Are you smarter than a fifth grader? It makes me wonder…

By Hans Meeder

What do you remember from your 5th grade civics class?  If you’re like me, you may not remember much, if anything. At some point in school, I did learn the basics of how our government works, and I give the credit to all my teachers over the years.  But last week, I was blown away by a group of 5th graders who put my knowledge of U.S. civics to the test.  It was a classic case of “are you smarter than a fifth grader?”

Many of the elementary schools in our county (Howard County, Maryland) participate in a project affiliated with the Center for Civic Education (http://www.civiced.org/wtp-the-program/hearings/upper-elementary) called “Simulated Congressional Hearings.”
In this program, students learn in their civics curriculum about the development of the US Constitution, how the decisions of the founders were influenced by the good and bad of the British system, as well as what wasn’t working with the first government of the U.S., the weak Articles of Confederation.  They explored the meaning and structure of our Constitution, as well as the critical Bill of Rights.  They discovered that history is not inevitable, but is put in motion by the advocacy and decisions of real people, doing their best to deal with the challenges of their own time.

But more than just learning about the Constitution, these students put their knowledge into action by becoming the “expert witnesses” for a simulated congressional hearing in which they testified about their findings to a group of adult experts who came to their school, the simulated congressional hearing.

While it sounds kind of fun, and it was, the kids took the event very seriously. They had the jitters and were very motivated to do their best and demonstrate their expertise to us, the congressional committee, while moms and dads, their teachers and their fellow students, look on with encouragement.  Every student got to be part of an expert panel.  They worked as a team, but they also had to demonstrate their personal expertise during their part of the testimony.

The students were highly engaged, very respectful, and learned an incredible amount relating to the U.S. Constitution, many details of which I personally did not really understand until I was well into my 20’s and 30’s. This activity showed me the power of real application or even a simulated scenario in the life of a youngster.

This event was a big departure from the typical day-to-day classroom experience of speaking to one familiar teacher or to a group of fellow students. I asked one of the students how this activity affected the way she learned. She confirmed for me that she and her fellow students took this activity much more seriously because it involved sharing with adults from their community.  They thought we were very important people visiting their school to hear from them!

This event confirms, once again, the importance of organizing learning so students are demonstrating what they know, and having the chance to practice their research skills, oral presentations, and thinking skills in a situation that has real meaning.

This is the kind of learning that should infuse our schools and particularly our pathways programs where students have the opportunity to develop expertise and then share their expertise with expert mentors, coaches, and judges.  There are excellent examples of this played out in Career Technical Student Organizations, and other competitions like First Robotics.  What was so great about this event was that it involved EVERY student.

We see the same type of extraordinary commitment among athletes and performing arts students who have the chance to apply their skills and knowledge in meaning-packed situations like recitals, sports competitions, and other arts performances.  These events stress both individual achievement and teamwork.

As someone who loves and values history, government, and civics, it was rewarding to see the same excitement play out for a topic – civics – that often provokes yawns and glazed-over expressions from students.

Real-world demonstrations should be the norm in every educational endeavor, including all of our pathway programs.  Yes, they take extra effort on the part of the adults who organize and orchestrate them, but the results – true engagement and deep learning – are well worth the effort!