Students in the US have had some type of civics education since the early part of the 19th century. New research has found that leveraging the appeal of video games to promote civic learning can help address low levels of teen civic engagement. iCivics, a free standards-based online civics curriculum, was founded in 2009 by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, to help reverse Americans’ declining civic knowledge and engagement. She believes that “democracy is not passed down through the gene pool”, and that securing our democracy requires teaching the next generation to understand and respect how we govern.
We spoke to Gene Koo, Executive Director of iCivics, to learn some more about the work iCivics is doing.
What is iCivics, exactly?
iCivics offers a comprehensive, standards-aligned civics curriculum that is available for free on the Web. It prepares young Americans to become knowledgeable, engaged 21st century citizens through easily accessible and innovative materials.
How can the technology be integrated into lesson plans / standards?
iCivics offers everything from high-tech video games to low-tech hard copy/paper resources to best meet teachers’ needs. All of iCivics’ games and lesson plans are based on learning standards from across the country. We know that access to technology ranges greatly from school to school, so iCivics offers a variety of content for teachers and students.
What features of the technology make it beneficial for learning?
Games and civics are a natural fit because among the various media formats, games are uniquely capable of animating systems and rules – the very heart of what we need to understand about government and society. iCivics’ games provide space for a virtual identity where students have the option to create unique experiences. Students can make choices, receive immediate feedback, and revise their choices. Most importantly, they get to own their learning.
Putting students in the role of a president, legislator, constitutional lawyer, or a community organizer allows them to access and apply information in a way that traditional lesson plans and methods simply cannot.
What are the most popular games / features / tools that iCivics feature?
Our top three games are called “Win the White House,” “Do I Have a Right?,” and “Executive Command.”: Win the White House: Students take on the role of a presidential candidate from the primary season all the way through to the general election. The player strategically manages time and resources to gain control of as many electoral votes as possible over a ten-week campaign. This can only be done by raising funds, polling voters, communicating his or her positions on issues, and mastering media and public appearances.
Do I Have a Right?: Students run a law firm that specializes in constitutional law. Clients bring various complaints, and students must determine if they “have a right.” As students successfully resolve cases by matching them with the correct attorneys, their law firm grows along with the skills of their lawyers.
Executive Command: As the President, students are faced with the daily challenges a commander-in-chief must balance when running a government and keeping the country safe. They will propose a legislative agenda to Congress, sign bills into law, delegate new laws to the appropriate federal agencies, handle international diplomacy, and command the military during times of war. The time frame is one four-year term in office, and the goal is to keep everything running smoothly.
How have students benefited from using the games?
After playing “Win the White House,” and serving as president, one student told iCivics, “I don’t know if I WANT to win re-election; being the president is hard!” Another student emailed, “I don’t know how you did it, but you snuck learning into my brain!”.
Through iCivics’ games, students gain in knowledge by accessing and retaining civic content, and acquire skills by applying what they know, including the processes of civic life. They end up seeing civic participation as fun and as something they WANT to do. It’s clear that games motivate and engage in a way that traditional instruction may not be able to accomplish.
How are teachers / schools practically using the technology?
There are many exciting examples of how iCivics is being used in schools across the US. An independent study by researchers at Baylor University’s School of Education showed that iCivics games improve student knowledge significantly, and do so across race, gender and socio-economic groups.
For example, iCivics recently launched a pilot project with eight different Boys & Girls Clubs of America in New Mexico. After playing the games, club members showed a significant increase in civic knowledge. They also expressed an increased interest in civic issues, which can often be launching points for future interaction with government officials. This partnership will be expanded throughout the BCGA network, allowing iCivics to reach an additional 4.5 million students.
In Lexington, South Carolina, iCivics isn’t just part of the class, iCivics is the class. Students are able to sign up for a semester – long classes with iCivics as the centerpiece of the learning experience. One classroom is a 1:1 iPad school, so students are able to truly take advantage of Pocket Law Firm, iCivics’ first mobile app.
In York, Nebraska, Matt Kern’s Social Studies class used iCivics to accumulate Impact Points and won the 2012 Impact Challenge. These sixth graders logged many hours playing iCivics games while Mr. Kern kept them motivated and engaged. By the end of the contest, they had earned tens of millions of Impact Points, which they could donate to the student-run charity of their choice. Every three months, the charity with the most points receives funding from iCivics.
Try it out
iCivics is a completely free resource that touches on many fundamental issues that are important for students to understand such as the State and Local Government, Citizenship and Participation, and Politics and Public Policy. For more information on how to use the resources in iCivics check out the iCivics teachers section.