Scene 13: Millie and Angel

In which Millie Rossini and Angel Jackson, age 12, learn about their state’s government.

Moral reasoning will be center stage when kids are taught about government.

"My dad is Socialist and my mom is Libertarian," asserted Millie, Lou Rossini’s little sister.

Her friend Angel looked up at the ceiling. "Um, I think my mom and dad is, are Global."

"I'm Socialist," Millie went on. "Because I think the government should be more fair to everyone. So does my dad."  She clicked on a button to continue the lesson.

The two girls were standing in front of the computer, which could see both of them and had adjusted its algorithms accordingly. The lesson was in the style of a Socratic dialogue that alternated between presenting information and posing simple questions to the girls. The voice simulator was enabled (the girls had picked "Miss Trudeau's" voice); so also was voice recognition. The girls, through experience, knew which things made more sense to request verbally.

Miss Trudeau's enthusiastic synthesized voice went on:

"So, some of your parents' taxes go to the North Carolina government, and some go to the United States federal government." A diagram unfolded as Miss Trudeau spoke. "The two governments cooperate with each other, but they each take care of different things. Can both of you think of examples of what our governments do for us?"

Millie and Angel

"Police! Roads!" barked out Millie. Both words appeared on the screen with a green check mark. There was a pause, then Miss Trudeau responded, "That's right, Millie. How about you, Angel?"

Angel paused, and then mumbled, "I don't know."

Miss Trudeau gently persisted. "How about these, Angel? Does the government provide any of these?" A list appeared:

  • armies for national defense
  • factories
  • health care for old people
  • schools

Angel looked at Millie and smirked, as though to signal how trivially obvious the correct answers were. "Armies for national defense," she said sullenly. The program silently took note of Angel's posture.

The main agenda of the lesson was to talk about health care, and so the program gradually led the girls from a "warm-up" dialogue about government benefits in general towards the basic function of the health care system in particular. Though it was a bit dry, the girls found the interaction engaging enough to hold their interest.

"So, North Carolina's state government spends about 4 billion dollars a year on health care, which is 41% of its budget. Do you think 4 billion is too much? Not enough? Just right?"  Five choices flashed across the screen:

  • too much, because, our state government spends too much
  • too much, because, so many medical services are wasteful
  • just right, because, our best experts have decided the right amount
  • too little, because, so many people don't get enough treatment
  • too little, because, healthier people are happier and more productive

The two girls took a minute to digest this, and then Millie stated, "Too little, because so many people don't get enough treatment." Angel quickly chimed in, "I think, too little, because healthier people are happier and more productive."

The computer placed Millie's name next to the fourth option. Next to the fifth, it displayed "Angel – yes?", to which Angel responded, "Yes," and the question disappeared. "Good," began Miss Trudeau. "Now, Angel, many people think that—"

Millie broke in, "I think that the government should help more people, because there's lots of poor people who get sick and they should be able to go to the hospital as much as rich people. It's not fair if someone's sick and they might have to quit their job and they might even die but the government doesn't care, it just says we can't help and you're on your own." The little speech was partly directed at the computer, partly at Angel, and partly at an enthusiastic imaginary audience.

The program decided to hang back, and it merely displayed a button, [_Continue with Lesson_]. Angel spluttered, "I think both…" Millie looked encouragingly at her, and so Angel continued, "It's both. Because if people are healthy then they're happy, and then there's less bad stuff in society… And they can make more inventions, and they can pay their taxes!"

Millie beamed at her. "Good, Angel!"

State budget?  So dry.  Yet there are ways it can be made interesting.  A big part of it, certainly, is the way that it is put into terms that these kids can understand and relate to.  That’s a standard part of instructional design (or, as it’s increasingly called, “learning design.”)

When teaching about government, it is worthwhile to interleave “moral reasoning” into the discussion.  It should not just be about what government does or how it is structured.  It also should be about what government should do, and about the way that values are central to government.  The political scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse have argued that, in Civics education, a “saccharin” depiction of politics and government needs to be avoided, in particular because it leads to disgust and voter estrangement later on when legitimate political strife is witnessed.

The choices presented to the two girls illustrate this: even though the girls can’t know how to judge the specific numeric levels, each choice has a specific moral value attached, e.g. improvidence, respect for expertise, relieving suffering, and so on.  The more that kids are led to wrestle with these moral conflicts, the more nuanced their political ideas will be in adulthood.

Another noteworthy implication of this scene: learning is social, and not always "on script." And so future interactive programs will need to play their roles pretty intelligently.


cast of characters