Just Exactly What Is Civics Education?


Written by:

Views: 39354

Interested in more recent information on civics education? Check out our post on how states are strengthening civics education.

In my day-to-day work, I’m confronted with myriad questions from the mundane to the wildly unexpected:

“How many states include a civics course in their high school course requirement?” (Answer: They all do.)

“Is there any data or research that indicates when civics education is most effective? Ninth grade? Senior year of high school?” (Answer: After some collegial consultation with our friends at CIRCLE, we couldn’t find any.)

The most frequent question I answer, however, is this:

“Just exactly what is civics education?”

So that I have a handy tool at my disposal when I receive this question in the future, I’m dedicating this blog to answering the what, why and how of civics education. Though I’m not likely to capture all of the perspectives on these matters in this brief blog, I’ve gathered some key thoughts from our own work and that of several of our peer organizations.

What is civics education?

In the College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards, the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) defines the subject of civics as follows:

In a constitutional democracy, productive civic engagement requires knowledge of the history, principles, and foundations of our American democracy, and the ability to participate in civic and democratic processes. People demonstrate civic engagement when they address public problems individually and collaboratively and when they maintain, strengthen, and improve communities and societies. Thus, civics is, in part, the study of how people participate in governing society

Because government is a means for addressing common or public problems, the political system established by the U.S. Constitution is an important subject of study within civics. Civics requires other knowledge too; students should also learn about state and local governments; markets; courts and legal systems; civil society; other nations’ systems and practices; international institutions; and the techniques available to citizens for preserving and changing a society.

Civics is not limited to the study of politics and society; it also encompasses participation in classrooms and schools, neighborhoods, groups, and organizations. In civics, students learn to contribute appropriately to public processes and discussions of real issues. Their contributions to public discussions may take many forms, ranging from personal testimony to abstract arguments. They will also learn civic practices such as voting, volunteering, jury service, and joining with others to improve society. Civics enables students not only to study how others participate, but also to practice participating and taking informed action themselves. (p. 31)

Thus, civics education includes, but is far more than the learning of discrete facts. Based on this assumption, leading civic educators, coordinated by the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools have developed a list of competencies we wish for students to develop as a result of civics education efforts.  These competencies are sorted into four major groupings: (1) civic content knowledge, (2) civic skills (intellectual and participatory) and (3) civic dispositions. From the Campaign website:

Civic Content Knowledge

Civic content includes both core knowledge and the ability to apply knowledge to different circumstances and settings.

  • Key historical periods, episodes, cases, themes, and experiences of individuals and groups in U.S. history
  • Principles, documents, and ideas essential to constitutional democracy
  • Relationship between historical documents, principles, and episodes and contemporary issues
  • Structures, processes, and functions of government; powers of branches and levels of government
  • Political vehicles for representing public opinion and effecting political change
  • Mechanisms and structure of the U.S. legal system
  • Relationship between government and other sectors
  • Political and civic heroes
  • Social and political networks for making change
  • Social movements and struggles, particularly those that address issues as yet unresolved
  • Structural analyses of social problems and systemic solutions to making change

Civic Skills: Intellectual

Intellectual civic skills encompass knowing how to identify, assess, interpret, describe, analyze, and explain matters of concern in civic life.

  • Critical thinking
  • Perspective-taking
  • Understanding, interpreting, and critiquing various media
  • Understanding, interpreting, and critiquing different points of view
  • Expressing one’s opinions
  • Active listening
  • Identifying public problems
  • Drawing connections between democratic concepts and principles and one’s own life experience

Civic Skills: Participatory

Civic participatory skills encompass knowing how to cope in groups and organizational settings, interface with elected officials and community representatives, communicate perspectives and arguments, and plan strategically for civic change.

  • Engaging in dialogue with those who hold different perspectives
  • Active listening
  • Communicating through public speaking, letter writing, petitioning, canvassing, lobbying, protesting
  • Managing, organizing, participating in groups
  • Building consensus and forging coalitions
  • Community mapping
  • Utilizing electoral processes
  • Utilizing non-electoral means to voice opinion (protest, petitioning, surveying, letter writing, boycotting, and so on)
  • Planning and running meetings
  • Utilizing strategic networks for public ends
  • Organizing and demonstrating

Civic Dispositions

Civic dispositions encompass interpersonal and intrapersonal values, virtues, and behaviors.

  • Tolerance and respect
  • Appreciation of difference
  • Rejection of violence
  • Concern with the rights and welfare of others
  • Commitment to balancing personal liberties with social responsibility to others
  • Personal efficacy
  • Sense of belonging to a group or polity
  • Readiness to compromise personal interests to achieve shared ends
  • Desire for community involvement
  • Attentiveness (to civic matters, the news, etc.)

Why is civics education needed? 

For the purposes of this blog, I’m sorting the purposes of civics education into two broad categories – (1) those related to the health of our democracy and (2) those related to other issues. Though these categories are somewhat artificial, serve as something of an organizer.

In the space below, I’m including three quotes that help to clarify why civics education is needed for the health of our democracy:

From ECS’ State Civic Education Policy Framework:

A core purpose of education in our society is to preserve and enhance democracy by cultivating students’ care and concern for their communities and equipping students with the knowledge and skills to participate effectively in democratic life. The addition of civic life to student outcomes is a critical and necessary addition to contemporary education rhetoric and policy efforts. Indeed, education institutions will more completely fulfill their broad purposes when they focus on preparing students for college, career and civic life. (p. 3)

From the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools’ Guardian of Democracy report:

Self-government requires far more than voting in elections every four years. It requires citizens who are informed and thoughtful, participate in their communities, are involved in the political process, and possess moral and civic virtues. Generations of leaders, from America’s founders to the inventors of public education to elected leaders in the twentieth century, have understood that these qualities are not automatically transmitted to the next generation—they must be passed down through schools. Ultimately, schools are the guardians of democracy. (p.7)

From the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement’s (CIRCLE) Civic Education and 9/11 web page:

The purpose of civics education is to prepare students to be informed and engaged citizens. Schools should help young people acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes to prepare them to be responsible, thoughtful citizens.

So, clearly civics education has something to do with preserving our democracy.

The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools and CIRCLE, joined by a host of other organizations, has enumerated a number of other benefits that result when high-quality civics education is put in place. These include, but are not limited to:

Thus, the benefits of civics education are far broader than its democratic purposes.

How can schools provide civics education?

Again, under the leadership of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, leaders in the field have identified six proven practices for civics education. From the Campaign website:

  1. Classroom Instruction: Schools should provide instruction in government, history, economics, law, and democracy.

  2. Discussion of Current Events and Controversial Issues: Schools should incorporate discussion of current local, national, and international issues and events into the classroom, particularly those that young people view as important to their lives.

  3. Service-Learning: Schools should design and implement programs that provide students with the opportunity to apply what they learn through performing community service that is linked to the formal curriculum and classroom instruction.

  4. Extracurricular Activities: Schools should offer opportunities for young people to get involved in their schools or communities outside of the classroom.

  5. School Governance: Schools should encourage student participation in school governance.

  6. Simulations of Democratic Processes: Schools should encourage students to participate in simulations of democratic processes and procedures.


Education Commission of the States has also published an issue of The Progress of Education Reform that helps to make clear how these practices may look different than stereotypical conceptions of civics education.

I hope this blog has helped you clarify “What exactly is civics education?” either for yourself or for those who may ask you this same question. I also hope that the blog has led you to further interest in and questions about civics education. If it has, please contact me! I’d be thrilled to hear from you!

Comments are closed.