3 Strategies to Boost Civics Education – Edutopia

Socializing students for democracy doesn’t belong to one subject area: It belongs to all of us.

3 Strategies to Boost Civics Education
Shawn McCusker and Tom Driscoll on Edutopia

Edutopia recently published the newest collaboration by my partner Tom Driscoll and me. In the article we share ways to change Civics to better prepare kids to be active citizens. You can read the full article at the link below. Here is an excerpt:


Today’s students are engaging in civil discourse—constructive dialogue that seeks to advance the public interest—and activism well in advance of casting their first ballot. However, most of our current civic education practices fail to prepare students for a world where civil discourse begins the moment you have access to a smartphone and social media.

Socializing students for democracy doesn’t belong to one subject area: It belongs to all of us. Here are three strategies that you can use to foster those skills in your classroom.


Democracy is a system built upon civil discourse as the means to work out our differences peacefully, but evidence suggests that such discourse is on the decline. According to Pew Research, 45 percent of Americans report that they have stopped talking to someone as a result of their political views. When we avoid challenging conversations, we stop developing the skills needed to have them. This has been the trend in classrooms as teachers have steered away from controversial topics.

To read the rest of the article, click here. https://www.edutopia.org/article/3-strategies-boost-civics-education


Today I presented with Tom Driscoll at MASSCUE. Our session “CIVICS EDUCATION TRANSFORMED: Authentic, Student-Centered and Technology Enhanced” kicks of our sessions to promote “Becoming Active Citizens.” Here is a link to the session recording.

You can find our presentation resources here:

Link to presentation


Becoming Active Citizens

Click here to Pre-order: https://www.solutiontree.com/becoming-active-citizens.html

Despite an abundance of evidence that demonstrates the need for change. Civic education remains largely unchanged from what it was in the 1950’s. Most instruction consists of lecture and discussion, and talking about being citizens. Talk.

But the evidence is clear. Kids who learn about government by partaking in active participation int he democratic processes are more likely participate later in life, are more likely to encourage those around them to participate, and more likely to seek resolve conflicts through democratic means.

My co-author Tom Driscoll and I set out to write a book that would create a vision for what civic education could be if we took the research on what’s effective and actually put it in to practice.


Today, I am excited to announce that the result of that work, Becoming Active Citizens is available for pre-orders.

Rather than feeling relieved that the work is coming to an end, I feel like the real work is about to begin. and I’m looking forward to it.

MassCUE Civics Education Transformed: Authentic, Student-Centered and Technology Enhanced

I’m always excited to present at conferences but It is especially cool to be presenting at #masscue this you so that I can reconnect with all of my Boston people! This year I will be co-presenting with my writing partner Tom Driscoll.

Home Survival Skills and Self Care #dpvilschat 3-31-20

Here is a link to the archive of this weeks #dpvilschat archive. I hope you find something that helps you endure these very odd and stressful weeks.


#DPVILS Chat 3-17-20

I hosted the #DPVILS Chat yesterday. Topic #remotelearning

5 Tools For Supporting Project-Based Learning

This article was originally published in Digital Learning Magazine in my Column, “The Tech Savvy Classroom”


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

What Skills and Behaviors Does Your Classroom Environment Value?

There are many things that educators are called upon to teach that aren’t in the curriculum. These range from the norms of speaking, to the norms of appropriate dress and basic manners.  In recent years digital citizenships skills have been added to that list as schools address safe and healthy online behavior. This pattern often repeats itself; a new societal need appears and, willingly or not, teachers are thrust into the breach.  For example, before there were societal norms for cell phone use, teachers were some of the first to face the dilemma of “when is it appropriate to use your cell phone.”

For the classroom teacher this can be difficult because training is very rarely available to teachers in a timely manner.  This lack of training results in teachers having to do their best, acting in good faith to address pressing issues. 

So when I first saw the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report listing the top 10 skills many years ago, I truly struggled with how I could provide my students with these skills.  

Screen Shot 2020-02-26 at 11.23.36 PM

None of the skills on the list were things easily provided to students via lectures, PowerPoint presentations , or by simply disseminating information. The skills presented on the WEF list are best learned through experience.  Much like riding a bike, swimming, or learning to walk, direct instruction is not the most effective way to teach these skills. An environment that teaches these abilities in context – through first-hand experience is the key.   

Each environment, be it a jungle or a classroom, values certain behaviors and skills over others.  So what does the classroom environment that effectively teaches these skills look like? For many, the answer is a classroom built upon the principles of Project Based Learning.  A lecture on “creativity, originality, and initiative” might give students information, but a long term project aimed at solving a real-world, authentic problem will give students the opportunity to actually DO these things.  

Here it might be helpful to ask, “What skills and behaviors does a lecture-based classroom value?” Not that lecture is completely without value, but lectures and direct instruction don’t foster the skills that will be valued in the future world of work.  In the UK and the US, it’s estimated that nearly 70% of professionals work remotely at least one day of the week. The communication, problem solving and self management skills that are necessary to be successful when working from home or working remotely are natural to a PBL classroom. 

Adapting To This New Environment

Asking,  “What skills and behaviors does your classroom environment value and promote?”  can help teachers to reflect upon the type of activities they value. For many teachers, this increasingly leads them to the creation Project Based Learning opportunities for students.

Initially, when making the shift, it can be a struggle to redefine classroom rules and procedures.  Students will be doing more independent work and should have the agency to choose their focus. As they get more comfortable, it begins to feel less necessary to tightly control each moment in the classroom. With time,  as students get more comfortable with the increased independence they have gained new classroom norms begin to emerge. 

One difference is how “on task behavior” is redefined. At any given moment, a student could be doing a variety of learning activities and still be on-task.  It might take a while to get used to the fact that on task behavior does not mean 30 students all performing the same task, and that a classroom is focused and orderly even when students work looks different from student to student.  

At times, the work of sustained inquiry can be frustrating and involve multiple attempts and repeated failures.  Many teachers are forced to reconsider some basic classroom procedures. Many teachers who make this transition describe doing more to empower kids to take care of their needs.  If their stress levels ever got higher than 3 on a scale of 0 to 5, they had the right to step away collect themselves until they were ready to learn, and then get back to their work. Other discuss the need to force themselves to sit back and let the kids wrestle with ideas, rather than jumping in to provide an immediate solution when kids begin to struggle.  That can take some effort since it can go against our natural instincts.   

Schools who are looking to work on Project Based Learning might want to start by asking a pretty basic and seemingly silly question. “What is the policy for students who want to use the bathroom?” While it may seem ridiculous at first, it is actually a good way to learn how much freedom students in the building have  to make decisions for themselves. If a school is strict about bathroom procedures (which is the ability of the students to address their most basic biological needs), how comfortable will they be handing the students a measure of control over their learning needs? This freedom may vary depending on grade level obviously, but on the whole if students are not empowered to make real decisions about their learning, if they have to run every possible decision past the teacher to be sure that it is “okay,” PBL is going to struggle at your school.  

Aside from these and a variety of other procedural changes, teachers have to figure out new ways of doing things that used to be very easy in a highly structured classroom. In a more loosely structured classroom where individuals and groups of students might be pursuing different topics, along different paths and using a variety of strategies, teachers have to change up their game. 

Technology That Supports the Environment of PBL  

Technology is only one way of granting freedom to students in their learning while still offering them support while still keeping aware of their successes and challenges.  Rather than a daily quiz, create a formative assessment that can be submitted asynchronously when a student finishes a component of the assignment. In place of collecting work at the end of class, create collection points where they can submit their work and reflect on the work of others.  In time teachers who switch to PBL often feel that they have a better understanding of where students are in their learning than they ever did before. Here are just a few ways that teachers can use tech tools to create an effective environment for PBL in their classrooms. 

Flipgrid: Flipgrid (and Recap before that, RIP Recap) allows teachers to have students record brief video summaries of their progress. Because teachers can share links to Flipgrid assignments, they can be posted to Google Classroom, placed at the end of readings and documents, or added as a  pop up at the end of a Google Form. By using Flipgrid in this way, teachers are able to hear students explain. Video feedback has the advantage of letting teachers hear confidence, excitement or trepidation in the student’s voice as they answer. Beyond knowing if a student answer is right or wrong, teachers can understand what the learning experience cost the student.  Was it easy or hard? Did it cause them anxiety or cause confusion? 

Google Forms: Because Google Forms can notify a teacher when someone submits a form, it is a great way for teachers to monitor the progress of students who were working at different paces.  Using the notifications feature on the results spreadsheet, an email is sent with each new form submission. This means that a teacher can quickly respond and give feedback when student work is received. The Google Forms Branching feature also allowed me to pre-position differentiated support for my classes.  In this way, student needs can be identified and support can be offered for common misunderstandings and mistakes.  

Seesaw: Seesaw is a powerful tool for sharing class successes and failures.  Students may be working on a variety of topics, but by having students share their learning, their work and their questions to Seesaw, a teacher can connect all of that learning together, share victories, and provide meaningful support. Through Seesaw, students could share sources, ask questions and respond to each other.  Rather than needing the teacher to solve their problems, Seesaw puts students in the role of becoming experts and sharing that expertise with the class. Seesaw’s activities allow the teacher to structure learning and guide the class through difficult parts of the process. Seesaw also functions as a great tool to collect formative assessment ands includes the ability to record and share video reponses. It provides the flexibility to track progress, share successes, and celebrate the work that students are doing. 

EdPuzzle:  EdPuzzle allows teachers to create structure around online videos. (Example) It is an effective  way to point out key parts of the video, explain concepts and ask questions, as well as to check for understanding.  In this way, teachers can make sure that though they may be working independently, students never unsupported. EdPuzzle results are downloadable as a spreadsheet which helps teachers to keep track of learning or mastery of learning standards.

Padlet: Padlet is a flexible tool for sharing. Students like it because it was easy to use, easy to organize and it can hold all different types of media. Many students like to use it as notecards for research because it allows them to visually organize their work and include links or pictures.  Groups can share their working Padlet wall with the whole class so that it can be referenced and benefit others. Teachers can create an organizing template that students can copy which lets a teacher who knows that a topic is challenging to provide a variety of sources, videos, or guidelines to support students in advance.  Padlet walls are also a good way to collect and organize resources and materials that students may need.

Keep in mind that these tools are not what creates the right environment in the room, but teachers can use them to build their vision.  A first step is to consider the values at the heart of your classroom and at the heart of the work that you ask students to do. What experiences can you create to develop important skills in context?

Learning by Doing: The Power of Immersive Learning Experiences.

By Shawn McCusker

This article appears in the most recent edition of Creative Teaching and Learning Magazine.

Screen Shot 2020-01-10 at 12.12.45 PM

How did you learn to ride a bike? Or learn how to swim? Think about what that experience was like for you. Then consider how babies learn to walk. Picture any of these in your head.  

What does the lecture for learning how to swim look like? How would an effective worksheet to prepare you to ride the bicycle be structured? How do parents teach their young babies to walk when they cannot yet sit still for the “classroom portions” of the walking process. 

It’s probably not necessary for me to clarify, but all of the above is silliness because the vast majority of those who read this article will intuitively understand that swimming, riding a bicycle, and even the initial baby steps are experiences.  These are lessons that we learn by doing. In fact so much so, that often the majority of us struggle to explain them because, even though we are now good at them, they are, at least in the initial stages, more intuitive and experiential than they are lesson-based skills. 

The question here is: “Are there skills that we are currently trying teach that can be better learned through meaningful experiences?” 

Today, there are a variety of meaningful ideas, movements, and trends in education that embrace this and seek to provide students with deeper and more meaningful learning EXPERIENCES. 

Project Based Learning

PBL seeks to create an environment in which students pursue a task, driven by their passions and interests. Within pursuing those passions and interests, teachers structure experiences to meet learning objectives in meaningful ways. The resulting public products aren’t shared only with the teacher, they are meant to be shared more broadly with the community and the world. This model can seem daunting to some because the projects can be hard to contain to a class setting, and they may be harder to envision than a simple worksheet geared toward the completion of a single learning objective.   PBL has grown popular for students young and old because it creates opportunities for students to learn to “swim” more effectively through, not just the learning objective, but the challenges and obstacles that life presents us. PBL projects provide an activity with real world context while learning a concept.   

Four years ago, a group of New Hampshire fourth graders worked with their teachers to write a bill that would name the Red Tailed Hawk the official state raptor. In a shocking turn of events, a group of state legislators began to criticize, then mock the bill before ultimately voting it down while the students were present in the chamber.  The episode created a national furor eventually earning the criticism of John Oliver.  The event started a discussion about how respectful the legislature was to the concerns of citizens, even the youngest of them.  However, the story doesn’t end there. In March of this year the students, now eighth graders came together to propose a new bill, this time armed with their experience and broad public support.  

How to get started: Good PBL starts with a compelling question. One teacher challenged her 8 year olds with a project that she hoped would teach them about money, economics and their local community as well. She asked, “How can we create a successful business in our community?” They spoke with local business owners, developed a product and created a business plan, an experience far deeper that worksheets. Another teacher asked his students, “ What can we do locally to protect the environment.” Eventually the students worked to clean up a local creek and exploring ways that the community could keep pollutants from the waterway.  If you are looking to begin, PBL Works by the BUCK Institute is a great resource for information about how to plan and structure experiences.  Their project planner will help you to construct a meaningful experience of your own.  

The experience of these students is a nice transition to the idea of preparing citizens to participate in the functioning of democracy.

Citizenship Education 

It is fair to say that western democracies are experiencing some strenuous times. As a result, there has been a renewed discussion of civic education in these nations.  Are we preparing citizens to effectively participate in democratic processes? Do our citizens know how to insert themselves into the democratic processes available to them to effect change as the students above did?

Existing studies demonstrate that most Civic Education instruction currently happens in the form of content mastery and discussion.  Yet research shows that Civic Engagement is strongest amongst students who learn through active participation. The best way to learn to be an effective citizen is to BE a better citizen, rather than TALKING about being a better citizen. 

Action Civics and Service Learning are methods of creating immersive learning experiences for students to prepare them for the rights, responsibilities, and duties of citizenship.  Different than some of the older models of service (where students volunteer time within the community), these models ask students to identify problems and issues in the community and act to work towards a solution, taking action, and when necessary, accessing democratic processes to affect change.  These projects can range from seeking bike racks in public spaces, eliminating or limiting the use of plastic bags, creating service programs to support veterans, creating and marketing solar powered tents for the homeless as shelter, allowing homeless people to use mobile technology to seek jobs in their time of need, and lastly, yes, seeking a change in laws and policies.  Once again, these practices provide activities with real world context as a means to understand and master concepts. 

How to get started: You might want to start small.  Choose a project that focuses on an issue in the school or nearby community.  Ask kids to identify local issues and challenges. Identify ways that you can address the issue as a class.  Discuss who in the community might help. Reach out to local government for guidance and support. Working through the process of change in a community will not be without its challenges, but that is exactly the point.  

Virtual Reality

Another powerful trend in education is interest in augmented and virtual reality technology.  These technologies offer the ability to give students immersive learning experiences that they may have no other means to access.  Sometimes these technologies can layer support over real world experiences in real time. Virtual reality can bring students to the peak of Mount Everest and to the depths of the oceans – places that few others have been able to go. Augmented reality can allow students visiting sites like the pyramids and Stonehenge in person to add layers of information over these amazing places in order to more deeply experience and understand what they are seeing and experiencing. Immersive Journalism uses these technologies to share the news of current events in a more powerful way, combining the facts of a situation with the ability to connect with the context of the situation being reported.  

Programs like My World 360 by Digital Promise provide the technology and platform for students to create and share immersive 360 videos to tell the story of their lives. They can then share these stories with the world.  These videos are a powerful example of AR/VR technology as an empathy machine that lets us – not just walk in the shoes of another person -but also to briefly see the world through their eyes.  

How to get started: If you’d like to start exploring take a look at Google Expeditions.  There are currently 900 Expeditions available for all subject areas and ages.  Take your class on a short tour. These powerful shared experiences can allow students to see places that they might never see otherwise. If you’d like to try creating these experiences of having your students do so, it’s easy with Google Tour Creator.  Tour Creator allows you to create and publish your creations to Expeditions so that they can be shared with everyone.  

Situated Cognition

It may be unclear how these three topics: PBL, Civic Education, and AR/VR technology, fit together. Here is the common thread: all three create immersive learning experiences that provide students with SITUATED COGNITION. This concept suggests that learning happens in context and that the most powerful learning happens when we do not separate the concept we are trying to teach, and the activity that we are using to teach it from context and culture

Using our bicycle example, there are different skills necessary to ride a bike down the street, ride in a cycling class, and in the Tour de France. Each requires a different set of skills and norms; though all are riding a bike, they are not the same thing.  

The social anthropologist, Jean Lave, suggests that in order for learning to take place it must happen in an authentic environment because learning is directly impacted by the context in which it takes place. The psychologist Albert Bandura proposed that thoughtful modeling and observation of a caring community can promote positive social relationships in the future.

So take some time to reflect upon the most meaningful experiences that you provide to the students in your classes.  Is the learning SITUATED? Which lessons can provide these immersive learning experiences connected to the context and cultures in which they exist? Which or your lessons may be  presenting information absent the context in which it has value and meaning? 

If we can then give our students agency to define problems, seek out meaningful solutions, and understand the means to address them, we will do them a great service. Finally, remember, the last teaching choice someone makes when supporting a child who is learning to ride a bike is the choice to let go…and trust the child can take the next step.  


SWBT Podcast Episode 24 -Lauren Bercuson


Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is currently a popular focus for schools because evidence suggests that effective SEL improves academic learning.

How can we best teach students skills like self-awareness, self- management, empathy, perspective taking and cooperation. Today’s guest is someone who combines her love of reading and knowledge of books provide support to people trying to start conversations about challenging issues.

Whether it’s diversity, mindfulness, diversity or dealing with trauma… she has a list for you. ( Though, she also has lists about unicorns and outer space!)

Lauren Bercuson shares her work with “Happily Ever Elephants” and how to make children’s reading intentional.

Listen to Episode 24 here:


Episode 24

IETC 2019

One of my favorite Education Conferences is the IETC-  The Illinois Education and Technology Conference. It is a warm, friendly, and connected event that makes me feel close to the attendees and other presenters.  I Love this conference because it reminds me what ISTE used to be like before it got so big and impersonal. IETC is like ISTE, but with its soul intact.

This year I was honored to be a featured speaker along with a great group of inspiring teachers.

Screen Shot 2019-11-27 at 1.49.21 PM.png

I really appreciated the mini keynotes on day two that allowed several voices to be heard as well s the many chance to connect with people at social events.  Not to mention that I also ran into a former student who is now a teacher.


Often I feel like larger conferences can make it hard to truly connect with people because of their size and the pace of events.  This year at IETC I was able to truly connect with some teachers and hear their struggles and successes. I had a great conversation about mental health in education with another teacher who acknowledged that it isn’t always easy to keep up with the emotional challenges that educators face daily.  Perhaps best of all was the opportunity to meet and get to know some new people whose energy and work I admire.

Screen Shot 2019-11-27 at 1.46.31 PM.png

Thanks to Kim Darche, Lindsay Zilly and the rest of the organizers for giving your time and talent to create such a great event.