Agile in Civics: How to Create Student Choice, Connection, & Application | Jessica Cavallaro | 7 Min Read

Over the past 20 years, social studies have diminished in traditional K-12 education. Initially, the priority was only math and reading. As STEM gained importance, the need for engineers to work with new emerging technology rocketed through schools. Science was embraced by curriculum writers and awash with state money. All the while, social studies sat on the back burner, and its time was chipped away for advisory, meetings, extra math time, etc.

This neglect of social studies left a generation of people with no knowledge of their past, their government systems, and the incredibly diverse cultures around them. Meanwhile, passionate history-loving educators have innovated and adapted to being neglected. They individually created ways to update the curriculum by struggling to cover hundreds of years of unique cultures in a single year because the standards are outdated.

For the past 15 years, I have taught civics with incredible passion. I am a true believer that power lies in the people and people must know the systems to utilize the full breadth of their power. Since social studies have been neglected for my entire teaching career, I have had more opportunities for innovation and change than most teachers in subjects that are tied to state tests. In teaching about the past, teachers help students find the application to their lives when they struggle with the content: Why learn about the Mayflower Compact when there’s so much going on right now? And to their credit, they’re right to a degree. How will students get the knowledge they need as participating citizens, who can recognize and understand the systems of power around them, as well as navigate these systems in the future to advocate for themselves?

This is the value of Agile for my social studies classroom. Instead of teaching lessons by lecture and constructing isolated lessons on past eras, my curriculum shifted to answering: “How can the past help us navigate now?” While students are not thrilled to begin the year learning about John Locke and Social Contract Theory, they are excited to recognize his core ideas in their everyday lives and identify how social contracts have shifted. When students are asked to compare revolutions to evaluate why one revolution is successful while others fail, they are not just learning history, but also applying these lessons to their world. 

Why is Agile important for Civics?

Civic engagement is essential for a functioning society, especially one that is based on the people wielding power. When civics is not well understood or people do not see its value, they lose their power to advocate for themselves. It is of utmost importance that civics and history are engaging, empowering, and rich in the skills that are necessary for people to apply to their lives.

Agile is a way for people to collaborate on diverse teams instead of being shuttered in silos, share information, adapt to new challenges, communicate in real-time, and creatively problem-solve to achieve a shared goal. Agile teams typically use Kanban boards to visually organize their workflow, be transparent, and keep communication open. To bring Agile into educational spaces means embedding these soft skills into a content-rich curriculum. 

What does this look like?

Essential Questions

Great units always begin with an essential question. Essential questions must be open-ended, so students have a voice in their learning. Open-ended questions open up a world of possibilities for students: They must explore all avenues of a question and settle on an answer that matters. Ideally, students should be intrigued by the question and use mastery of content to answer it. Open-ended questions as essential questions serve several purposes:

  • Open-ended questions create student choice. Students feel like they are answering a question, not regurgitating the answer you want. 
  • Critical thinking skills are developed because there is no right answer — only the answer that can be supported by evidence. 
  • Students build connections from the mandated content to their world. It allows ownership of learning and answers the nagging question from middle school: “When will I ever use this information?” 
  • They allow for real-world applications in which students connect the content to their lives. Each student learns the same content and may have the same question but will apply that question differently. When you ask a group of students: “How should power be distributed in a stable society?” and you get drastically different answers, the content has been personalized. 

Content Is Non-Negotiable, but Delivery can have Choice

To make a classroom truly agile is to have students pull information towards them. This is different from the traditional classroom where the teacher pushes content. To allow students more choice in their learning, content should be delivered through different modalities. Of course, there are certain documents that students must read and analyze, which are the non-negotiables in a given unit. For instance, students must read all of Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution and be able to discuss the powers of the legislative branch. Students must analyze specific political cartoons depicting the Monroe Doctrine. Choice does not mean a free-for-all. Standards and skills must still be mastered. A big part of social studies is analyzing and evaluating primary and secondary sources. This is not a choice, but there could be choices with other material: Can students choose which articles to annotate and what videos they take notes from?

Differentiation and choice are essential when teaching abstract ideas, such as the systems involved in government, like checks and balances. Not all students can “see” how the branches of government interact, so let them choose the means that make it clear to them. We know our students learn in different ways. Why not teach them to search for the best option for themselves, so they can work on building critical thinking skills and understanding the content rather than struggle through materials that do not help them? There must be a way to reach kids where they are and present content in an appealing way. 

Student choice helps students develop metacognitive and executive functioning skills. They have to evaluate what piece they will read, if the video will hold their attention, or if they understand concepts better with graphics. In many ways, isn’t this how adults learn? Do you read long passages if you need to see a new concept visually? Do you learn better with hands-on activities? These are incredibly important lessons that students can learn while mastering content. 

Collaborative Learning

What could possibly teach social contract theory or the complexity of government better than allowing middle school students to create their own learning path? This is truly exploratory learning. 

Again, this is not a free-for-all. Students are given their essential questions, then they are provided with the non-negotiables. Students are also provided with rubrics and a timeframe. All measures of success are provided and discussed upfront. There are content, skill, and time goals that must be achieved, just like in a job. 

Now it is time to step back as the leader and become the guide. In an Agile classroom, students have to use their metacognitive skills to plan their projects. My students do this on their Kanban board: they take large tasks and break them into smaller steps. They then have to negotiate who completes what and communicate the time frame based on the due date. When students begin the work, even more choices open up: How will this group choose to answer the open-ended essential questions? Can the group decide if a single government can represent the needs of all people? What ideals make revolutions successful? At this point, students stretch beyond the mandated content to draw connections to the real world. More choices open up: How will they justify their answer? Is everyone on the same page? 

This is where an Agile mindset is developed. Students collaborate, build connections, and synthesize information. Successful groups work transparently by using their Kanban board. Solutions that groups initially thought would be a slam dunk may hit major roadblocks, and students must be flexible enough to creatively problem-solve a new solution. 

While all of this is going on, one may wonder what students are really learning. They are mastering the content because they are building connections and applying their knowledge to areas they already care about. 

Civics must be taught in an engaging way that focuses on how people can get involved in the system. An overarching curriculum that is pushed from the front of the room is lost on middle school and high school kids. Students must have an interactive space where they can explore what civics means to them and how it affects their daily lives. By introducing the fundamentals of an agile classroom, we can empower kids to have choices and bring the lessons of government into their lives. The lessons must be open-ended, purposeful, and collaborative. Students deserve to learn marketable skills that are embedded in the curriculum and develop a passion for learning. 

Jessica Cavallaro

Jessica Cavallaro is the co-founder of The Agile Mind, which interweaves Agile frameworks into K-12 education. She is passionate about the benefits of project based learning and creating purposeful education to drive innovation through inquiry. She is an advocate for developing systems that give students agency. Jessica earned her Bachelor’s degree at Pace University and Master’s in Education from Mercy College.

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