Hacking Civics Education with Phillips Andover Students

On Wednesday, May 21, 2014, we hosted the Hacking Andover class, “an experiment in education for the digital age,” comprising seniors from Phillips Andover Academy led by their teacher and head of school John Palfrey. We designed a two hour block connecting creative learning at the MIT Media Lab with civic technologies and civics education.

Alex Anderlik, one of the Andover students, beat us to blogging about this workshop. Do check out his great Google+ story: MIT Media Lab: Hacking Class Field Trip

Creative Learning at the Media Lab
Before they arrived, I asked the students to read Mitch Resnick‘s paper, “All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking) I Learned (By Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten” [pdf]. Mitch’s paper does a great job of laying out the learning philosophy at the Media Lab, which is underpinned by a culture of imagination and experimentation. Academically, it falls under the heading of constructionism, and more popularly, it’s seen in the Maker movement. This was the frame I brought to the tour of the Media Lab that kicked off the workshop. We started at the shop on the first floor and talked about the raw materials and tools for making concentrated there in a place that brings students together from different groups to create new things. But the shop isn’t just a place in the Media Lab, it represents a philosophy of creative learning the permeates our Media Arts and Sciences programs and the project-based research carried out by our diverse research groups. As we walked through the lab spaces of Lifelong Kindergarten, Object-Based Media, and Personal Robots, we saw how miniature shops, stocked with Legos, soldering irons, and actuators, were embedded in these open “classrooms,” living side-by-side with demos of projects current and past, which serve as inspirations to students to create new projects and push envelopes further.

What is Civic Education?
After the tour, we opened up a discussion on civic learning and technologies using a human spectrum, wherein we asked the students to line themselves up from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” in response to a couple of statements:

  • Andover has prepared me to be a good citizen.
  • Facebook is a good tool for civic engagement.

As the students gave reasons for their positions on the spectrum and shuffled back and forth in agreement or disagreement with each others’ arguments, we learned a lot. According to the students, Andover’s curricula focuses on more theoretical approaches to subjects like politics, government, and social justice, but there are several ways that students can do community service work through after-school activities. The students were ambivalent about Facebook’s utility for civic engagement. Some cited the problems of miscommunication through the medium, while others noted they had only become aware of certain contemporary socio-political issues thanks to Facebook.

One student asked a crucial question during our discussion: What do you mean by civic education? Using the word “education” tends to frame the issue in terms of teachers, classrooms, and curricula. But what if your school, like Andover, lacks a Civics course? In response, I reframed our discussion by saying that at the Media Lab we often talk about “learning” rather than education. As in Mitch’s aforementioned paper, (creative) learning can mean education that is literally extra-curricular, powered by self-directed, project-based exploration. Similarly, “civic learning” is a more accurate term for what I was and am trying to get at in my efforts. Talking about civic learning really opened up the discussion to all the ways Andover students can gain civic experience as well as what the students would like to see more of both inside and outside of the classroom.

Civic Technology Show & Tell
Next, Nathan Matias and I talked through some of the civic technology projects developed in the Center for Civic Media. We discussed three different projects, which we hoped would be well-suited for civic learning: NewsJack, which allows you to remix a website’s home page (like FoxNews.com or CNN.com), Grassroots Mapping, which uses balloons and kites to capture aerial photography, and Action Path, a mobile app for serving up geo-located opportunities for civic engagement.

Design Sprint
For the remainder of our time together, we worked in small groups to brainstorm ways that the presented civic technologies could be used as starting points for lesson plans in a future civics class at Andover. The goal in doing this exercise was to treat the students as experts in secondary education, which they are, and have them instruct us how we might best bring the work of the Center for Civic Media into a school. Three groups of students, with one or two researchers plus their teacher mixed in, each took on a technology and had 15 minutes to sketch out a lesson plan addressing at minimum these three components:

  • Context: how does the lesson connect to other themes of a civics class?
  • Activity: how do you use the technology? how do you connect it to the students’ reality? how do you make it engaging?
  • Takeaway: what do you want people to gain—knowledge, skills, both?

When each group presented their ideas, I was blown away that two of the teams, the two that weren’t hobbled by my participation, outlined full blown courses using the Action Path and Grassroots Mapping technologies. Both stressed their ability to puncture the “Andover Bubble” and involve students working on issues with real impact, specifically focusing on the how they could work on scientific problems connected to nature and the environment. The NewsJack team developed a really impressive lesson plan teaching news and information literacy and putting students in the place of news editors balancing ethics, newsworthiness, and other considerations necessary to sculpt the front page of a news site.

Next Steps
I’m hoping that the workshop will lead to more such opportunities to connect our work at the Center for Civic Media with students to “hack” civics education. The Grassroots Mapping team said they may want to adopt their idea for their final project in the Hacking Andover class, which could lead to a real test on campus! I know my colleagues and I would love to run our workshop on a larger scale at the school next year, so we’ll be following up with John Palfrey about that opportunity. Additionally, this November the National Council for the Social Sciences is having their annual conference in Boston. I and others at the Center plan to lead a similar pre-conference workshop with social studies teachers from across the country—I already asked the Andover students if I could present their ideas to the teachers. All in all, I’m really looking forward to co-designing the future of civics education with more talented teachers and students over the coming years.