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Well-Designed Online Courses Help Teachers Master Civics Pedagogies 

CIRCLE’s evaluation of the Guardians of Democracy initiative points a way forward for making civics professional development successful, sustainable, and scalable.

For two decades, CIRCLE has studied, promoted, and partnered with school districts to implement a research-informed vision for a stronger and more equitable civic education. One key lesson from that work has been that teachers need rigorous, accessible, and supportive professional development—especially to use evidence-based practices that are quite complex, like simulations of democratic processes and informed action through service-learning in their classrooms. To that end, CIRCLE has engaged in deep, yearslong partnerships with the Illinois Civics Hub at the DuPage Regional Office of Education and with the Lou Frey Institute at the University of Central Florida to investigate and evaluate models of professional development that build teacher’s knowledge, capacity, and willingness to adopt new civics pedagogies in the classroom.

Most recently we evaluated Guardians of Democracy (GoD), an initiative to offer intensive online learning in K-12 civics instruction that would result in microcredentials certifying that teachers achieved mastery of various pedagogical approaches. We are pleased to publicly share the final report of that evaluation, which has implications for the broader question of how best to prepare teachers to educate students for democracy. This work was generously supported by the McCormick Foundation.

Background on the Initiative

The Guardians of Democracy initiative is an effort to expand access to high-quality professional learning about civic education pedagogies in K-12 schools. It began in 2019 and was able to offer high-quality virtual learning opportunities for teachers through the COVID-19 pandemic. Courses were offered on: Current and Controversial Issue Discussion (CCID), Simulation of Democratic Practices (SoDP), and Informed Action through Service Learning (IASL)—with Bronze, Silver, and Gold levels for each.

The microcredentials (also called badges) are set up so that, in the Bronze level, teachers learn the basic components of each pedagogy, its research basis, and essential recommendations for implementation. Teachers develop a plan of action that they can then implement in the classroom while they receive support during the Silver badge course. In the advanced Gold level course, teachers learn to use data from formative assessments, as well as student input and self-reflection, as tools for continuous improvement. Teachers who earn the Gold badge can also begin facilitating their own Guardians of Democracy courses with guidance and support from the staff. 

Findings and Key Takeaways

Our evaluation sought to shed light on whether and how an entirely virtual professional learning program can sustain educators’ engagement; provide them with the knowledge, confidence, and openness and willingness to employ each pedagogy; and be scalable and sustainable in the future. The study, which included both quantitative and qualitative research, was conducted between fall of 2019 to spring of 2021 and is based on surveys from 196 teacher participants, teacher comments and artifacts from the courses, virtual course observations, and interviews with course designers and facilitators.

Major findings include:

  • GoD courses helped teachers gain both knowledge about pedagogy, and self-awareness about how they teach and why. On average, teachers in the beginner courses gained an average of 10 percentage points in their civics pedagogy knowledge between the pre-test and post-test for the course.
  • The virtual courses evolved into more than “training”: it became a safe and supportive professional learning community that allowed teachers to share and learn from one another. Facilitators also pushed teachers to make active contributions to each other’s learning. The social bonds and peer-teaching that resulted from this environment allowed teachers to be authentic and often vulnerable about challenges and even perceived failures, which was essential to their development.
  • The courses helped teachers become more willing to use these pedagogical approaches in their classroom and more confident in their ability to do so effectively. In the CCID and IASL Bronze courses teachers showed growth; in the SoDP course they started out already feeling confident about employing the pedagogy and maintained that confidence throughout.
  • By emphasizing teacher accountability and an active learning pedagogy, GoD courses broke the mold of typical professional development and allowed teachers to form a simulated or context-specific idea of how that practice will unfold in reality.
  • The carefully designed courses, with concrete guidance and examples on how they can use each pedagogy, helped teachers experience a paradigm shift in their thinking about what the pedagogies can do for student learning.

These findings have far-reaching implications for the civic education field, and especially for providers and funders of professional development—whether they are seeking to expand and scale up the Guardians of Democracy project or to create their own courses and opportunities. In essence, our research helped distill some of the elements critical to the success of these and future courses:

  • An inclusive space that serves as both a community of practice and a safe environment for teachers to learn, to support each other, and to develop agency as educators.
  • A rigorous, developmentally scaffolded plan for content delivery that allows teachers to master the content and to explore how to adapt it in their classrooms—in addition to a well-curated and regularly updated library of resources that can aid implementation.
  • A well-trained and engaged team of instructional coaches to facilitate the courses, ideally with modules for new facilitators that set expectations and provide foundational knowledge of adult-learning theory.
  • To enable scale: a smart technological solution that will make program operation more efficient, and a business model that balances equity and accessibility with financial sustainability.

Preparing our teachers is the first step in preparing our students to be effective and engaged participants in democracy. We encourage all stakeholders in this field to read the full report and to heed its recommendations.

Illinois Civics Hub LogoIllinois Civics Hub Logo

Research Informed by Deep Partnerships

CIRCLE has been working closely with educators in Illinois, Florida, Massachusetts and elsewhere in the U.S. for years. For this project, our ongoing partnerships with the Illinois Civics Hub at the DuPage Regional Office of Education and with the Lou Frey Institute have been invaluable. These deep collaborations have allowed us to understand statewide civic education policies, local needs and assets, and other critical context for how civics instruction and professional development can be successfully conducted. This research would not be possible without that knowledge and deep collaboration with our in-the-classroom partners. We hope it provides a model for how evaluators should work with local stakeholders to produce impactful research that is informed by and relevant to local contexts even as it has broader implications.