Teaching Opinion

Put Me in, Coach: Reworking Social Studies for Participatory Democracy

By John T. McCrann — August 08, 2017 7 min read
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As colleagues at Harvest Collegiate High School, Andy Snyder and I talk a lot about the way humans develop. In this essay he presents a vision for how to reform social studies curriculum, one that I have seen him enact with good results: students who are engaged, thinking critically, and actively developing meaningful skills. Regardless of what you teach, and especially if you teach social studies, your students could also benefit from his ideas, written below, that help students engage in meaningful disciplinary skills.—JRTM

Imagine a basketball coach with no hoops and no ball who provided a textbook history of basketball, showed video of some of the greatest games, and imparted a passion for teamwork. But she never held a practice

and the players never bounced a ball. How would her team do in a game? How well do our students and former students do as participants in a democracy—with all that we’ve taught them of history, geography, government, and economics? Knowledge, skills, and values are necessary aspects of a good civic education but the most important element has been left out—action. Civic duties involve doing things in the world—pushing us to go beyond knowledge, thinking skills, and values within our classrooms. Civic education requires practice working with others to take action.

One in four Americans surveyed approve of the current Congress and less than half of the current president. What about at the grassroots? What percent of Americans regularly act on the insight that, “In a democracy, the highest office is the office of citizen?” The American people have been taught to be democratic citizens about as effectively as that basketball coach, with no hoops and no ball, taught her students to play basketball.

Civic Competence

The NCSS says, “The aim of social studies is the promotion of civic competence...” Civic competence isn’t all or nothing. It can even be a means through which you engage students in other content. In other words, you can teach Ancient Egypt and also empower students to be participants in a democracy.

Civic competence enables people to be “active and engaged participants in public life.” Instead, social studies students are often taught to be more informed spectators around historical (and occasionally contemporary) controversies, rather than participants. And it’s a crucial difference—the basketball team that used their practice time to watch films of classic championships could talk intelligently about basketball, but not play it.

Teaching for Civic Participation

Teaching for participation requires a significant step beyond “student-centered” lessons that elicit student’s

opinions and encourage them to better argue for those opinions. Although this “clickbait” orientation (“Was Lincoln a racist? Use these three texts to prove your perspective!”) can work well as a means, it can’t be where we end up. A society where everyone argues over random controversies isn’t a democracy—it’s Twitter. Democratic participation as a goal for social studies asks us (with Paul Simon), “What are you going to do about it? That’s what I’d like to know.”

Public life is what we do, decide, and say together that affects more than just our own family. In a participatory democracy, government should be “of the people by the people and for the people” and public life thus includes serving on a jury, voting in an election, paying taxes, and knowing how to advocate that a bill becomes a law. But public life in a democracy also extends beyond the edges of government into block associations, community gardens, coaching Little League, and volunteering at the homeless shelter. Public life includes the newsworthy and the neighborly—from organizing civil disobedience against a war to bringing a casserole to a school fundraiser.

Reorienting Social Studies To Civic Competence—The C3 Framework

The C3 Framework reorients social studies towards “civic life,” the third C after college and career. The framework encourages teachers to plan units along an “inquiry arc” that culminate in civic action and communication. The inquiry arc proceeds (more or less) along the sequence of compelling question, disciplinary techniques, sources and evidence, and communicating conclusions and taking action. Standard social studies courses in the U.S. have primarily focused on the middle two steps—looking at historical materials and doing history type-things with it—like creating a timeline or connecting two events. The C3 Framework bookends this standard “content” encounter with a compelling question that animates students to actively involve themselves in the learning and with an “action step” that challenges students to do something with what they’ve learned.

The inquiry arc parallels what regular people do when they contribute to civic life. For example, several pedestrians have been injured at a local intersection. A group of neighbors gets together and figures out their compelling question, something like “How can we get the city to make this a safer intersection?” They learn disciplinary techniques of analyzing maps and traffic flow. They immerse themselves in comparisons of their intersection and others in the city, looking at satellite photos, statistics, and gathering testimony. And then they figure out how to take action—they share their conclusions at public meetings, increase awareness through signs and posters, and advocate with elected officials. The C3 Framework provides the democracy basketball team with a ball and hoops and some chances to practice with them.

If social studies teachers for grades 6-12 offered five inquiry units per year, a typical student would graduate with 35 experiences of asking powerful questions, using disciplinary techniques, gathering evidence, and doing something with what they’ve learned. By the end of high school, students should be helping to craft their own compelling questions and action steps should become more authentic and powerful. These experiences and skills would serve as powerful foundations for students’ lifelong civic participation. Organizations from the National Action Civics Collaborative could provide “jumper cables” for schools to boost their civics instruction immediately.

A Vision of Powerful Social Studies

It’s October 2025 and 12th grader Tina Rodriguez is nervous as she steps to the microphone. She’s had a lot of practice presenting her ideas in public after years of C3 social studies units. But this is her first time speaking to more than a hundred people at a meeting that she and her classmates have spent months planning. She had borrowed from exemplars from her 10th grade unit on Women’s Suffrage as she wrote her speech. As she looks down at her clothes she thinks back to her first “communicating conclusions” assignment—a speech about the school dress code in her 6th grade classroom. Tina looks back up and sees that the elected officials her class had invited to the event had all appeared—the college student who worked with her Government class had been right, as well as cute—outreach does work. Nearby her classmates Barry, Zhao, and Imani were sweating—Barry and Zhao would be debating against Imani and the president of the local Chamber of Commerce. The students had decided the best way to involve the local businesses in the discussion was to invite their strongest critic to speak against the plan, when a “power-map” revealed they needed some local business support. They had done a lot of work, and now Tina’s job was just to set the tone and get the event going.

With a strong voice she tells the audience, “Thank you very much for joining us in this assembly. In being here, you have already shown your support to our primary message—that young people are not just the future of our society, but already important participants. Whether you decide to support lowering the local voting age to 15, as most of my classmates and I advocate, or to oppose the change, as several of my classmates and the Chamber of Commerce encourage, our democracy becomes more powerful when everyone has a say and we really listen to each other.” In her pause, as the audience applauds, she has a feeling of being part of a story that her fellow Americans had been enacting for a long time. “We’ll divide up after the debate in small groups, facilitated by my classmates, to discuss the proposal. And we can guarantee that, at least here, everyone will get a chance to be heard!”

The author appreciates the “Citizen Power” challenge grants project, cosponsored by the Albert Shanker Institute, American Federation of Teachers and First Book, with funding from the Aspen Institute’s Pluribus Project, for its support in developing these perspectives. Special thanks to Leo Casey, executive director of the Shanker Institute.

Photo 1 by varunkul01

Photo 2 by Robert_z_ziemi

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