How to Engage Students in Civics: 7 Tips & Ideas for Active Learning
Can you correctly answer the following questions?
1. What is the “rule of law”?
a. The law is what the President says it is
b. The people who enforce the laws do not have to follow them
c. Everyone must follow the law
d. Judges can rewrite laws they disagree with
2. Under the Constitution, which of these powers does not belong to the federal government?
a. Ratify amendments to the Constitution
b. Print money
c. Declare war
d. Make treaties with foreign powers
3. How many amendments does the Constitution have?
How did you do? (See the end of this post for the answers.) If you had some trouble, you’re not alone. Those questions are among the hardest on the test that immigrants must pass to become a U.S. citizen.
In a 2018 survey, only about a third of American citizens could pass the test. Among immigrants, 91% do. Of course, they had been studying, and it’s been a long time since many citizens sat in a government/civics class. Many states give that test to high school students, and they have trouble with it too.
These results point to a problem in this country.
Americans don’t know enough about how our government works, or the principles upon which our constitutional democracy is built. They don’t understand the important role they play as citizens in a democracy. And they aren’t motivated to become active citizens.
But as Barack Obama said, “Democracy was never meant to be transactional—you give me your vote; I make everything better. It requires an active and informed citizenry.”
Can more and better civic education help?
Creating an “active and informed citizenry” is a tall order, and the challenge can’t be met only with more and better civic education in school—but it can help.
In the elementary grades, civics, and history/social studies generally, have taken a back seat to literacy and STEM in recent decades. Those subjects are, of course, important, and there’s only so much time in the school day. But civics can fit on teachers’ plates, too, with the right approach and resources.
In middle and high school, the issue is a little different. Students still have a social studies class as regular part of their day. This usually means history, except for occasional electives and perhaps a one-semester government/civics class in high school. Unfortunately, though, when students are asked in surveys which subject is the most boring, they often say it’s history/social studies. No wonder they soon forget most of what was covered!
I see two solutions to these issues:
Teach civics in elementary school whenever possible, as a standalone subject. But also remember you can find ways to include civics lessons when students are studying history, building literacy skills, and learning to be “citizens” of their classroom.
Teach civics (and history) in a more engaging way, whether in elementary or secondary school. This means active, not passive learning.
Let’s explore some of the ways these goals can be accomplished.
7 Tips & Ideas for Teaching Civics
1. When students study state, U.S., or world history, include civics lessons.
For example, discuss the debate over government power and individual rights in the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Point out how ancient civilizations governed themselves and draw connections to the present. Find local and state connections to wider events and developments, such as the civil rights movement. (And a note to science and math teachers: you could find connections to civics too!)
2. Include civics in literacy lessons, and literacy in civics lessons.
Today’s ELA standards include many connections to civics. For example, the standards call for citing textual evidence when writing or speaking; conducting research projects; participating effectively in conversations with others; and making presentations with media. Civics topics can be used for all of these. Students can read books and informational text about civics and history (such as the iCivics Readers from TCM). Primary source documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, can provide opportunities for building close reading skills.
3. Focus on important knowledge, concepts, and skills, not the “factoids.”
In the quiz at the beginning of this post, question #3 is an example of the latter. It’s not all that important to know how many Constitutional amendments there are—so I’d quibble with including that item on the citizenship test. Memorizing that kind of information is what makes civics class boring. Questions #1 and #2 on the quiz, on the other hand, are about the deeper concepts that students could actively explore, not simply memorize: the rule of law and how power is divided between the federal and state governments.
4. Use project-based learning (PBL) for civics.
PBL is a perfect fit for civics. It’s active, in-depth, and meaningful to students. Just so we’re clear on what PBL is and is not, I’m not talking about a poster showing the powers of the three branches of government or a slide presentation about a U.S. president a student has researched. PBL is a process, not simply the creation of an artifact, as shown on the diagram below:
(Source: Teaching Civics Today, page 115)
Here are three examples of PBL projects for civics:
Students determine which level of government (local, state, or federal) has the power to do something about an issue they care about, then contact the appropriate people or agency by writing persuasive letters.
Students create a public awareness-raising campaign about an issue or problem in their community or the wider world, using publicly shared videos, art, speeches, and/or social media.
Students create podcasts about concepts such as freedom, rights, or democracy by interviewing community members and experts.
5. Teach civil discourse.
We clearly could use more of this in our country these days, and civics teachers can help by building the habits and skills young people will need for reasoned, evidence-based, respectful discussion of civics-related issues. Two of the best resources for information on teaching civil discourse can be found at Facing History and Ourselves and Learning for Justice. (Side note: consider having discussions, not debates, where the point is not to “win” but to understand.)
6. Teach information literacy.
Here’s another competency our country needs its citizens to build, in these times of online information overload. Civic education can help students build a firm foundation for finding the truth from trustworthy sources and developing evidence-based arguments. Some of the best resources for teaching information/media literacy are from iCivics, Learning for Justice, and the Stanford History Education Group.
7. Build democratic citizenship in the classroom.
Civics can be taught in many ways, not just through formal lessons and activities like the above. The classroom culture a teacher creates can teach students how to listen and talk with each other respectfully, participate in decision-making, the values of cooperation, compromise and sharing—all the things kindergarten teachers do in circle time on the rug! Creating the culture can begin by co-creating with students a list of classroom norms or agreements that promote civic values.
For more guidance and resources, see my new book from Teacher Created Materials, Teaching Civics Today, written in partnership with iCivics. Also check out my free on-demand webinar, “How to Teach Civics in Today’s Classrooms”.
Civics teachers, you’ve got an important job to do—our nation needs you! I wish you much success.
Here are the answers to the quiz, and here’s to more and better civic education!
How to Teach Civics in Today’s Classrooms
On-Demand Webinar Presented by John Larmer, author of Teaching Civics Today, written for TCM in partnership with iCivics.
Teaching in today’s ever-changing classroom environment presents many challenges, including teaching civics, a complex topic that can quickly stir up emotions. This webinar will help educators navigate teaching the latest civics guidelines in engaging, informational, and practical ways using trusted resources from organizations such as iCivics, and more.
In this webinar, participants will learn:
What the goals of civic education should be for civic knowledge
Why active learning is the best approach for effective deeper learning and student engagement
How civic education can build literacy and content knowledge
Examples of powerful lessons, project-based learning experiences, and engaging activities for the classroom and beyond
Watch the on-demand webinar at your own pace.