Is it time to rethink how we teach Civics? | Michelle Blanchet | 5 Min Read

January 23, 2023

In light of a sea of political and economic shifts in recent years, it is no surprise there’s been a renewed interest in civics education.  Questions abound over what exactly a quality civics education might look like, the skills it entails, and the best way to ensure students turn into engaged citizens as adults. While these questions are certainly a step in the right direction, I can’t help but wonder if we’re overlooking a critical ingredient in teaching civics: Trust in teachers.

I can still remember being given the curriculum binder for my civics and economics course while teaching in my home state of Virginia. My first impression of the material is that it was: very dry and very factual. As important as it is to learn how our government functions, the curriculum seemed to miss the mark on helping our students understand the relevance of being civically engaged and the impact each would have in ensuring the sustainability of our democracy. The focus on memorization hindered opportunities to make real-world connections. 

It made me wonder: Why such a technical approach to teaching this important topic? Was the fear that teachers were unprepared to teach civics, and they would mistakenly spread a certain political ideology rather than help students explore issues and formulate their own opinions on matters? Was it decided that it was safer to avoid critical thought by sticking to a curriculum that adhered to the lowest level of Bloom’s taxonomy, “remember”? The mandated multiple choice tests for each textbook chapter coupled with Virginia’s end-of-year “Standards of Learning” (SOL) exam really only incentivized students to recall basic facts. For a nation that proclaims its inherent love for freedom, it seemed a clever tactic to subdue critical thought about our system, how it functions, and the issues that we face. 

To me, it’s no wonder our nation is in a political crisis. What did we expect to happen when we didn’t provide young people with a healthy outlet to practice skills like communication and critical thought, especially in a low-stakes environment like the civics classroom? Teachers must be trusted to not just teach the ‘body of civics’ but also the ‘soul of civics’ — the passion and drive each student needs to be an active member of their community and to have a voice in shaping how policy will impact their lives. Censoring and avoiding topics certainly hasn’t made these topics go away, if anything, we’ve reached the boiling point of letting these issues fester and put our democracy in a very dangerous place. 

We also haven’t done any favors in teaching our students that the American form of government is uniquely stable. As important as it is to understand how it works, it’s critical to examine how American political institutions have evolved and maybe how they should evolve. There are many forms of democracy, and the presidential–two-party system is a fragile structure. Have students compare failed presidential democracies to those of parliamentary systems, which would be an interesting investigation! Students need to understand that our government is something that’s meant to be protected and nurtured, and requires our active participation. Understanding the mechanisms that enable our government to function help us to determine what is working and what is not. Children should not just learn about the electoral college, lobbies, or the law, they should also examine these with a critical eye. Even Supreme Court justices cannot always agree on how to interpret the Constitution. Why should students?

I’m sure what I’m saying sounds scary. One can already picture the can of worms exploding if we were to allow these types of dialogues to happen in the classroom. But who are we helping by teaching civics ineffectively? The goal of education should not be to subdue parents or an opinionated member of the school board. Young people can think for themselves. We as a society need not fear students getting ‘brainwashed’ or ‘indoctrinated’. Engaging in issues teaches them to explore their values, practice sense-making, effectively communicate with one another, problem-solve, and build consensus. Learning how to express themselves, investigate issues, empathize with others, and tolerate different views help them to become the types of citizens our country needs. 

Policy and law can trigger systemic change. We must give our students the keys to utilize these outlets, and this means trusting our teachers enough to facilitate learning experiences that truly immerse students in the world of civics. 

What does that trust look like? 

It can be as simple as letting conversations happen and avoiding censorship. Too often, we assume the worst might happen and tip-toe around difficult topics. Educators need to be allowed to facilitate tough conversations no matter how much it might make some squirm. This means supporting teachers when they answer the questions prompted by their students or allowing materials they or their students choose to examine in the classroom. 

It means having their back. Help parents and board members understand the value of exposure to various issues. The goal is not brainwashing; instead, it’s to be able to process information, ideas, and perspectives so that students are equipped to act as active citizens. 

It means adapting. Look at the influence social media has on our political discourse. Pretending it’s not there will not help our students. It doesn’t seem possible to have an effective civics course that doesn’t touch on technology. From social media etiquette to the relationship between technology and civics, we need to adapt civics so that it’s applied. 

It means effective pedagogy. Curriculum and assessments should be flexible enough to let teachers do their jobs. I am fully confident that if teachers were trusted more, they’d create learning experiences that let students practice debate, solve real-world problems, and design hands-on opportunities to apply learning.

As with most issues in education, there is no curriculum or toolkit that will solve all of our woes in teaching civics. In fact, in many states we seem to be going out of our way to ensure certain chats can ever even happen. Political agendas and parental fear have made it virtually impossible for some educators to go near certain topics. In other states, it has become downright illegal. I, and I am sure many others, fail to understand how this form of censorship aids our youth in any way. 

At some point we need to come to terms with reality, that avoiding issues does not make them go away. We need to understand the power and impact our teachers have in ensuring our students gain the skills they need to navigate the real world. In a time when many have to walk on eggshells, they need our support more than ever. Teachers want to equip our students for the world they will inherit. Will we let them?

Michelle Blanchet

Michelle is an educational consultant that infuses startup strategies into professional learning so that teachers are empowered to bring changemaking, social innovation, and SDGs into their work. After teaching social studies in both the U.S. and Switzerland, she founded the Educators’ Lab, which supports teacher-driven solutions to educational challenges. Michelle is the co-author of The Startup Teacher Playbook, and Preventing Polarization (2023). She has worked with organizations like Center for Curriculum Redesign, PBS Education, and Ashoka, and occasionally blogs for Edutopia. A graduate of IE University in Madrid, she is a part of the Global Shaper Community of the World Economic Forum and has presented at numerous events, including SXSWedu and TEDxLausanne. Her focus - helping teachers and students use their agency for social good.

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