Civic Education: Information Evaluation, Political Deliberation and Critical Thinking at a Federal Courthouse

Nattawan Junboonta, Doctoral Candidate, Rutgers University, nattawan.junboonta@rutgers.edu

Digital Era and Political Deliberations 

In recent years, it seems that the concept of public discourse is viewed as an ancient ritual practiced in the distant past. The ability to meaningfully speak and listen to one another is no longer trending and quick swipe at people who you disagree with are now in vogue. The current Administration does not encourage critical thinking, political deliberation and public discussion. This is demonstrated through President Trump’s obsessive use of Twitter to inform the public of the Administration’s political stand, communicate public policies and key political decisions.

Ott (2017) notes that short posts and political links on social media platforms cannot facilitate critical conversations and that it is impossible to deliberate political, social and economic information on social media sites. He posits that:

These activities do not foster reasoned public deliberation among people of diverse backgrounds and experiences; they produce a uniformed, uncritical, and irresponsible electorate. And, let’s be honest, such activities are not really even about

This essay is part of the Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List

trying to share information; they’re self-interested performances undertaken to project a particular political image of oneself. (p.65)

Despite the limitations of social media and online platforms to deliberate information, it is worth noting that the use of internet and social media is popular among young people. According to 2018 Pew Research Center Report, approximately 95% of teenagers have access to a smartphone, and 65% say they are online ‘almost constantly’ and that 32% of teenagers report that they use Twitter. In a 2017 survey conducted between January 10 to January 22, 2017 based on 853 children age 10 to 18 in the United States, Common Sense Media reports that 49% of teenagers say that they receive news from social network platforms while 47% say they get their news from family. Although many teenagers are being exposed to political, social and economic information online – especially from social media platforms, many are not equipped with the knowledge and skills to sort and evaluate the credibility and legitimacy of their news sources.

Civic Education: Information Evaluation, Political Deliberation and Critical Thinking

In a digital era where there is an overabundance of information, the task of sorting and evaluating information becomes much more difficult especially for young people. How can teenagers and young adults differentiate legitimate information from fake news and articles that purposely distort information? This dilemma leads Judge Robert A. Katzmann of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to launch a circuit-wide civic education initiative – Justice For All: Courts and the Community in 2014. The main goals of the Justice For All Initiative include fostering a positive relationship with the community we serve and increasing public understanding of the roles and operations of the court system. Through this Initiative, the Second Circuit offers civic education programs to community members. These programs are designed with high school students and young adults in mind.

One such program is legal information research where young people learn how to evaluate different websites and social media posts focusing on U.S. Amendments and court cases. During the 2017-2018 academic year, one of the civic education programs focused on the Fourth Amendment and used MacWade v. Kelly 460 F.3d 260 (2d Cir. 2006) as the central case study. This court case focused on the constitutionality of NYPD searches of large containers and backpacks that are large enough to conceal and carry explosive devices of subway passengers prior to their entering the subway transit system. The lesson starts with basic government information – the three branches of government and the checks and balances. After the explanation of the structure of the court system, students are asked if they have ever been searched by NYPD inside a NYC subway station or if they have seen NYPD search tables at a subway station. More importantly, we ask if such a search is permissible under the Fourth Amendment. In order to answer this question, we ask students to perform web searches using a search engine. Students are introduced to different research techniques to narrow down their search results. These techniques include Boolean searches: using “quotes” to search for an exact phrase; using (parenthesis) to create a more complex search results; using AND to include two or more terms; using OR to widen the search with multiple keywords; and using NOT to exclude a specific keyword from the search results.

The lesson also introduced students to the CRAAP test developed by California State University, Chico to assess the credibility of their sources. CRAAP stands for Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy and Purpose. Students are then introduced to the MacWade case for their first legal research activity. In this activity, we ask students to work in pairs and search for two resources that they think would be helpful when doing research on the prompt “Is it justifiable for police officers to set up random subway station check points in order to inspect containers large enough to conceal and carry explosive devices?” This activity encourages students to think about the scope of the Fourth Amendment and what constitutes reasonable and unreasonable searches and seizures. Students are reminded to evaluate their web resources using the CRAAP test. Then we ask students to generate a word cloud by submitting their keywords searches to us via www.polleverywhere.com. This active learning is a vital component of our civic lesson as students become active participants in the learning process (Asal, Jahanbani, Lee, & Ren, 2018; Hertel and Millis, 2002; Pettenger, West, & Young, 2014). We ask students for the rationales behind their keywords and the effectiveness of their search results. We debrief the activity by asking students to share the two online resources they selected and why. The debrief activity helps students to better understand the legitimacy and credibility of the sources they identified. We also encourage students to think about sources that may appear credible but in truth are not.

In addition to the word cloud activity, we also use polleverywhere to poll students on the constitutionality of NYPD’s searches of large containers and backpacks of subway riders prior to entering the subway transit system three different times throughout the course of the lesson. After the final poll, we facilitate a discussion on students’ positions regarding the MacWade case and deliberate on the scope of the Fourth Amendment. Students’ discussions are a vital part of our civic education as they allowed students to think critically about online information and the constitutionality of the MacWade case.

Through the Justice For All Initiative, the court hopes to demystify the judicial branch and creates a civic education program that cultivates critical thinking skills (Nussbaum, 2006) on complex political and judicial issues and nurtures the ability to deliberate information from multiple points of views (Dryzek, 2002; Enslin, Pendlebury, & Tjiattas, 2001; Levinson, 2002; Rubin and Giarelli, 2013). Political dialogues and deliberations are important skills in a world where diverse political, social and economic ideas and perspectives exist in close proximity. We believe that critical thinking through political dialogues and deliberations have the ability to combat distorted information by arming young people with the skills to respectfully analyze and evaluate different forms of information and ideas for biases and authenticity. Political dialogues and deliberations also allow young people to exchange new ideas and to gain new perspectives on a given topic. We hope that through our civic education program and through the legal information research lesson, young people will be better equipped to evaluate information for credibility and authenticity; and that the next time they go on social media platforms they are more likely to spot fake news and are less likely to pass on false information.

References

Anderson, M., & Jiang, J. (2018). Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2018/05/31/teens-social-media-technology-2018/

Asal, V., Jahanbani, N., Lee, D., & Ren, J. (2018). Mini-Games for Teaching Political Science Methodology. PS: Political Science & Politics, 51(4), 838-841.

Common Sense Media. (2017). News and America’s Kids: How Young People Perceive and Are Impacted by the News. Retrieved from https://www.commonsensemedia.org/sites/default/files/uploads/research/2017_commonsense_newsandamericaskids.pdf

Dryzek, J. S. (2002). Deliberative democracy and beyond: Liberals, critics, contestations. Oxford University Press on Demand.

Enslin, P., Pendlebury, S., & Tjiattas, M. (2001). Deliberative democracy, diversity and the challenges of citizenship education. Journal of philosophy of education, 35(1), 115-130.

Hertel, J. P., & Millis, B. J. (2002). Using simulations to promote learning in higher education: An introduction. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Levinson, M. L. (2002). Dilemmas of deliberative civic education.

Meriam Library. California State University, Chico. (2010). Evaluating Information Applying the CRAAP Test. Retrieved from https://www.csuchico.edu/lins/handouts/eval_websites.pdf

Nussbaum, M. C. (2006). Education and democratic citizenship: Capabilities and quality education. Journal of human development, 7(3), 385-395.

Ott, B. L. (2017). The age of Twitter: Donald J. Trump and the politics of debasement. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 34(1), 59-68.

Pettenger, M., West, D., & Young, N. (2014). Assessing the impact of role play simulations on learning in Canadian and US classrooms. International Studies Perspectives, 15(4), 491-508.

Rubin, B. C., & Giarelli, J. M. (2013). Civic education for diverse citizens in global times: Rethinking theory and practice. In Civic Education for Diverse Citizens in Global Times (pp. 19-24). Routledge.

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