Understanding the Proven Practice of Simulations of Democratic Processes

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Civics Instructional Specialist

This week, IllinoisCivics.org continued our support of the implementation of the new middle school civics requirement with our third #CivicsInTheMiddle webinar on the proven practice of simulations of democratic processes. Both the high school and middle school civics mandates go beyond “what” to teach per the Illinois Social Science Civic content standards and school code requirements, but also “how” to teach using the proven practices of civic education.

As Dr. Shawn Healy, Director of the Democracy Program at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation shared in the webinar, there is a great opportunity for educators to use simulations to teach students about the 2020 elections. According to the 2012 Illinois Civic Health Index, Illinois’ youngest voters are among the least likely to report voting regularly in local elections, ranking 47th among 50 states and the District of Columbia. However, according to our friends at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), school-based civic learning can help grow young voters by demystifying the process (image below).

IllinoisCivics.org joined our partners at CIRCLE to survey middle school educators in the state about their needs and concerns regarding the new civic mandates. The usefulness of using simulations to facilitate student understanding of the institutions, processes, and principles that undergird our constitutional democracy is clear as illustrated by two respondents.

It is evident in this current political climate that many U.S. citizens do not fully understand the democratic process and the impact the decisions they make in choosing to vote or not to vote have on our democracy overall. Because of this, I think it is vital that we focus on simulating the democratic process first, and with that students can work on developing the critical thinking skills necessary to have more meaningful conversations on current and controversial issues and apply their skills through informed action.

Students have the opportunity to practice the skills needed to participate in a safe learning environment. What seems to be so important as a learning process is that students can stop or pause the process in order to ask questions, gather more information, or get clarification. These experiences are then transferred to real-life situations that run in real-time and don't often allow students to pause the process in order to think and understand. Too often students become overwhelmed by the speed at which things may occur when learning in real-time and they shut down. Simulations help keep them engaged and see things through to the end. At the end of a simulation, we can also discuss and reflect on the process to understand what went well and what didn't from their perspective.

Recent NAEP results indicate that most students never experience simulations in a social studies class (image above). IllinoisCivics.org is committed to bridging the professional development opportunity gap in Illinois and supporting teachers in preparing ALL students for civic life.

Our IllinoisCivics.org website has:
  • A Curriculum Design Toolkit with resources to help you identify assets in your curriculum and resources to meet any needs for civics course implementation.
  • Lesson plans aligned with the Illinois Social Science standards and proven practices of civic education.
  • A Distance Learning Toolkit that curates resources to iterate the proven practices of civic education in a blended format.
  • An Election 2020 Toolkit with materials for current and controversial issue discussions as well as the other proven practices of civic education this election year.
If you missed the webinar, you can access the recording and get connected to research supporting the use of simulations of democratic processes as well as considerations to keep in mind when using this pedagogy.

At the end of each webinar, Illinois Civics Instructional Coaches share their top strategies and resources for implementation. This week, the coaches shared a resource they would encourage teachers to start with to support the use of simulations of democratic processes.
  • Candi Fikis from West Chicago shared that she likes to engage students with Mock Town Hall Meetings because they, “give students the opportunity to learn how town hall meetings (and many school board meetings) are held. A local issue should be chosen and students will read different resources about the issue and present their opinions to a group of mock government officials (or could be real ones) who must listen to their ideas.
  • Tracy Freeman from Normal recommends educators explore the resources at the Choices Program from Brown University to help students prepare to participate in simulations of public policy processes. “Choices is written by teachers for a variety of content. I use their materials to set up a Senate hearing. Students are given information that could be used in scripted roles if appropriate. However, the information gives different perspectives that sometimes are missing in a classroom.”
  • Logan Ridenour from Dupo turns to Street Law for resources to implement Moot Courts with his students. “Moot Courts are a valuable simulation that allows students to look at both sides of a topic and use evidence to form their arguments.” Logan also likes to use resources from the Constitutional Rights Foundation to prepare for simulations.
It is not too late to register for the remaining webinars. Each session will take place on Wednesday morning from 9:30-10:30 a.m. Educators can join live to interact with hosts and ask questions or watch a recording of each session. Each webinar is free and participants can elect to earn two PD credits per webinar for completing a post-webinar application activity.

What are you doing to implement the middle and high school civics requirements? Please comment below. Together we can prepare ALL students for college, career, and civic life.


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