Innovating Civics Education

Thomas Jefferson once said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. An informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy.” Universal and timeless, Jefferson’s sentiment is especially relevant to our republic today.

In a renewed focus on promoting civics education within the United States, students, teachers, and communities across the country are finding innovative ways to improve the quality of instruction, with the intent of cultivating the next generation of both leaders and involved citizens. Here are just a few examples of how they’re doing it.

Simulating the Democratic Process

A Junior Achievement program called BizTown® provides the opportunity for students to participate in a simulation of the democratic process. BizTown is a scaled-down city built for kids and designed to model many communities in America. It includes a bank, a medical clinic, television station, public utilities, and even a city hall. The simulation allows students to learn about voting in real-life scenarios as they take on active citizenship roles, such as business owners, consumers, and elected officials.

In Tucson, AZ, fifth graders from Senita Valley Elementary School use an 18-hour classroom program to introduce economic fundamentals, such as banking procedures and economic terms. Students then work together to raise money to pay for their virtual trip to BizTown. Upon arrival, the students engage in a democratic process to staff jobs and choose public officials required to run the town. They elect a mayor, appoint a CEO for each business, and pay taxes for the town’s public programs. Also, elections are held for sheriffs and judges. If a rule is broken, the offending party can hire a lawyer and present a case before one of the elected judges.

Senita Valley Elementary’s principal, Connie Erickson, says of the program, “All of our kids look forward to 5th grade and the BizTown experience.… We are always encouraging our kids to think about what they are doing for themselves, their community, and their world.”
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Leveling the STEM Playing Field

This blog was exclusively written for victoryprd.com by: Jarrah Bulton

STEM Education Today

Why is there a lack of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers? A graph shared by The Atlantic shows that only 25% of STEM graduates in the United States are women. Educators are working to address this issue and encourage more females to pursue these careers.

A scatterplot of countries based on their number of female STEM graduates and their Global Gender Gap Index (y-axis), a measure of opportunities for women (Psychological Science)

Throughout history women have excelled in various fields of science. Some of the biggest names in STEM are women. From Marie Curie’s discovery of radioactivity to Esther Takeuchi’s achievements in reengineering batteries, women’s contributions in STEM fields have improved the way people live today. However, this history of women in STEM has often not gotten the attention it warrants in educational materials. This is starting to change.

California now has a law that requires textbooks and materials to recognize the full range of diversity among the ranks of scientists who have influenced the many different fields of science. In a recent project for the state of California, Victory developed short biographies of prominent scientists, including women, members of the LGBTQ community, and those who had physical disabilities. The biographies allow more students to see themselves reflected in textbooks and, it is hoped, to be inspired to pursue careers in science or technology. This recognition is important because it breeds a culture of active learning, student empowerment, and equal job offerings all over the world.

Another barrier that has kept women out of STEM fields is the belief that women don’t have the intellectual capacity to work in STEM. There are no current studies, however, that can demonstrate that male and female brains function differently. This essentially eliminates gender difference as a reason to discourage women from pursuing careers in STEM. The case then lies in our educational systems and how they present topics to their students.
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Assessing Personalized Learning

As the student population in the United States has grown more diverse, educators have looked for more effective ways to handle the growing diversity in the academic and language needs of their students. Personalized learning—tailoring instruction to each student’s unique needs and learning preferences—is one approach that is getting a lot of attention.

Since 2012, 15 states have implemented policies to support personalized learning, ranging from waiving regulations to setting up innovation zones. But how have schools implemented personalized learning?

In its implementation, personalized learning has taken a multitude of forms. Schools are taking very different approaches in how the curricular materials are used, how the classrooms are organized, how the data are used to group students, and how “mastery” of subject matter is defined.

The Benefits of Personalized Learning

The common elements shared by personalized-learning models are a greater focus on meeting individual student needs and, to a lesser extent, keeping students on pace with grade-level standards. The benefits of focusing on the individual student are:

  1. Students can work at their own pace on different subjects in the same classroom without impacting the learning of their peers. This allows a student to take the time to fully review and master a concept before moving on.
  2. Learning gaps can be closed between students when each student gets customized instruction. All students now have the ability to work at their highest personal level of achievement.
  3. Teachers and students are more fully engaged in the learning process. Students’ self-directed, independent learning allows teachers to have more one-on-one interactions with students. Teachers can take the time to talk with students, determine where they are academically, and tweak their learning plans so they can achieve maximum results.

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Innovative Classroom Strategies

Innovation is a hot topic in education, and teachers are constantly being asked to be innovative in their classrooms. But what exactly is classroom innovation?

In her recent blog post on innovation in education, Beth Holland describes innovation as “something that is not only novel and an improvement, but also impactful and meaningful.” For her, innovation in education means, “students have the opportunity to assume new roles and responsibilities as active learners; that they participate in meaningful, authentic learning opportunities; and that they wrestle with complexity.”

Here are some innovative techniques teachers are using to change the dynamic of the classroom and more actively engage students in their learning:

Promoting Learning via Flexible Spaces

Shifting around the furniture in a classroom, coupled with a reorganization of the space is an easy way to enable more creative thinking and deeper engagement. Long Island’s Baldwin schools are successfully using this technique to bring more innovative instruction to the district.

Interested teachers submit an application outlining their instructional goals and the classroom design needed to support them. When an application is accepted, a classroom is developed to meet the needs of a specific teacher and their students. The result is that every redesigned classroom in the district looks different.

Ann Marie Lynam, a seventh-grade social studies teacher in the district, needed a multi-functional classroom with a mobile layout to address the diverse needs of her students. Her redesigned classroom has no front, everything is on wheels, and students have a number of different seating options:

  • A raised, kidney-shaped table that seats six for small-group teaching
  • Classroom desks arranged in groups to facilitate discussion on class assignments
  • Students’ choice of either a comfortable ottoman or sofa when working in a small group.

Lynam was blown away by how the redesign impacted student interaction. The room setup encouraged conversation, and students who never spoke up were now talking animatedly with classmates. The group seating created a situation in which students could serve as a resource for one another.

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Is Automaticity a 21st-Century Math Skill?


Regardless of our age, we all share a common rite of passage in early education— the mastery of math facts. Although the way we practice math facts has changed over the years, we all remember doing them over and over again. For me, it was learning the multiplication tables by using physical flash cards, a task I often found rote and boring, and which I believed had no merit whatsoever. “Put a damper on my creativity,” I thought years later. Little did I know I was developing automaticity, a foundational skill critical to my future success not only as a learner but also in the workplace.

Automaticity is the ability to perform skilled tasks quickly and effortlessly without occupying the mind with the low-level details required to do it. Automaticity is attained through learning, repetition, and practice. In math, students have attained automaticity (also known as math fact fluency) when they can easily retrieve basic facts from their long-term memory in all four operations (+, −, ×, ÷) without conscious effort or attention.

Why Is Automaticity Making a Comeback?

Research has shown that automaticity is a building block for mastering higher-level math concepts. It helps students avoid math anxiety, and it is a significant predictor of performance on standardized tests. Fact retrieval speed as a predictor of performance is not limited to test items that directly assess computation skills; it also predicts performance on more conceptual problems that require students to solve word problems, interpret data, or exercise mathematical practices.

Automaticity is essential to turning basic skills into tools for future learning, which creates an independent learner who is self-confident and successful in his or her studies. Researchers see the difference between a struggling learner and an independent learner not just as the mastery of a skill but also the speed or fluency with which the skill can be performed.

If a child can’t automate a basic skill or has little fluency, he or she will experience limited success in quickly mastering new skills. This will cause ongoing frustration over the time it takes to accomplish a task and distracted learning. Having to think consciously about basic skills while doing a higher-level task results in a cognitive conflict that leads to fatigue. It can also cause a downward spiral where a learning problem can turn into an attention problem that then becomes a behavior problem. Continue reading

Update on State Textbook Adoptions

As key states enter another round of adoptions, much of the market is in flux. The conflict over implementing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), along with policy changes and the growing interest in digital content and new types of instruction are affecting the decisions that state education departments and schools are making about their instructional materials. States must decide what to adopt (textbooks, supplemental programs, digital products, or a combination of materials), while publishers need to determine what best practices and content states demand, including what standards to align to.

When the Common Core was first developed in 2010 to level the education playing field, it was adopted by forty-six states along with the District of Columbia and four U.S. territories. Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia did not adopt the CCSS. By the fall of 2017, ten more states dropped out (Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia) with a major standards rewrite or replacement, while Minnesota chose to adopt the Common Core only in English Language Arts.

Though thirty-six states are still using the CCSS, it is difficult to determine how uniform the application of the standards is across all the states. It is also not clear whether the revised standards that states are developing differ significantly from the Common Core. Interestingly, most of the states that never adopted the CCSS or later repealed them are also textbook adoption states. To further complicate the situation, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced in a recent speech that Common Core is dead at the U.S. Department of Education.

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A Recipe for Personalized Learning

As EdTech trends continue to evolve, learning companies are looking to develop additional tools and platforms that extend and emphasize personalized learning. Personalized learning products tailor instruction to each student’s unique needs and learning preferences through face-to-face teaching, technology-assisted instruction, and collaboration.

Victory builds successful personalized learning programs because we share the same goal as you: to help each and every student learn. Clients come to us with a range of technology projects, including:

• Immersive UI/UX design
• Mobile and web apps
• Online courses
• Platform development
• Web services integration
• Software maintenance

Creating personalized learning products is not an easy task. To develop successful personalized learning programs, Victory assembles teams that are proficient in instructional design and in integrating appropriate technology tools matched to each subject area. Our goal is to develop products that meet customer needs and improve both the user experience and the overall program effectiveness.

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A Three Dimensional Learning Task

In many recent projects, we have taken on the challenge of developing three dimensional learning tasks and lessons. We often start with a close reading of the NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards). The instructional designers then meet with subject matter experts to design a task with learning outcomes that measure specific performance expectations. In the example below, the task was designed to meet these three dimensional learning goals.

We have already blogged about using the PhET Skate Park simulation to develop a performance task. We decided to take another stab at it, as a proof of concept for a three dimensional learning task. This task is a bit more challenging than our first one.

Please watch the video and then try the performance task. We’d love to hear your feedback!

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EdTech and the Future of Education

Interview with Haris Papamichael (Part II)

This is a continuation of our interview with Haris to get his take on how technology is impacting education today.

As the Director of Educational Technology at Victory, Haris oversees all the educational technology projects at Victory from concept definition through planning and release. In order to best deliver quality products to learning companies, Haris stays on top of the constantly changing technology trends.

Rebecca: Currently many states and districts have requirements for online courses. How do you think this will impact the concept of “school”?

Haris: There will certainly be greater emphasis on online learning, as each year we’ve seen an increase in the number of online learning courses. That is no longer just a trend within higher education. Teachers are growing more comfortable acting as a facilitator. This means that there will be more collaboration and independent learning programs as students are allowed to plot their academic course of study.

The traditional role of the teacher will not disappear. Although traditional teaching, or direct instruction, is still a predominant model, there are now many alternative instructional methods, such as flipped classroom, blended learning, project based, and constructive to name a few. I think technology is a big component and driver of all of these different methodologies.
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The Impact of Technology on Teachers, Students, and Instruction

Interview with Haris Papamichael (Part I)

We recently sat down with Haris to get his take on how technology is impacting education today.

As the Director of Educational Technology at Victory, Haris oversees all the educational technology projects at Victory from concept definition through planning and release. In order to best deliver quality products to learning companies, Haris stays on top of the constantly changing technology trends.

Rebecca: What are the most urgent problems we face that could be solved with educational technology?

Haris: Looking at the landscape of education, I have been consistently seeing issues with overcrowded classrooms, supporting creative teaching, and keeping students engaged. Each of these is a complex issue, but the solutions all can be enhanced with educational technology.
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