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Unpacking the ‘Education’ in Civic Education
In this paper, we explore civic education through an examination of two
approaches to the introductory course in American government. Our goal is to identify how differences in pedagogical method affect student learning and attitude formation. We do this through a comparison of two equivalent groups of students; one group experiencing a standard text-lecture-test approach and the other having the additional experience of a three-week character-playing simulation of the congressional policy process. While we find that both groups of students make short-term gains on factual knowledge and both experience attitude shifts in our hoped for directions, the effects are greater in the standard lecture course. Our overall findings help clarify directions for further revision in both formats of the course.
The importance of civic education has been well-established. From the earliest political theorists, we see discussion of the importance of a well-informed citizenry for the health of a polity. While skeptical of the power of the people to self-govern, the framers of American democracy still argued that the ultimate power rested in the people, who would even have the right to overthrow government should it violate the “social contract” with those over whom it governed (as in the Declaration of Independence, where we see Jefferson’s thoughts so clearly influenced by Locke). Closer to modern times, much public opinion literature has engaged in discussions about Americans’ levels of political knowledge, and the consequences that flow from this (see, for just a very few prominent examples, Campbell, Converse, Miller and Stokes 1960; Converse 1964; Delli Carpini and Keeter 1991, 1996; Graber 1994; Jennings 1996; Nie, Verba and Petrocik 1979).
To our minds, civic education is about preparing our students to be citizens in the American democracy. This involves teaching them the rudiments of knowledge required for reading a newspaper (or political web site), watching the news on television, and understanding what is going on in the world. Civic education also concerns itself with attitudes; for example, teaching students to have a healthy skepticism for what goes on in government, but grounding this skepticism in a reality that does not hold unrealistic expectations for government or its officials (see Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 1995, 2002 for a useful discussion of unrealistic expectations). Finally, civic education also concerns behaviors, as we encourage students to make intelligent, informed decisions about the extent to which they will participate in the political system.
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Much literature within the field of political socialization has concerned itself with how citizens come to learn the core values within any political system. This research has concentrated on the role of families (Jennings and Niemi 1968; Tedin 1974); peers (Tedin 1980); schools (Jennings 1993; Merelman 1980), generations (Delli Carpini and Sigelman 1986; Holsti and Rosenau 1980; Jennings 1987), and salient events (Arterton 1974). While the field of political socialization has largely lay dormant for the last couple of decades, in its heyday it did paint a reasonable picture of how political learning occurred. As a general rule, however, it paid little attention to the impact of formal education; what knowledge we do have that addresses the impact of education on political knowledge and attitudes is in need of updating (see, for a noteworthy exception, Niemi and Junn 1998).
This need for updating the literature arises from two simultaneous trends in education over the last forty years. One has been the democratization of education. More and more people are attending colleges and universities today; attending college is increasingly becoming the routine follow-up to graduating from high school. While still more predominant among the elite, more and more people of lower socio-economic status are attending college than ever before. Coupled with this trend has been a mini-revolution in pedagogy at the college level. The traditional approach to teaching – lecture – has been increasingly supplemented by active learning techniques, such as simulations, group work, debates, and other interactive forms of learning (see Bonwell and Eison 1991; “Involvement in Learning” 1984; Chickering and Gamson 1987; ). These trends suggest that it is time to explore further the role of formal education in the development of citizens in the United States.
As an independent variable, the impact of education is well-established within the literature. Education has been shown to correlate highly with all forms of political participation, from voting to campaign activity to taking the effort to contact government (Rosenstone and Hansen 1993; Teixeira 1992; Verba and Nie 1972). Education enables citizens to more easily understand the political system, reducing information costs that are often barriers to participation. When done well, education teaches people of the importance of having the citizen voice represented, and provides concrete examples of when the citizen voice mattered. And, in the process of getting their education, citizens are often brought into contact with political opinion leaders, giving them other resources for influencing the political system.
While much has been learned about the impact of education, we aim to extend the discussion in one important way. This paper moves beyond the typical use of treating college attendance as an independent variable in studies of political knowledge, attitude or behavior and seeks to explore variations in the educational experience. In short, our central goal is to unpack the multiple kinds of “education” in civic education. We are particularly concerned with determining what differences exist in student’s basic factual knowledge and deeper conceptual understanding of American government based upon the method with which the course was taught. Our study focuses on an equivalent population of students who learned American government in two different ways, one using a standard text-lecture-test approach and the other incorporating a three-week character-playing simulation of the congressional policy process. By comparing short-term outcomes among this originally equivalent population of students, we seek to determine whether civic learning is affected by the delivery method of the class.
To be sure, this comparison is not the “ideal” case in which two extremes are compared. In order to have a reasonable basis for comparison, the same instructor (the second author) taught both the “experimental” group (the one that had the simulation) and the “control” group (the one without the simulation). Had a different instructor been used as the control, questions of validity would have significantly hampered this project. Professor Bernstein’s teaching style, however, cannot be characterized as straight lecture. While he uses lecture methods occasionally as an efficient way to convey large amounts of information, he frequently makes use of group work, “think-pair-share” and other interactive techniques. Fortunately for purposes of this study, he uses these techniques with both the control and experimental groups. Thus, comparisons across groups are possible – the difference between the groups is that one gets the simulation and one does not. However, this paper should not be read as a comparison between two “pure” forms of instruction; both groups were taught American government using a myriad of instructional methods.
We begin this paper by examining the pedagogical goals of these introductory American Government courses and the teaching methods used to achieve them in each setting. Based upon this discussion, we suggest some likely consequences for how political knowledge and attitudes should be affected based upon the teaching method to which a student was exposed. We follow this discussion with a description of the research design used here, and an examination of the sample of students we studied. We then discuss results, paying particular attention to the differential effects of the two teaching methods on political knowledge gained and on political attitudes. Here, we suggest and explore the possibility that a student’s learning style might mediate these effects. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of these findings and with a discussion of future steps and further questions of interest to us.
Teaching Goals and Teaching Methods
Our attempt to uncover the differing impact of these two approaches to teaching American government starts from the simple contention that the goals in each class remain the same. By comparing two different approaches to teaching, we stand a better chance of understanding what leads students to learn what we hope to teach them.
Bernstein’s most basic goal is to transmit factual knowledge to students. While skeptical of approaches that engage in a “Trivial Pursuit”-style of knowledge transmission, some understanding of the straight facts is required if students are to understand how government operates. For instance, while it ultimately does not matter if students know exactly how many members there are in the House of Representatives, an educated student of government should know the House is larger than the Senate, and ideally should understand that, unlike the Senate, its institutional rules give tremendous power to majorities. A higher level understanding of the role of the Senate vis a vis the House in the legislative process is possible only if students understand some rudiments of how the two institutions operate.
Factual knowledge is addressed in both classes in the traditional fashion. Students typically are assigned to read the textbook before class. Class time goes over the material, occasional quizzes reinforce it before exams, and the exams provide strong incentives for the students to spend significant amounts of time reviewing the material. There are, of course, different approaches to this goal in the two versions of the course. The simulation class typically has less of this factual knowledge presented in class, as much of their class time is spent engaging in the simulation. They are, however, assigned almost the same amount of material. Moreover, any factual knowledge they gain (for instance, about the powers of congressional committee chairs) might be learned even “better” through the experience.
Over and above transmitting factual knowledge, Bernstein aimed to address some larger, conceptual issues, in the course. These themes often concentrated around the broader question of who has power and how it is exercised in American government. For example, one theme in Bernstein’s classes is that rules determine outcomes. In both his simulation and non-simulation classes, this fact is demonstrated in a variety of ways:
• Students read an article by Lani Guinier (1993) in which she shows how voting
rules in a particular county in Arkansas contribute to white dominance in office-
holding, and suggests how different rules may lead to more proportionate
• Students learn how the committee system in Congress provides gate-keeping power
for committees, and allows them to dominate policymaking within their domain;
• Students learn how the campaign finance laws advantage some players in the
political process and disadvantage others.
These examples, and others, provide students with a strong understanding of how rules determine outcomes. However, they suffer from the standard criticisms leveled at non-experiential approaches to learning; students hear about these examples, but do not experience them. In the simulation, these experiences occur. Students see that they cannot get a piece of abortion legislation passed if they cannot convince other students playing Judiciary Committee members to approve the bill. They learn that if they get a bill out of committee, they must secure the cooperation of the party leadership to get the bill put on the legislative schedule. If they are a lobbyist, they learn that congressional procedures encourage them to try to kill bills early in the process, and to emphasize certain arguments with members of Congress when discussing bills. In short, the simulation is likely to enhance learning about larger issues such as this.
A related issue is the extent to which members of Congress are, or are not, in touch with their constituents. Much of the drive behind the term limits movement, for example, comes from the perception that members of Congress are hopelessly out of touch with the people they represent (see Benjamin and Malbin 1992, Will 1992 for some interesting treatments of term limits; Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 1995 present a compelling case that the people perceive that members of Congress are out of touch, even as the authors disagree with this contention). However, so much of the legislative politics literature shows that this is far from the case (Fenno 1978; Fiorina 1974; Hall 1996; Kingdon 1989). Thus, a central goal for Bernstein is to demonstrate to his students that there is another side to the perception that members of Congress are out of touch.
Once again, in both classes this is demonstrated in a variety of ways:
• Bernstein presents the normative argument that we actually want our
representatives to be concerned with reelection; Schlesinger (1966) notes that
the most dangerous political system is one in which representatives have no
desire for reelection (and hence no need to obtain approval from constituents);
• Students read articles about Dan Flood (Crile 1975) and John Hiler (Barnes
1988), two members of Congress who demonstrated this hyper-concern for towing
the district line;
• Students learn about the extent to which interest groups cite constituency
concerns to members of Congress in their attempts to sway the members on
particular pieces of legislation.
Once again, however, the differences between learning by reading and listening and learning by doing arise here. In a simulation, students experience this concern firsthand. They are required to write role profiles of the members of Congress they play, in which they emphasize the characteristics of the districts they represent. Students playing members of Congress must run for reelection, which forces them to pay attention to what their constituents would want as they go about voting on and sponsoring pieces of legislation. The students playing members of Congress realize there will be consequences if they amass a voting record that does not square with constituency preferences. Interest groups and the administration have to overcome the fear that students playing members of Congress have of voting against their constituency. Thus, as with learning about rules and outcomes, we see a good bit of learning about the role of constituency in both the treatment and control groups here; the difference is that the treatment groups learns this lesson more actively during the simulation.
Given these differences in how the material is approached in each class, how might this influence the knowledge and attitude data we present here? As a general rule, we do not expect the simulation to have any meaningful effect on short-term knowledge; if anything, we expect a slightly negative effect. That being said, there are some specific items, particularly those dealing with the operations of Congress and congressional powers in the policymaking process, on which the simulation students should be advantaged. While the overall goal of the simulation is to enhance understanding of the broader lessons, actively confronting a factual item might help students learn that fact more readily. For example, simulation students may be more likely to remember that the leader of the House is known as the “Speaker” when they are forced to call the student playing him “Mr. Speaker.”
Regarding our attitudinal data, because the simulation students live the experience much more directly, we would expect them to come away with a more realistic understanding of what members of Congress actually do. This should lead to more grounded appraisals of congressional performance. Thus, simulation students should better appreciate the degree to which members of Congress seek to represent their constituencies. They also should better appreciate the institutional and political constraints that face even the most hard-working member of Congress; making a piece of legislation “happen” depends upon much more than the exertion and expertise of any one individual. Finally, if we are correct that the simulation better integrates the many interrelated topics of American Government, we would expect students exposed to the simulation to have a higher assessment of their own understanding of U.S. politics.
These arguments have been drawn with a broad brush; in reality, they may apply differently to different students. Thus, to the degree that student learning styles may mediate the learning process, we also have some expectations that different types of students may be advantaged by these two approaches to American Government. In particular, a key reason that Bernstein adopted the simulation approach in the first place was out of a belief that a simulation might be a useful way to engage different types of learners in his classes. He also believed that while simulations might force him to reduce the amount of material he covered in class (since he would lose formal class time to the simulation), the lessons students learned in the simulation would stay with them longer, since this was learning they experienced. Moreover, Bernstein believed that the simulation would help students fit all the pieces together better. In light of these assumptions, we would expect that the simulation might particularly benefit active learners (those who learn best by doing), intuitive learners (those who learn best by discovering relationships), and global learners (those who need to see the entire picture before understanding concepts).
Data and Methods
The research proceeded as follows. During the summer 2002, fall 2002, winter 2003 and spring 2003 semesters, Bernstein taught Political Science 112, an introductory course in American government, at Eastern Michigan University. This course is part of the General Education requirements at Eastern, and is thus required for all students at the school regardless of major. Since Eastern is a regional comprehensive university that attracts students with all levels of preparation, ability and motivation, and we see all students in this class, we are reasonably confident that any results we obtain are somewhat generalizable to the broader population of university students. The students in the classes tended to be drawn mostly from the ranks of freshmen and sophomores, although the spring and summer classes (taught in a condensed 7 ½ week format) drew a more diverse pool of students (particularly as it related to student age).
During the spring and summer semesters, the students received a modified text-lecture-test approach (although, as noted above, much interactive learning did take place). The class met for six hours a week (three afternoons during the spring, two evenings during the summer). Student readings for the course included a short textbook (Wasserman 2001), a reader about activists who had made a difference (Frantzich 1999), and a short customized anthology of readings on various aspects of American government. Students had two tests during the semester, and a final exam.
In contrast, the fall and winter classes met three times a week for an hour at a time over the full 14-week semester. They had the same number of exams, and only slightly less reading (some of the coursepack articles were eliminated). The treatment of most topics was condensed, however, as the third quarter of the course was spent in a character-playing simulation of he legislative process. During the simulation, students played members of Congress, the administration, lobbyists for a variety of interest groups, and journalists, and simulated the process by which a bill gets introduced and considered in Congress. They learned about the influence of internal actors within Congress (such as party leaders and committee chairs) and also about the power of those outside Congress (the White House, interest groups, and the media). The simulation is described in greater detail in previous work we have done (Bernstein and Meizlish 2003).
We assessed student experiences in a variety of ways, only some of which are examined in this paper. At the start of the term, all students who consented to be surveyed (see below) were given a 20-item test of knowledge, drawn from the publicly available items from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP); these items are printed in the Appendix of Niemi and Junn (1998). In addition, they responded to a 7-item attitude survey, which included some items drawn from various versions of the American National Election Studies surveys. The students also took the 44-item Index of Learning Styles (created by Felder and Solomon based on the learning styles model presented by Felder and Silverman (1988)), on which they indicated their preferences for how they learn material across four dimensions (active-reflective, global-sequential, verbal-visual, sensory-intuitive). During the term, student essays were photocopied and analyzed for content. At the end of the term, students were given a posttest repeating the same knowledge and attitude items as the pretest. We also compiled students' final grades and, for those in the simulation, data regarding the quality of their simulation performance. The results we report in this paper are limited to the quantitative data we collected.
Our research design raises certain questions. The first concerns the degree to which the control and experimental groups were drawn from the same population. While it is true that the students in each class were drawn from the same distribution of all Eastern Michigan University students, it is possible that some extraneous factors might have led to the groups being different. In particular, one cause for concern might be the fact that the control groups were both taken from the spring/summer terms, when university enrollment is much lower. Perhaps these students were more highly motivated, taking classes when most fellow students were sitting on the beach. On the other hand, perhaps they are less academically successful than others, being forced to take classes to “catch up” while their more successful classmates were off engaging in mischief and mayhem.
Any pre-existing differences in the two groups could certainly result in posttest differences in the group. This would directly call into question the extent to which the treatment is causing the effect (internal validity). We address this concern explicitly in the following section of the paper. But, to preview, our pre-test measures demonstrate convincingly that the groups “looked alike” at the start of their Political Science 112 experience. This would indicate that any posttest differences result from differences in how the government class was conducted rather than from underlying differences in the populations.
A second issue we must consider is bias in terms of those who participate and do not participate in the project. Following standard Human Subjects Review guidelines, informed consent to participate in this project was sought from all students. Most, but not all, gave their consent to participate in the project. More problematic for the validity of our project is that a large number of students did not complete all elements of the project – they might have been absent for class when the posttest was given, dropped the class for poor performance (or simply stopped attending), or failed to provide complete data for any other reason. Since these students are likely to be among the poorer students, this does present some cause for alarm.
Our hope, however, is that while the group of students for whom we have complete data likely is a biased subset of the population, we might have equivalent bias among the control and experimental groups, allowing us to offer comparisons across the groups even as our ability to generate to the larger population is hampered. Below, we offer some analysis about the composition of the treatment and control groups, demonstrating how well our samples reflect the larger population of students who completed the course and received a grade.
Table 1 reports the results of a comparison of gender breakdowns in the treatment and control groups. The table indicates that the control group perfectly represents the population in terms of gender; exactly 41% of each is male. The experimental group, however, is slightly less male in the sample than it is in the population; men are 47% of the population but only 42% of the sample. This difference seems quite small, indicating that we have little cause for concern about sample bias along gender lines.
While there were no statistically significant differences in the grades assigned to the two classes, one can ask whether any student characteristics seem to be influencing student performance in each version of the class. Here we present very tentative data using the learning styles inventory we administered. Table 9 presents the four learning style dimensions that we measured with each dimension categorized by degree of preference. For each preference level, we computed the mean student grade for students in each version of the course. Looking at the Active/Reflective Dimension, it is interesting to note that in the lecture version of the course, mean grades fall as we move from students with preferences in the Reflective dimension to those in the Active dimension. In the simulation case, there is no evidence of any systematic bias. Looking at the Sequential/Global Dimension, it is interesting to note that in the simulation class, mean grades fall as we move from students with global learning preferences to those with sequential learning preferences. In the lecture version, there is no evidence of any systematic bias. While it is always dangerous to look at bivariate relationships on something as complex as student grades, these patterns suggest two possibilities. First, it seems that Bernstein's logic for incorporating a simulation may be correct. If students with active learning preferences are doing less well in the lecture version of the course, than the simulation may be correcting for that. Second, the simulation version may pose difficulties for students with strong sequential learning preferences. The simulation disrupts the traditional sequencing approach, and therefore without some change to help such students, the simulation may be a more difficult learning situation for these types of students.
Conclusions and Implications
Several conclusions emerge from the data presented here. Clearly, in both versions of the course, students are learning factual material and are generally experiencing the types of attitude shifts we had hoped to achieve. Nonetheless, our results suggest further refinements in both versions of the course. For example, the fact that both groups of students continued to do poorly on the knowledge item related to the role of political parties in the presidential nomination process suggests to us that the topic of political parties in the American political system may need additional attention.
But aside from specific content topics, these results suggest further considerations of the pedagogical approaches used in each class. In the lecture format, these results again force us to consider what types of learners may be disadvantaged in a lecture setting, and to continue to think about ways to enable active students to be engaged by course material. Despite Bernstein's devotion to the simulation, time and resource constraints limit how often it can be part of the American Government course.
In the simulation format, our lessons are most profound. Combining the knowledge and attitude results with the learning styles data and a cursory analysis of student essays (not reported here) has led us to conclude that more must be done to help students reflect on their experiences in the simulation and relate them back to the core course material. For some students, this reflection is happening quite automatically. But for other students, these larger lessons go unnoticed and some of the simplifications of the simulation get mistaken for how these processes operate in the real world. Thus, our ongoing challenge is to figure out how to harness the power of the simulation in a way that enables all students to make these important connections.
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