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…

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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.