School of Education expanding civics education exchange

Two Indiana University School of Education professors are in Cape Town, South Africa, this week to attend the “Civitas World Congress” and continue discussions about a growing new partnership for civic education with Malawi and India.

Terry Mason, professor of curriculum studies and director of the Center for Social Studies and International Education at IU Bloomington, and Rob Helfenbein, assistant professor of teacher education at IUPUI, are attending the conference, which is designed for both international and U.S. participants to share best practices in education for democracy programs.

The Civitas International Education Exchange Program is a project funded by the U.S. Department of Education to pair educators from Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Africa, Asia and Latin America with their counterparts from 28 U.S. states to promote civic education. The IU School of Education became involved with the very first exchanges in 1995.

Last week, a delegation from India and Malawi spent several days in the United States, stopping in Washington, D.C., for Congressional office meetings and the U.S. Department of Education, then attending a conference on civic education and holding individual meetings at IU Bloomington. The trip followed Mason and Helfenbein’s visits to India and Malawi in December. One of the activities of the partnership is to assist educators in India and Malawi with the implementation of “Project Citizen,” a school program in which students examine public policy issues in their communities.

“The purpose of the partnership is to create school programs that promote active citizenship on the part of students,” Mason said. He added that Indian educators are trying to equip students to take on the pressing concerns facing the huge nation. “In India, we saw that Project Citizen is very well established in a number of schools,” he said. “What they lacked was a means of really documenting the effect that this was having on the students’ understanding of citizenship and their acquisition of communication, problem solving and critical thinking skills. We are helping them devise ways to do this,”

Education about democracy is particularly important in Malawi, where one-party rule ended only 15 years ago and political corruption and deadlock have hampered growth. “The material conditions are really challenging,” Mason said. “They just don’t have the resources for the students to carry out and present their Project Citizen work.”

During their visit to IU, members of the delegations from the two countries acknowledged the challenges, but noted the possibilities they have observed in their experience with Project Citizen. “Democracy has good tendencies,” said Joseph Matola of the Malawi Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. “One of the tendencies is human rights. The other tendency is recognition that you should be responsible for other people in the society. Educators in Malawi, India and the U.S. continue to seek ways to get students to understand these ideas and to act in accordance with them.”

Meera Balachandran, the coordinator for India’s Civitas program describes Project Citizen as “one project where all the subjects get integrated and something really happens out of it,” Balachandran said. “It’s not just academic learning.”

She cites several examples of student projects that have made a difference. Balachandran said students have conducted Project Citizen efforts that have included bringing attention to the problem of female feticide — the killing of unborn female children by some families who don’t want girls. In another project, students pressed local government to release money designated building toilets for villagers’ homes. Other students worked to preserve centuries-old monuments in Delhi, even teaching residents of local slums how to care for them.

“These are little examples of how Project Citizen has really made children very conscious,” Balachandran said.

Balachandran and her Malawi counterpart, Misheck Munthali, are attending the Civitas World Congress as well. Mason said he’ll meet with them in Cape Town to discuss future exchanges and partnership activities.

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