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Educating for Democracy

In the latest installment of HGSE's Education Now series, educators rethink civics in schools and at home, suggesting an approach where youth voices are central and equity is the goal.

With less than a month before a pivotal presidential election, democracy is on every educator’s mind. To shine new light on what civic engagement can look like today — and on the role of education in promoting healthy democracy — three new leaders in American civic education came together on Wednesday, October 14, in the latest installment of HGSE’s Education Now, a series of webinars seeking to address the unique challenges facing educators today.

Amber Coleman-Mortley, director of social engagement at iCivics and founder of Let's K12 Better; Noorya Hayat, Ed.M.’15, a civic engagement and equity researcher at CIRCLE at Tufts University; and Jessica Lander, Ed.M.’15, teacher, journalist, and cofounder of We Are America were hosted by Senior Lecturer Richard Weissbourd, director of HGSE's Making Caring Common intiative, for a discussion that focused on the urgency with which educators must approach civics education. As Weissbourd said in his introduction, “Democracy is on the ballot.”

Throughout, participants outlined practical strategies for rethinking civics education and promoting equity.

Takeaways for Teachers and Parents

  • Let young people take the lead. “The future of civic engagement should be student led,” said Coleman-Mortley. Teachers and parents should make space for student activism through project-based learning, games, simulations, and even through simply going out into the community. “The role of adults is to facilitate that space, serve as a resource hub, connect students with the levers of power, and get out of the way – we love to feel in control, but we need to allow the process to unfold organically,” Coleman-Mortley explained. Only when we trust in youth leadership can true civic engagement begin.
  • Expand your teaching. Don’t just teach civic knowledge – teach “action civics,” said Lander. Beyond lecturing on the branches of government, educators need to ask, “what concrete skills do my students need to make change in the community?” In addition to civics knowledge, educators should focus on teaching civic skills, civic motivation, and civic efficacy — a student’s ability to see himself as a maker of change.
  • Stay local. Students are eager to engage in the issues they care about, but “it has got to be local and action-oriented,” explained Lander. Focusing on the issues young people see every day, the issues in their communities, keeps things concrete. In addition, explained Hayat, it fights cynicism. “Kids might be cynical about national politics, but they care about community issues,” Hayat explained. Connecting to the local will prepare students to tackle issues on a small and large scale.  
  • Advocate for structural change. Civic education has declined as a result of the focus on other subjects, like STEM. This is beginning to change — legislation mandating state-wide civic initiatives was recently passed in Massachusetts and Illinois — but high- quality, equitable civics standards need to be adopted everywhere. Joining this fight can lead to large-scale change.  

The panelists agreed: Democracy matters, to young people and adults. Bringing the voices, lived experiences, and communities of young people into the civics conversation can lead to concrete engagement and powerful change. In today’s turbulent reality, where students are persevering remotely despite political vitriol, the increased visibility of racialized violence, and the challenges of COVID-19, finding strength and value in our shared democracy is more important than ever.

Fresh Approaches to Civic Learning

Strengthen the ecosystem for equitable K–12 civic learning. Civic education and civic educators can’t exist in a vacuum in a school. They are part of an ecosystem that directly connects to parents and communities, including local community organizations and nonprofits, culture and arts organizations, local media, faith-based institutions and congregations, and local policymakers. For equitable access to civic learning for all students, connections and trust among those institutions should be strengthened.

Elevate the youth voive: Adults must engage in active listening. By listening, adults show young people know that their voice matters and that they are valued contributors to their communities.

When it comes to young people and voting, support access and awareness. Young people are not apathetic when it comes to civic and political engagement, but they but face systemic challenges to voting. In 2018, young people (ages 18–24) recorded the highest midterm youth turnout in decades. What young people need is outreach and awareness about how to connect their commitment to social change to casting a ballot. 


On Civic Education and Teaching for Democracy:

On Youth Civic Engagement:

  • Making Caring Common's "Get Out the Vote" mobilization and peer training initiative
  • CIRCLE’s Youth Voting and Civic Engagement in America is a data tool that offers a way to explore the relationships between voting and other forms of civic participation, and some of the conditions that shape such engagement. 
  • Generation Citizen and its Kick Start Action Civics project (to learn civics by doing civics)
  • CIRCLE’s Youth Electoral Significance Index (YESI) is a tool for assessing/increasing youth political engagement. The index provides a data-driven ranking of the top 10 Senate and House races where young voters have the highest potential to influence the 2020 election, as well as the top 10 states where youth could determine the presidential race.

Civic Engagement at Home: