We Can Do Better: An Immersive Technique for Civic Education

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Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger assert in the Theory of Situated Learning that social interaction in a more natural setting is crucial for effective learning. 'We Can Do Better' is a project launched in June 2009 that involved 168 mostly freshman students in the course Philippine Society and Culture at the University of Asia and the Pacific. Students were tasked to manage their respective classes like they would the Philippines if given a chance. Hence, students were assigned responsibilities in the different sectors of health, tourism, and media, among others. The project involved activities such as foreign relations, legislation, and investment and budget management. At the end of the course, students drafted an alternative roadmap for each sector with help from industry experts and off-campus engagements and interaction with citizens. The pilot phase, concluded in April 2010, saw encouraging results and challenges that are being evaluated for the project's next phase.

Keywords: situated learning, immersive technique, civic education

The author would like to acknowledge her PhilSoc students for AY 2009-2010 for helping shape the project and making it a relative success.

Introduction

Tertiary courses in citizenship, society, and culture in the Philippines are mostly conducted via traditional classroom lectures and supplemented by projects in the forms of, among others, documentaries, trips to heritage sites, and cultural activities. Although civic education in the country looks comprehensive on paper, namely its curriculum and structured implementation, the approach to its actual application leaves much to be desired.

To address the seemingly lackluster approach to civic education in Philippine schools, several projects have been initiated by various organizations in an attempt to strengthen awareness and participation among the youth. Notable efforts are coming from the Philippine Center for Civic Education and Democracy (PCCED) that conducts a modified, country-specific activity called Project Citizen on a regular basis. The project was initially developed through the collaborative efforts of the Center for Civic Education in the U.S. and the University of Asia and the Pacific in 2000. Similarly, the Ateneo School of Government (ASoG) has been spearheading Pugadlawin, a program that offers civic education training to young Filipinos and promotes effective democratic participation. Both PCCED and ASoG conduct several other projects and programs to complement the instruction of civic education and citizenship studies. For the government's part, the newly installed National Service Training Program (NSTP) is being implemented in colleges and universities as a component of a more holistic approach to promote "civic-consciousness and defense preparedness in the youth" as stated in RA 9163 signed into law by former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2002.

Despite these efforts, sentiments about the country's poor civic culture have been voiced out by observers and experts. During one of the annual seminars sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines in 2005, American diplomats opined that the snail-paced progress in the country could be attributed mainly to its inadequate civic education that results in the absence of an active and participative citizenry. Although many factors can lead to a disengaged population, I fully agree that the lack of an effective civic education in Philippine schools remains the biggest hindrance in establishing a competitive edge among the country's citizens.

To address this problem, the author proposes an approach to civic education that involves the active participation of students in managing the affairs of the state (a detailed discussion of the mechanics is presented in the latter part of this paper) through the project called We Can Do Better. The author will present findings from the pilot phase of this immersive project specifically designed for tertiary-level students which this author conceptualized with significant input from the students. The project is currently in its exploratory stage since being introduced during the first semester of the 2009-2010 academic year and is being developed with help from students who took the course Philippine Society and Culture at the University of Asia and the Pacific (UA&P).

Theoretical Framework:

Situated Learning

The We Can Do Better project was conceptualized out of the students' need for a more comprehensive approach to understanding Philippine society and culture. Opinions gathered from the students point to a common sentiment that rests on the inadequacy of approaches used in teaching civic-related subjects during their secondary education. The primary complaint was that teaching was heavily textbook- and classroom-based - too technical and could not easily be related to real-life situations and issues.

This classroom-based approach, according to Handley, et al. (2006), is the focus of the critique of Situated Learning Theory that argues against the notion that learning inside the classroom is as effective as learning in the communities of practice. The idea of situated learning rests on the belief that learning is stronger when it goes beyond the mere transmission of abstract information to the actual "co-construction" of knowledge that should take place in an actual physical and social context (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Thus, learning must involve active participation that calls for the honing of skills at the same time they are being applied especially since there is a need to interact with the environment.

In terms of the theory's application to instruction, several studies have found that situated learning approach may be used as a model of instruction (Griffin, 1995; Young, 1993). Furthermore, it views learning as 1) cannot be separated from an individual's identity and participation, 2) able to participate in different forms, and 3) "the reproduction and development of communities of practice" (Clancey, 1995).

For the purpose of this study, the Situated Learning theory is referred to in the case of the immersive project to demonstrate how learning may become more effective when facilitated through exposure to the communities of participation.

"We Can Do Better": An Immersive Project

The project was launched as a component of the civic education course, Philippine Society and Culture (PhilSoc), at UA&P. The course was offered by the Institute of Political Economy (IPE) to freshman students as an introduction to the citizenship curriculum of the university. PhilSoc is a course that offers the instruction of the history, characteristics, and functions of different social institutions in line with the philosophy of the university on the relationship between, mainly, man and God, man and the society, and the society and God in the context of Philippine culture.

As previously mentioned, the need to come up with an immersive and situated technique to the approach of civic education came from the students' desire to fully understand the course by going beyond prescribed readings and by applying theories in real life. Therefore, this author and proponent of the project came up with the initial mechanics of the project that were further honed from the experiences of the students and other personalities who were invited to join. The external participants were members of the university: faculty, administration, non-teaching personnel, and other students not enrolled in the course.

The main objective of the project is to immerse the participants by allowing them to take on roles of decision makers in the different social institutions in the Philippines. Each section was designated as a "country" which the participants had to manage for the whole semester.

The project was conducted, at its pilot phase, during the two semesters of the academic year 2009-2010. By the first semester of 2011-2012, the IPE will start offering the course to sophomore students (freshmen of 2010-2011).

Goal of the Project

The project was designed to give the participants an avenue to decipher for themselves what works and what doesn't in the current situation of the Philippines. The question given to them was, "If you were given a chance, what would you do to improve the country?"

Interestingly, following a rigorous research and brainstorming, the students answered: "We Can Do Better". Thus, the new project name was adopted to replace the simple, "Country Project".

Mechanics of the Project

Creating a Country

Participants were tasked to create a country that would approximate the characteristics of the Philippines. This included the following conditions:

Participants must create a country profile that is similar to the profile of the Philippines: geography, form of government, economy, to name a few.

The country (state) must have the same structures found in the different social institutions of the Philippines namely, government, education, religion, family, economy, and politics. The project specified these institutions into sectors such as health, tourism, media, foreign affairs, defense, and commerce, among others.

Each country must start with a national budget of One Billion in its own currency adjusted to the current value of the Philippine peso.

Country officials must be elected similar to the electoral system of the Philippines.

Participants must invite people to become their citizens.

The two countries competed with each other in enticing others to be citizens of their respective countries by presenting them with the country profile, strategies and benefits for investment and benefits of becoming a citizen. Each citizen was also provided with "start-up" money for future investments out of the national budget.

A third party, in the form of the World Bank, is available to provide loans to both countries.

Research Component

To complement classroom instruction, participants were required to conduct further research on the different sectors in the Philippines. They were required, for instance, to research the functions of the executive, legislative, and judicial. Furthermore, they were also required to research the processes, systems, and current trends and issues pertinent to the different sectors.

This involved both literature research and consultation with scholars and industry/sector experts.

Managing the Country

The Congress and the Department of Budget would allot budget to each sector of the country, mirroring the budget allocation system in the Philippines.

In order to recoup the national budget, the country would come up with projects to entice their citizens to invest. Furthermore, both countries were allowed to invite "foreign investors" by pitching their projects to the citizens of the other country.

Deliverables

Participants, specifically the president of the country, were required to organize and deliver a State of the Nation Address (SONA) for each month to update the citizens of the progress and problems of the country.

Each country was required to come up with and execute at least three community projects either on- or off-campus for the purposes of community involvement and exposure to real-life problems in the Philippines.

Each country was required to invite at least three industry/sector experts to deliver lectures on campus.

At the end of the project, students were required to draw up an alternative sector roadmap addressing the weaknesses of the current management of the Philippines and the solutions they believe can solve the weaknesses. This was made possible through the help of scholars and experts both in and outside the university who were consulted by the students.

Participants of the Study

First semester: The Pioneer Group

The first two sections involved in the project were instrumental in developing the idea of the immersive technique through their experiences executing the project and their extensive research.

Main Characters

Sixty-eight freshman students divided into two sections participated during the launch of the project. They were the "main characters" in the project who managed the two countries and the community projects.

Citizens

Almost one hundred "citizens" from members of UA&P joined the project and helped the students with their research and deliverables. Citizens came from the faculty, administration, non-teaching personnel, and some members of the clergy, and other students not enrolled in the course.

Advisers

Students were encouraged to seek advice from industry/sector experts, faculty members, friends, and relatives in coming up with projects and in managing the countries. These advisers were neither citizens nor external participants.

External participants

People who indirectly helped develop the project include recipients of different communities chosen for the outreach programs organized by the students and industry/sector experts who were invited as guest lecturers.

Second Semester: The Follow-through Group

One hundred students participated in the second part of the pilot phase. There were three classes/sections during the second semester so the second phase welcomed a third country into the project.

Two sections simply carried out what the previous two countries started. For instance, they used the same country profiles, citizens, and they executed pending projects left by the pioneer group. The follow-through group, however, did not start with one billion in national budget; they started with the amount left by the pioneer group. They also came up with new community projects.

Project Locale

The main locale of the project was at the University of Asia and the Pacific campus. Secondary locale was off-campus in the different communities where the community outreach projects were held.

Project Result/Output

Three countries were created for the project: Terramagnus, The Parliamentary Republic of Jaratungkabart, and The Republic of Konigsburg.

An Overview of the Countries

Terramagnus

At the end of the semester, the country's first administration was able to execute two of its community outreach projects: The Plant-A-Crop Project and the Feed It which were conducted in Binangonan, Rizal and at the Pangarap Learning Center in Payatas, Quezon City.

The timing of the projects coincided with Typhoon Ondoy thus, contributing to the national disaster relief efforts of the Philippine government and other organizations. Terramagnus likewise invited a guest speaker who delivered a lecture about world population at the university.

The country had 23 citizens who invested a total of 103,980,000 Freis (F; the official currency). Total foreign investment was F24 million which gave the country a closing budget of F1,012,980,000.

The second administration continued to execute several notable community outreach programs such as the Sagip Foundation and the Terrelief Project in partnership with the ABS-CBN Foundation. Bothe projects were held at the ABS-CBN Kapamilya Warehouse. At the end of the second semester, the national budget was F1.1 billion.

The Parliamentary Republic of Jaratungkabart

Jaratungkabart made a bold move of experimenting with a parliamentary form of government in approaching the Philippine culture. It is important to note that the first administration of the country suggested that they wanted to explore how it would be like for the Philippines to have a different form of government and this was a welcome challenge in the project.

The country had 28 citizens at the end of the semester with a total investment of 58 million Baryas (the official currency) and a final national budget of 104 million after expenditures. The experimental government focused its efforts on strengthening tourism to improve the economy. So much so that it fell short of community outreach programs and interaction with industry/sector experts. It did well though in its foreign relations.

The second administration, however, were more active in organizing off-campus community outreach programs such as Jaratungkabart's Book Drive at the Maybunga Elementary School in Pasig City and Freedom Wall at UA&P.

They likewise made great strides in inviting industry/sector experts to deliver lectures through the forum, Smart Youth in Action Forum: A Forum on Money, Liberal Education, and Civic Action that included lectures from two experts. Picking up from the first administration's success at foreign relations, the Tombola Festival, an international business expo was organized to encourage all three countries to exhibit their native products. The expo was held in Barangay San Antonio in Pasig City and participated in by residents of the barangay and the citizens of the countries.

The Republic of Konigsburg

The youngest country to be created was also the most aggressive and active country during the second semester. It organized an international relations activity to introduce itself to and forge ties with the two countries through the Olympic Games: Schoolympics 2010 held on campus.

For their community outreach program, the country held a teaching activity in catechism and English for children from low-income family in Marikina City. The country likewise donated goods to the White Cross Orphanage in San Juan with the goal of exposing themselves to the plight of what they called "social minorities".

For their interaction with experts, the country invited a guest speaker who conducted a seminar on the Philippine Society: How Corruption Affects You held at UA&P. Furthermore, the country organized several off- and on-campus projects that were mostly successful.

At the end of the second semester, the national budget was 1.56 Billion Galleon (the official currency). The country managed the budget quite well and even donated to the Magnites (people of Terramagnus) who were affected (albeit fictional) by two devastating typhoons.

Findings of the Study

Data gathered for this study came from the evaluation of the students on the project and from the participant observation conducted by this researcher. Four themes came out prominently in the evaluation: the concept of the project, its feasibility, the value of the project, and lessons learned.

On the Concept of the Project

Initial reactions to the project ranged from confusion, skepticism, and bewilderment to excitement and enthusiasm. At one point, one class almost opted for a written project until it was explained to them that they were part of the pilot phase and that they were to develop the mechanics as they went along.

In the evaluation, many students stated that the concept of the project was something new and heavily engaging - something that they have not experienced prior to taking the PhilSoc course. However, there were also those who suggested that the mechanics and rules of the project must be fully established before implementation to avoid confusion in the execution. Furthermore, others felt that it was too complicated and that the deliverables were "impossible to fulfill".

The initial stages of the project were very challenging especially for the pioneer group. This researcher observed that misunderstandings and fights ensued among the students because of differences in opinions on and interpretations of how the project was supposed to be conducted. The researcher was simply consulted about unresolved issues and worked at the periphery to encourage the students to hone their problem-solving skills by dealing with the issues and problems themselves.

Still, many stated that at the conclusion of the project, they realized how difficult it must be for government officials to run the country and at the same time dealing with different personalities.

On the Feasibility of the Project

Lack of time was the most common observation of the students. This is perhaps because the mechanics and organization of the project were not yet fully established and trying to figure the project out took the most time during the semester.

Inviting guest speakers and organizing community outreach programs were particularly challenging on top of conducting separate programs on campus.

On the bright side, students stated that with proper coordination, time management, and a more effective teamwork, several programs may be successfully implemented in one semester.

The Value of the Project

Many students stated that the project indeed made them appreciate and understand real-life situations in the Philippines especially when they had to organize programs themselves with very little intervention from the course instructor. It also honed their organization, negotiation, and management skills to the point that they've noticed how it made them more mature after the semester.

By making the project interactive, not just within each section but with other sections as well, students shared that the project fostered camaraderie among their batch faster than, perhaps, if the course was approached through a traditional instruction.

The students (especially the pioneer group) also felt proud that they were helping in the conceptualization of a teaching technique and that they had a certain measure of control over how they wanted to learn in the course.

Social exposure was also prominent in the evaluation. The students appreciated the opportunity to interact with industry/sector experts because it helped them learn how to approach them and pitch ideas during their freshman year. The responsibility they had to carry to make sure that they represented the university well when dealing with experts and members of the outside community was well appreciated by the students. Furthermore, the opportunity to organize outreach programs, all on their own, provided them with the harsh realities of the problems in the Philippines.

On the downside, there have been complaints regarding students who did not participate or did not fulfill their roles effectively for a host of reasons.

On Lessons Learned

The most common realization among the students is that running a country is not as easy as they previously thought - being mere observers of the affairs of the State. At the beginning of the course, the most glaring comment from the students was that the Philippine government was only one thing - corrupt. This very notion was what triggered the students in the first place to say, "We Can Do Better". At the project's conclusion, the students came to realize that so many factors contribute to how the Philippines is managed at present.

Some students (those in higher positions) also realized that managing a group of people was not an easy task. Differences in opinions, background, and adaptability among classmates were major obstacles in conducting the project. To this end, they stated that imposing ideas on people would not do anyone any good. For instance, eight citizens from the first Terramagnus defected to Jaratungkabart when the tension and misunderstandings, initially addressed through dialog, were just too great to solve.

Most importantly, the students developed their analytical and critical skills when dealing with different issues in the country. So much so that many became more media literate as they tried to decipher media messages and how news is presented in local papers as a result of the required research component of the project.

Conclusion

The project started as a simple experiment to come up with an alternative approach to civic education. It may be said that starting from scratch did not come easy to both the proponent of the project and the students. It was indeed very challenging to pitch such a project to the external participants because many questions were raised regarding the scope, the goal, and the intention of the project. The pilot phase proved that growing pains are indeed painful. For an ambitious project such as this, the challenges became greater than the expectations set during initial conceptualization. But as with any new endeavor, disappointments are very common.

In the case of "We Can Do Better", the most common opinion we received from external participants was that the project was quite interesting and relevant as its format facilitated heavy interaction with and participation of many in the UA&P community and the society. In other words, this approach to civic education is a move beyond the four walls of the classroom because the participation of the bigger society outside school is crucial for effective learning.

It interesting to note here that pioneer group, after the first semester, went on to support the follow-through group by attending the SONA held by each head of state, helping the new administration, and suggesting programs.

Overall, the project holds a great potential that can be maximized through collaborative planning among scholars, students, and other experts. The project, with the experiences of the participants, is slated to be published as a book in 2011.

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