I begin with the philosophical premise that we should treat young people as actual citizens, capable of doing actual public work and politics. I don’t begin with great enthusiasm for simulations or play-citizenship. On the other hand, there is evidence that real youth-led civic projects often lower kids’ sense of “efficacy”—their belief that they can make a difference. My friends Joe Kahne and Joel Westheimer reviewed ten excellent programs–mostly focused on low-income students–and found that students’ efficacy tended to fall.
The reason seems clear enough to me. Gather a group of 14-year-olds, tell them to identify a problem that is important to them, and give them a few hours a week to work on it. They will begin with a typical adolescent American sense of optimism–We can make a difference!–and will end in disappointment. The challenge is worse if they are poor. Suburban kids may choose something like traffic congestion in the school parking lot as their problem, come up with a great idea, and get thanks from their principal for their excellent thinking. Inner-city kids may choose homicide, homelessness, AIDS, or racism as their problem–and end in frustration.
So we are experimenting with curricula that mix realistic simulations with real-world work. We draw on David Williamson Shaffer’s concept of epistemic games: enjoyable, computer-based simulations of adult roles. We are interested less in simulating fancy adult jobs (like ambassador to the UN) than in allowing kids to play roles that are actually accessible to them. The idea is to create a realistic but controlled context in which they can make a difference and learn concrete skills and knowledge. Playing the game takes them off the computer screen, because they must hold face-to-face team meetings, conduct research on their real communities, interview actual adults, and make final “live” presentations.
With our colleagues at University of Wisconsin, we have tested a pilot version of a game called Legislative Aide. A high school class simulates the role of staff to a fictional US Congresswoman who represents their real district. They go to a computer lab that becomes her district office. They receive emails from fictional characters who are senior Washington staff for the politician. They can also email each other. They are asked to interview real adults and develop an action plan for the Congresswoman. When the simulation is complete, they can do some real-world tasks that are part of the action plan.
We are applying to develop a similar game in which the class simulates the staff of a fictional environmental nonprofit with an EPA grant. In this game, scientific knowledge and skills are emphasized.
We have also helped write two applications to the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Competition. They are for two versions of urban planning games. In both cases, the goal is to get teenagers around Somerville, MA to simulate the role of urban planners who are considering the momentous change that is about to hit their real city: the extension of the Green Line subway service. We hope that playing the game will not only teach the individual kids useful skills and concepts; it will also yield data about youth needs and priorities that can be transmitted to real planners and community activists.
The MacArthur grant competition includes a stage that invites public comments on applications. Please visit ours and comment.