By Jo-Anne Hart
US national security strategy, as laid out in the 2010 report by the White House, begins with the broad notion that “what takes place within our borders will determine our strength and influence beyond them.” Put another way, democracy begins at home. Or, at least it ought to. Fewer than six out of 10 eligible American voters cast a ballot in the last presidential election. Voting is a tangible hallmark of democratic norms, yet nearly half the voting population declines to participate.
The paradox of this age, with unprecedented levels of accessible information, is that today’s young adults are possibly the least politically knowledgeable American generation since such data has been collected.
American public opinion rallies around exporting democracy but American schools put it a distant and declining second to other core subjects. And when President Bush proposed that the promotion of democracy in the Middle East be a focus of American foreign policy for “decades to come,” international audiences may have looked sceptically at such a US declaration because of its own chronically high levels of political apathy at home.
As Americans, we could tend to our own backyards.
A presidential election season is an excellent opportunity to prepare the ground, starting with pre-eligible voters in classrooms. “Nothing beats looking directly inside of the polling process to appreciate how hard it is to actually do and to get a personal experience with American voters,” says Patricia Busso, a high school mathematics teacher in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.
Busso is using digital materials from the Growing Voters project which are designed to engage and motivate students through hands-on learning. The idea behind the project is to help students grow into informed voters by the time they are eligible to vote. Busso, for example, is having her statistics class design their own election survey and the process has been eye-opening for both the students as well as the teacher. “[U]sing this activity they had to discover for themselves the rigors of getting a representative sample to analyse.”
The Growing Voters materials ask students to compose their own polling questions and in doing so, Busso reports, they are taking a look “behind the curtain” of public opinion polling in a democracy. Suddenly, through this practice, the students became interested in the election, going to greater lengths to get survey results themselves.
Presidential debates are a particularly ripe area to help students learn civic literacy. Mock classroom debates often are structured with one student playing the role of President Obama and another standing for Governor Romney. In the Growing Voters approach, teams prepare and rehearse each candidate while others orchestrate a post-debate spin room of experts to interpret the debate, and journalists to prepare for and cover the debate.
Growing Voters also has a “Hacking the Debates” activity which is a vehicle for students to take raw footage of a presidential debate available online and edit it into two or more competing versions of debate news coverage.
One teacher described the impact of the project: “We can do lecture notes, and I can have the kids read all they want, but unless they’re doing it I don’t think it means very much.” For example when a class creates their own “Why Vote?” pamphlet, they answer the question themselves. When they distribute that pamphlet in public, which is also part of the project, they become part of the political process and part of the democratic dialogue.
One student reflected on his experience playing a candidate in a student campaign commercial, saying it made him “more able to determine the truthfulness of what the candidates say.” He added that not only will he be ready to vote when he’s eligible but he will be able to “do the research needed to vote intelligently”.
In addition, by advocating a common ground approach to addressing differences, students have an entirely unfamiliar experience, competing to find commonalities instead of differences in political values and policies. Students actively listen to identify overlap and agreement rather than dissenting perspectives in candidate speeches.
I created and built the Growing Voters project to give teachers a way to make it appealing for students to think critically about elections and learn how to become participating citizens. We need to be the democracy we wish to see in the world.
Jo-Anne Hart, [email protected], the creator of GrowingVoters.org, is a professor of educational technology at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is also on the Board of Directors of the international peace-building organisation Search for Common Ground.