projects become fundamental. The redesign process was a collaboration with the teachers and involved iteration: trying projects, evaluating, and changing the design. In the fully redesigned courses, activities–such as a mock trial, or a model Congress–come first, and students learn the content that is tested on the AP because they need to know it in order to succeed in the projects. As Parker and Lo write in a very valuable new overview article, “Projects carry the full subject matter load of the course. They are not culminating activities that come at the end of an instructional sequence nor lively interludes inserted periodically into traditional recitation.”

As reported in earlier articles, students in the redesigned AP course “did as well or better on the AP test than students in comparison groups, and … found the course and projects personally meaningful.” That means that there is no tradeoff between learning to be an active citizen by participating in simulations and mastering the content tested by the AP. If teachers use this redesigned curriculum, they can achieve both outcomes together.