Cox’s education adviser says new tech partly to blame for uncivil civic conversations

February 23, 2021

“Many of those who participated in civil disagreement over the last year are decades past their last social studies course or civics lesson,” says Brittney Cummins, the education adviser to newly elected Gov. Spencer Cox, about civics education today. “In that time, I don’t think we made a conscious or deliberate plan of how to incorporate new technology into our civic conversation.”

It’s becoming clearer all the time that critical thinking, civility, and social media – especially in today’s world – are all part of what a robust civics education would prepare students to navigate.

The year 2021 brought with it a new governor and administration, including Cummins, a former member of the Utah State Board of Education.

Sutherland Institute’s education fellow, Christine Cooke Fairbanks, interviewed Cummins about her new role in the Utah education policymaking world.

Here is the interview in full.

Fairbanks: What are the key education priorities that you plan to focus on as Gov. Cox’s education adviser?

Cummins: Students across Utah come from a variety of backgrounds. They live in rural homes miles from their friends or in densely populated apartment complexes. Some have families where resources are abundant and others struggle to get by. However, it is my experience that all kids have big dreams for the future. One of education’s purposes is to create an accessible path to their personal successes. As noted before, that path is not the same for each student. I am excited to work with Governor Cox as he prioritizes students’ access to quality education.

There are some amazing things going on in our state. Joining with the many who are engaged in this work, I look forward to finding solutions to assist all students as they go after their dreams. Some current opportunities include: reconsidering our funding models to ensure they are focused on student needs; ensuring that every student is in a classroom where a teacher feels fulfillment, creativity and accomplishment; and providing families with sufficient resources to prepare their young children for the first day of kindergarten.

Fairbanks: Since the COVID-19 pandemic is still impacting schooling in the state, what is the most important step that the governor’s office plans to take to continue to support families and schools?

Cummins: It has been a difficult year for many, especially for those who have lost loved ones or who are struggling through feelings of isolation. We need to have opportunities to connect again. One of the most important things the governor’s office is engaged in right now is getting our state vaccinated. The sooner we are able to accomplish this important task, the sooner we can get back to classrooms, graduations, work and so much more.

Fairbanks: With the breakdowns in informed civic engagement that we’ve seen with things like riots in Washington, D.C., and other major cities, are the current K-12 standards in social studies and civics adequate to preparing students to become responsible citizens in America? Why or why not? 

Cummins: I think we have good standards; they capture our history, they provide opportunity for personal reflection, they encourage students to engage in civic learning and participation. I don’t know what has led to the lack of civility in our country, but I wonder if what we need is practice with the new tools we now use to communicate.

Cell phones and social media have become so ubiquitous that I think we forget how new they are and how quickly we adopted them. Many of those who participated in civil disagreement over the last year are decades past their last social studies course or civics lesson. In that time, I don’t think we made a conscious or deliberate plan of how to incorporate new technology into our civic conversation.

I think all of us need lessons in how to communicate using current technology where we no longer are seeing each other in the eye when we talk. Empathy and understanding are necessary for any society to stay peaceful. We can only gain those things if we take a moment to get to know each other. Maybe it isn’t our social studies standards that need adjustment, but our media standards, as we learn to navigate a world filled with information, misinformation and screen time.

Fairbanks: Prior to your service as the governor’s education adviser, you served as a member on the Utah State Board of Education. What do you wish people understood about the work of the board?

Cummins: The State Board of Education provides a great vantage point to see the amazing innovations and practices moving across our state and to help to guide that focus. As a group, it isn’t always easy to identify the best path forward. Like all opportunities to implement democracy, the conversation can get a bit messy.

However, the one thing I left the board knowing for sure is each member of the State Board of Education that I served with has a deep love for the children of Utah. Even in debate on specific policy, you can hear each member’s dedication to improving opportunities for our students.

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