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How to Help Kids Become Skilled Citizens

Active citizenship requires a broad set of skills, new study finds
Schoolchildren holding U.S. flag

The content and quality of civics classes in K–12 schools can look very different depending on your zip code. “Loosely defined, and sometimes at odds with itself,” is how a new study describes the field of civic education which is frequently marginalized and under-funded. Neglect has spawned an opportunity, though, to think creatively and expansively about what civic education could be insists Jack Schneider, co-author of the new research paper Teaching Students to be Skilled Citizens.

Encouraged by increasing bipartisan support for civic learning, with initiatives such as The Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy which guides K–12 civics and history content and pedagogical methods, Schneider, a University of Massachusetts Amherst professor, and study co-leader Eric Soto-Shed, a lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, have been investigating what students need to learn to become skilled citizens.

To begin to answer that question, Schneider, Soto-Shed, and Karalyn McGovern, a research assistant at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, looked at what skilled citizens do.

They surveyed 100 “expert” citizens — with expertise in civics, citizenship, and democracy, including professors, elected local and state officials, and leaders of nonprofits involved in civic work — and about  500 “regular” citizens. Participants hailed from liberal Massachusetts and conservative Missouri (the researchers also took steps to ensure demographic diversity) and were asked what tasks they would expect to find “expert” citizens involved in.

The results

The researchers received more than 1,000 ideas but four main themes for civic activities rose to the top, identified most frequently by both the ordinary and expert participants:

  • Political engagement - 76.3% for the experts, 43.6% for the regular citizens.
  • Interpersonal tasks, including neighborliness and helping others - 29.9% for the experts, 48.2% for the regular citizens.
  • Building an informed community - 55.7% for the experts, 38% for the regular citizens.
  • Volunteering - 38.1% for the experts, 37.2% for the regular citizens.

All work with young people presents opportunities to do a wide array of things that constitute skilled civic involvement ... the possibilities aren't quite endless; but they are everywhere inside a school.

A broad set of skills

The findings show that active citizenship requires a broad range of skills. “I think one of the things that our work shows is that civic education — the preparation for citizenship in this country — is much more expansive than I think a lot of people would assume civic preparation through the schools would entail,” explains Schneider.


Although this is a multi-phase research project, the researchers were able to offer some initial tips for educators and school leaders about how to embrace a wide-ranging approach to civic education:

1. Do an audit.

Reflect on all the activities that students do and how these relate to the responsibilities of full citizenship. Consider how much you are maximizing opportunities to prepare students through activities that you are already involved in that are civically oriented, such as community service, then build out the work and be explicit about it.

2. Take a holistic approach.

Teachers often pay the most attention to fostering social skills, such as how children should behave towards one another, during elementary school but “all work with young people presents opportunities to do a wide array of things that constitute skilled civic involvement,” says Schneider. Learning should not be limited to the younger set or one civics class. “Whether we see it this way or not, classroom discussions and conversations are preparation for future town halls. Opportunities to determine things like class norms, or about what to study next, are practice for future democratic decision-making. The possibilities aren't quite endless; but they are everywhere inside a school.”

3.  Think big and small.

“Think expansively about where civics can live in the ecosystem that your students are in, interdisciplinary, across grades, across class levels,” says Soto-Shed. “What does it look like broadly for a school and a team of educators to think about building out their civic capacity?”

Soto-Shed also suggests thinking small and being intentional about developing a specific skill or competency such as how to respectfully disagree with an idea during a discussion or how to analyze the credibility of a social media post, for example. With fewer requirements than subjects like math and English language arts, civics teachers can be more creative with their lesson plans too and design units that involve civic activities and habits of mind.

4. Consider the lessons learned in schools outside the formal classroom.

Leaders should reflect on the many hours that students spend in “assemblies, in hallways, in trouble in the principal’s office,” says Schneider and consider ways to cultivate civic skills through those experiences. Schools are “little societies” where “students are learning things about how we treat each other.... and the rules that govern those societies and the opportunities there are to self-govern within those little societies,” he adds.

5. Engage with the broader civic community.

Guest speakers are often encouraged to share their stories and their knowledge during visits to schools, but Soto-Shed suggests that educators engage with skilled citizens such as politicians, community advocates, and activists, and ask them to share their processes too so that students can learn how they do their work.

Be sure to include families and other community members as well.

Future work

What does it mean to think like a skilled citizen?

One of the researchers’ goals is to help students think civically and develop the same habits of mind of highly skilled citizens, including critical thinking and empathy. Using historical thinking as a model, they plan to observe how skilled citizens approach and work through civic thinking tasks and will study any patterns in their thinking processes, all with a view to eventually creating curricular resources that can help teachers develop deeper civic skills in their students.

In these times of political polarization and harmful misinformation, the work of cultivating skilled citizens and increasing civic engagement, which are sustaining democratic practices, “remains urgent, necessary and important,” Soto-Shed says.

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