Civics Teaching and Learning
What it is, where it’s headed and why it matters more than ever
What is civics?
Civics is the study of the rights and duties of citizens. Civics knowledge includes an understanding of things like:
- how our systems of government work and what our founding documents, including the Constitution, do and don’t say
- our local, state, and federal history, and how it informs the functioning of our government today
- how people can participate in their community in a range of valuable ways
What is the purpose of Civics education?
Civics education equips people to function effectively as citizens in their local community, in their state, in our nation, and in the wider world. In K-12 schools, studying civics helps the next generation prepare to be knowledgeable leaders, voters and community members. With a firm understanding of civics, young people can begin to participate in our democracy.
In describing their vision for teaching civics, the national nonprofit organization Educating for American Democracy mentions these goals:
- To inspire students to want to become involved in their constitutional democracy and help to sustain our republic
- To tell a full and complete narrative of America’s plural, yet shared story
- To celebrate the compromises needed to make our constitutional democracy work
- To cultivate civic honesty and patriotism that leaves space to both love and critique this country
Locally, that goal of inspiring students to become involved is a priority of many educators.
“To me, civics education is creating the awareness that we don’t live in isolation. As human beings, we’re communal,” says Roman Benty, community partnership coordinator at the LIGHT Initiative. He also counts “teaching kindness and teaching community, and teaching compassion and teaching patience” under the broader umbrella of what civics learning can include as we teach young people to be good community members.
Ideally, Benty says, “the goal of civics education is setting the stage and creating spaces where kids are able to harness both their criticality of the world and also their hope for the world that they want to build.”
These are, of course, vital skills. But currently, many students leave high school without them.
HOW IS CIVICS EDUCATION CHANGING?
Since the early 2000’s, STEM education has become a powerful focus in American education – in some ways eclipsing other priorities, like arts and humanities education.
Eventually, concerning statistics began to emerge.
- A 2016 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pittsburgh found that only one-quarter of Americans could name all three branches of government.
- Annenberg found that nearly a third of those surveyed could not name any of the three branches of government.
- At the same time, according to the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, the federal government spends just $4 million a year on civics, compared to almost $3 billion a year on STEM.
- And in Pennsylvania, students are only required to graduate with three years of social studies credits, not four.
But things are changing. In 2018, then Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed Act 35 into law. The law requires schools to assess students’ competency in U.S. history, government, and civics. With an emphasis on developing students’ knowledge, skills, and actions (like voting) in the civic realm, the aim of the new law is to prepare students for engaged citizenship.
The need for greater engagement with civics also inspired Shaler Area School District teacher Nick Haberman to create the nonprofit LIGHT Initiative.
“I saw that students had all these unbelievable STEM skills and they had no clue why they had learned them, what to use them on, how to apply them. They could build a bridge 10 feet long out of little drinking straws, but they didn’t know how to combat inequity,” Haberman says. “They couldn’t even define equity.”
Educators are working hard to teach today’s students critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Civics education shows students how they can use those skills to tackle the issues in their own community and to fully participate in our democratic system.
And parents realize that it matters. As part of the Pittsburgh-based Parents as Allies research project, the Brookings Institution spoke to parents around the world about their beliefs regarding the purpose of K-12 education, four themes emerged: preparing for college, preparing for a career, developing social-emotionally and learning to be effective civic participants. In southwestern Pennsylvania, 6% of parents told Brookings they saw civics as the primary purpose of K-12 schooling.
WHAT MIGHT CIVICS EDUCATION LOOK LIKE?
How do students get a quality education in the theoretical and practical aspects of citizenship – in school and out-of-school – and thus become fully equipped as the next generation of citizens?
This question has taken on new urgency, as the social and political dynamics of the past several years have brought civics education once more into the spotlight. The teaching of civics is more needed than ever, as trust in – and understanding of – our government and other public institutions has waned.
With the internet awash in misinformation and disinformation, today’s students need a solid civics education.
“You’ve got young people graduating who don’t necessarily understand their civic duty, because there hasn’t been a great emphasis on civics education from K through 12,” Haberman says.
And it can’t wait until high school: “When we try to teach them about this stuff after adolescence,” he says, “it’s already too late. This really has to be a comprehensive approach.”
LIGHT, which mentors students in civics learning, was created as one solution. Students are put in “very supported leadership roles where they have an adult who is trained, competent, cares about them, knows this stuff.” Habermans says. Essentially, the adult serves as “a humanities coach.”
Haberman describes the room where LIGHT participants meet as “a makerspace for the humanities.” The program has now spread to more than a dozen K-12 districts in the Pittsburgh region, and as students graduate, they’ve begun running their own LIGHT chapters at universities including Penn State, Pitt and Chatham.
One key: rather than being a group run by one or a few very motivated students, LIGHT groups at schools all have a teacher or administrator who is involved. That way, the group doesn’t dissolve when the founding students graduate, as can easily happen.
Today, students throughout our region are learning civics in so many ways, from classroom learning to participation in school-based organizations like SHOUT and out-of-school-time organizations like SLB Radio. Educators and families can find many, many online resources to help teach civics.
Benty, who was a student in Haberman’s history class more than a decade ago, built a real understanding of civics while helping develop and lead programs at the Millvale Community Library. He did this as a member of the Youth Advocacy League, part of the University of Pittsburgh’s MAPS (Maximizing Adolescent Potentials) program.
Eventually, Benty became the library’s Youth Program Director. Today, he works alongside community leader Jenny Mendak to mentor young people in the Millvale-Etna-Sharpsburg community. Through events like open mic nights, they teach and encourage young people to use their voices.
“I think the way to teach civic engagement is to just show students and really try to drive home that, ‘Hey, simply by existing you’re a part of a community.’ And there’s actually a really interesting opportunity for you to connect with other folks in your community and understand how and what you want your community to be,” Benty says. Young people can “come together on shared values for the community and shared goals and also shared needs, right? Where do we all intersect? And how can we use this community to treat these needs and to support these values?”
Published June 14, 2023