Civics is a popular topic in the educational forum today, but many “experts” are getting its significance to teachers wrong. Many current state standards require teachers to “incorporate civics” into their lessons, a requirement which does not simply mandate material for rote memorization, but material that facilitates participation in society and gives meaning to the work students are doing and the content they are learning in the classroom. While civics includes learning the basic functions of government and civic engagement, the dimension of social studies as described in The College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies, requires teachers to promote active citizenship by leading students to address public problems either through inquiry or a real world project in addition to learning the foundations of government.
Civics is described in the C3 Framework as “the study of how people participate in governing society.” While promoting action civics, or active citizenship, the C3 Framework does not ignore that students must also know the functions of all levels of government, courts and legal systems, international institutions and more. Thus, the C3 Framework continues, “Because government is a means for addressing common or public problems, the political system established by the U.S. Constitution is an important subject of study within civics.”
Ultimately, meeting civics standards effectively means that a teacher has moved beyond simple rote memorization of government functions, to action. The C3 Framework concludes its description of civics stating, “Civics enables students not only to study how others participate, but also to practice participating and taking informed action themselves.”
Students are expected to know the branches of government and the functions of government according to K-12 standards. The teachers whose curriculum requires this to be directly taught, such as a United States History course covering early American history, or an actual civics course, are responsible for building the foundation of the basic knowledge. In developing schema (which as defined by Merriam Webster is a “mental codification of experience that includes a particular organized way of perceiving cognitively and responding to a complex situation or set of stimuli”), students will recall their knowledge and apply to it to new experiences, in this case, ones that enrich their educational experience by making it more relevant to their own lives.
Many people express outrage when a student fails to recall specific information about the functions of government. In some cases, the student may not have yet learned it. In other cases, the student may have learned it but struggles to recall some of what they have learned. The study of government is very complex, and educators on the secondary level should know that their students will likely need a brief review if they are to engage in a project that demands knowledge of the functions of government. This is why all teachers must follow the second absolute rule of teaching: Never assume your students will already know anything, (but don’t doubt their knowledge either). It is the happy medium where a teacher may present an opportunity for review, and if students already know it, the review can be cut short, but if they appear not to know the information, then the teacher elaborates as needed. Small groups, conferences, and scaffolds are also helpful in reviewing and preparing students for a project to help secure the necessary background knowledge.
The first absolute rule of teaching, which is to never be glued to your lesson plan, can also be applied here. If a teacher begins a civics project, but they are finding students are stuck on the process, that is their cue to do a mini-lesson on the processes and functions of government that is relevant to their project. Still, following that second rule would avoid a change in plans because the teacher would have covered necessary information before beginning the project in the first place to make sure students are prepared to move forward with their assignment.
According to the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), civics education is part of their overall mission. In a 2021 article titled ‘Civic Education: The Mission of NCSS,’ published in the NCSS’s Social Education journal, authors Jeremiah Clabough and Rozella G Clyde suggest that civics is “not a passive process” for students as they are “gaining the civic literacy skills needed for democratic citizenship.” The authors reference several notable scholars in the field of social studies education who have advocated for the subject to encourage students to exercise their civic duties, suggesting that they be what many call “agents of change.”
Among the tenets of civic education is “decision-making,” which is not a new idea in education as it appeared in a 1960 Social Education article by Shirley Engle, but it is being revitalized by teachers today. The example provided for this particular facet is having students make decisions regarding arguments made by media outlets and their act of “[deconstructing] source arguments.” The authors state that, “students are encouraged to critically engage in a dialogue with a media source’s arguments and make informed decisions about whether they should support or oppose a candidate’s claims.”
Another tenet of civic education is engaging in the decision-making process regarding public policy issues. The authors provide the example of historical inquiry into child labor, referencing the Gilded Age’s child labor in mines and factories, suggesting that it is issues of this magnitude that should be discussed in the classroom. The authors quote Ronald Evans, who provided the rationale for transforming the social studies classroom into one that engages students in the realm of public issues, saying, “Democracy in education and society can only thrive with openness and freedom of thought. Instead of banning conversations on critical issues, we should be encouraging student exploration of multiple perspectives on persistent social issues of the past and present. Without issues, open-ended questions, and careful consideration of evidence and alternatives, there is no real thought, no real life in the classroom. Nourishing the open, critical mind is at the heart of thoughtful practice in civic education.”
The NCSS promotes the teaching of controversial issues as part of civic education as well. In 2018, an issue of Social Education contained a section titled “Teaching Controversial Issues” specially edited by leading scholar Diana Hess. The section “focused on a variety of controversial topics and offered tips on circumventing obstacles to teaching politically charged issues.” One issue given as an example in the section was that of immigration. Clabough and Clyde also reference the teaching of controversial topics such as Critical Race Theory in their own article.
The authors conclude with the importance of the C3 Framework as it relates to the teaching of civics in social studies classrooms across America. Clabough and Clyde write, “What is new with the C3 Framework is the melding of inquiry-based teaching with the development of students’ disciplinary thinking, literacy, and argumentation skills in civics, history, geography, and economics with the requirement to take informed action [emphasis added].” The authors stress the importance of students becoming “agents of change” by further stating, “the fact that students are required by the C3 Framework to take informed civic action cannot be overlooked.” Through meaningful and engaging activities, Clabough and Clyde suggest that civic education helps “students realize the agency that democratic citizens possess.” They continue, “Empowered with this agency students may actually alter and, in some situations, reshape social, cultural, economic and political institutions.”
In their conclusion, Clabough and Clyde state, “Social studies classrooms are the preparation grounds for future generations of democratic citizens. If the United States is ever going to rectify the public policy challenges that have too often been kicked down the road by earlier generations, social studies educators need to equip the next generation of democratic citizens with the civic literacy skills to do so.”
This philosophy of education is the one that is “winning” right now. No one needs to look any further than the myriad of protests engulfing communities across America in defense of radical leftist causes to realize the power of this method of teaching. When teachers assign a civic action project, many people complain. However, that does not need to be the case. A civic action project does not need to be one that supports a radical leftist cause. There are many things that students can fight for in society that reflect their own values, not those of the radical left. Unfortunately, with radical leftist activist teachers, the likelihood of such a project being approved may pose a challenge, which leads to our argument to encourage more conservatives and moderates to enter the field of education who will not pose such limits.
One such example of an action civics project, in the form of a more simple lesson plan, can be found in our lesson on Stalin’s genocides. This lesson teaches students about the horrors of Stalin’s terrifying rule, including his gulag system and the Holodomor. Unfortunately, too few people know about this horrifying history and there are not many memorials, if any, that have been constructed to teach and remind people of the terror endured by millions upon millions of people at the hand of Stalin. The lesson requires students to construct a memorial for the victims of Stalin’s genocides, and that would be action civics.
Instead of complaining about the methods of teaching radical leftists are using to their advantage, why not use it to our own as well? They want action civics? Let’s do it. We can have students advocate for capitalism, show the horrors of socialism, defend the U.S. Constitution, and more. If conservatives and moderates are willing to enter the classrooms, write impressive lessons, get promoted to positions of authority, and, most importantly, teach our nation’s youth, then the radical left’s mission to turn America’s youth into their own “agents of change” will finally be challenged.
*For Teachers: Use our ‘Civics Connection Through Questioning’ guide to easily incorporate civics into every lesson.