A New Civic Discourse: Influencing Change Through Dialogues

Topics: Community Partnerships, Future of Learning

Post by Xiang Yu, formerly a graduate fellow in strategic foresight with KnowledgeWorks and currently a doctoral student in philosophy

New dialogues are happening among people who found it difficult to talk to each other in the past. Continued international and internal migration, an increased interest in civic engagement and new technological tools that made transparency more possible have all contributed to this shift. These dialogues are coming to have an influence on the way social institutions are set up. Decisions about social structures used to be made primarily by those higher up in the social hierarchy. Now they are more broadly influenced by the voices of the general public. As more dialogues have been happening, it has also become harder for people from different backgrounds to talk to one another in a productive way.

The idea that new dialogues would facilitate societal change is explored by the driver of change, A New Civic Discourse, in KnowledgeWorks’ 2020 Forecast: Creating the Future of Learning. This post looks back at this driver and is part of an ongoing exploration we’re doing this year.

The 2020 Forecast: Creating the Future of Learning, published ten years ago, revealed how many of our fundamental relationships — with ourselves; within our organizations; and with systems, societies and economies — were being reimagined and re-created in ways that could disrupt the status quo and challenge our usual assumptions.
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A New Civic Discourse depicted a future in which people with shared roots and identities would come together and form new communities. They would rearticulate identity and community in a global society. With new channels to voice their opinions, people would increasingly share their perspectives on what was happening and what should be happening in society. This driver of change also forecast that education would become a contested resource that engaged educitizens sought to influence.

There are connections between the drivers of change identified in the 2020 Forecast to those identified 10 years later in Navigating the Future of Learning. For instance, in the newer forecast, we explore how forces of change such as A new Civic Discourse are related to new forces of change like Civic Suprepowers.There are connections between the drivers of change identified in the 2020 Forecast to those identified 10 years later in Navigating the Future of Learning. For instance, in the newer forecast, we explore how forces of change such as a New Civic Discourse are related to new forces of change like Civic Superpowers.

The spread of civic discourse

New communities have indeed emerged as international and internal migration has continued to increase and as people have continued to build various forms of identities. In the United States, there has also been an increase in the number and the scale of civic engagement that aims to change the status quo. The Black Lives Matter movement, #MeToo movement, March for Science and Women’s March provide some examples. In education, students, parents and teachers have played an increasingly active role in evaluating practices in education such as the Common Core State Standards, which detailed what students should know in English and math at the end of each school year. These stakeholders have also started to provide open educational resources to facilitate learning for the general public who otherwise would not have access to these resources.

The 2020 Forecast asked two questions to guide readers in thinking about how educators could respond to this driver of change. In this post, we review how educators and educational institutions have responded to this driver over the past ten years.

What kinds of roles have educators and schools played in an increasingly transparent world with more bottom-up monitoring?

As grassroots educational stakeholders began to play a more active role in influencing educational practices, educators and schools responded in a myriad of ways. In one example, in response to the call for better assessment systems, many states replaced old assessment systems with new ones. The Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced assessment systems were developed to measure student progress against the Common Core State Standards. These assessment systems focused on helping students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, which are critical for college and career. In addition, some universities have replaced traditional A-F grades with alternative assessment systems. Brown University, for example, allows students to opt for a Satisfactory/No Credit grading system, as an effort to encourage students to use a portfolio of work rather than a transcript to show their academic achievements.

In another example, as student activism has been taking place across the country, schools have been trying to figure out what their role should be in this process. On paper, schools typically encourage young people to engage in activism so that they can be prepared to participate in the political system as adults. Schools take their roles to be ensuring students’ safety and ensuring that the activities are conducted respectfully. However, in some cases, schools have acted to prevent students from engaging in activism when safety and respect have not been clearly at issue. An interesting question is how schools should respond to activist efforts with potentially problematic agendas, such as racism and anti-immigration.

In addition, educators and schools have built resources to help people in their learning communities to fulfill unmet needs. InspirED, an organization run by teachers and students, offers resources to help students develop healthier school climates. At Carnegie Mellon, The Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment Lab (CREATE Lab) has created technological innovations to facilitate scientific inquiry, evidence-gathering and effective communication among citizens. Both of these examples are very relevant to the civic sphere.

KnowledgeWorks has been creating forecasts on the future of learning since 2006. In Forecast 5.0: Navigating the Future of Learning, you can read about the drivers of change for the next 10 years.
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What kinds of public, visible dialogues have educators catalyzed?

Over the past ten years, educators have facilitated a wide range of dialogues that have aimed to address issues in education. One such dialogue was #DisruptTexts, an initiative organized by teachers to challenge the traditional canon and diversify course materials. In addition, teachers around the nation have gone on strikes to make their voices heard. In Chicago, for example, teachers called for better pay and benefits, class size caps and more staff. Teachers in Chicago also drew the public’s attention to persistent problems in educational systems, such as the inequality among families from different economic and social backgrounds and how it relates to the affordable housing crisis.

In another example, leaders in higher education openly denounced Trump’s 2017 executive order that banned travelers from seven majority Muslim countries from entering the United States, also know as the travel ban. Students and scholars from these countries who had been approved to study in the United States were prevented from coming back or coming altogether. Higher education leaders forcefully criticized the travel ban for the disruption that it had caused and for its xenophobic nature.

A need for better dialogues

In summary, when faced with increased transparency and bottom-up monitoring, educators, schools and states have facilitated students’ academic progress, and in some cases, students’ ability to participate in the political system. They have also used their expertise to help citizens acquire skills that are necessary for self-improvement and the improvement of the communities. In addition, educators have catalyzed conversations around the need to diversify course materials, to solve emerging and persistent issues in education and to push against policies that were detrimental to minority students.

The changes forecast in the A New Civic Discourse driver of change are already happening. While it can be easy to voice one’s opinions, it is not always so easy to do it in a way that is conducive to social progress. Moving forward, it will be increasingly important that viewpoints be exchanged with an open mind and sound reasoning. A reluctance to set aside one’s biases and to engage in thoughtful arguments has led to false allegations and to unproductive exchanges that have only induced hatred among groups of people. This reality also accentuates the need for better education in critical thinking and respectful civic discourse for all citizens.

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2020 Forecast Retrospectives