Could AI Give Civics Education a Boost?

When longtime educator Zachary Cote first read about the release of ChatGPT about 15 months ago, he says his first instinct was to be “concerned” about its impact in the classroom, worried that students might simply ask the AI tool to do work for them.

He still has that concern, but as he stepped back to think about it, he also saw a way to “leverage” the tool for a goal he had long fought for — to help bring social studies education, and especially the teaching of civics, to broader prominence in the nation’s schools.

Cote is the executive director of Thinking Nation, a nonprofit devoted to improving social studies education, and he saw an application for generative AI in the work of his organization.

He has long argued that U.S. schools have “deprioritized” the teaching of civics and social studies, in favor of pumping resources into mathematics and STEM fields. One reason for that, he argues, is that it’s easier to measure how much students are learning in math and science by using standardized tests that can be quickly graded by machines. It’s just more complex and time consuming, he says, to gauge how much a student has learned about, say, how to weigh two competing views of a historical event in an essay assignment.

For years Thinking Nation has set up a system where it paid educators to give feedback on assignments for teachers, based on a rubric, to make it easier for those teachers to assign more nuanced social studies assignments. But Cote saw that now an AI chatbot can be trained on the same rubric to instantly give the same kind of feedback.

“Now all of a sudden, without asking teachers to give up their weekends to grade,” he says, “we can give all that information to the student and teacher within seconds.”

So the organization has built AI essay grading into its platform, which gives detailed reports on each essay reviewed, scoring aspects like how well the student used textual evidence and how well they used “historical thinking.”

It might seem counterintuitive that the same technology threatening to hinder student learning might be used to boost it. But even though Cote agrees that human grading is superior to what a bot can do, the reality is that teachers don’t have time to grade the number of essay assignments he thinks is really necessary to get kids fluent in the knowledge and critical thinking skills they’ll need to be effective citizens in our democracy.

“It’s really contingent on hours of the day and human buy-in,” he says. “But if I can get rid of those barriers, now I can really shift that paradigm and I can make it just as convenient for a teacher to give a robust essay assignment with high depth of knowledge and deep thinking as I could a multiple choice [test].”

That, he hopes, can bring about a shift in focus, from teaching content in subjects like history to teaching critical thinking skills that students can apply to any set of information they encounter.

Cote is not alone in pinning hopes on AI to help the teaching of civics. Rachel Davison Humphries, senior director of civic learning initiatives at the Bill of Rights Institute, hopes that AI-assisted essay grading will give teachers more time to try the kinds of interactive lessons her organization supports in schools.

“One of the activities that we do is the classroom constitution,” she says, “where from the minute the students come together as a new community, you walk in and you say, ‘How are we going to govern ourselves?’”

She says it’s those kinds of activities, rather than a focus on just learning a set of facts, that give students skills they’ll need as citizens.

“We need to know things, but we also need to have the opportunity to practice the skills of negotiation, the skills of engagement, the skills of give-and-take that happens in conversation,” she says.

Both educators hope that teaching critical thinking and how to analyze historical events will shift the conversation away from culture war arguments about whether and how to teach controversial topics.

“By shifting social studies to a disciplinary-first approach — where content is a means to an end — that really elevates student voice and empowers them to feel like they can engage with the content,” Cote argues. “When students read two competing versions of the past, and they have to make meaning of it with these analytical questions through evidence, they feel like they have a voice, and they realize that it’s not just the good perspective versus the bad perspective, but it’s nuanced. It’s complex.”

And since AI seems sure to impact democracy — case in point, concerns about AI-generated misinformation circulating during the current U.S. presidential election — Cote argues that it’s a good time for social studies educators to be grappling with potential uses of the latest chatbot technology. In that vein, he recently served on a working group that produced a report about “Education, Democracy, and Social Cohesion in the Age of Artificial Intelligence” laying out some benefits and risks of AI in civics education.