Social Studies

What is the Goal of Civics Education? Critical Thinking, Teachers Say

By Ileana Najarro — October 04, 2022 3 min read
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Even as some states have increased their investment in civics education in K-12 schools within the last year, there’s still not nearly as much research on what happens during social studies instructional time as there is for subjects such as reading and math.

It’s why the RAND Corporation, a think tank surveyed a nationally representative sample of U.S. public school teachers last fall to get a sense of how these educators approach civic and citizenship education in their classrooms, said Julia Kaufman, a senior policy researcher who worked on the survey. It released the findings last week.

Using questions derived from an international survey of educators on civic instruction, the RAND study found that a majority of respondents, 68 percent, believed that promoting students’ critical and independent thinking was the top aim for civics education.

“That’s a big one in other countries, too,” Kaufman said. “When teachers are asked internationally about this question, that comes up all the time.”

Other popular responses were developing students’ skills and competencies in conflict resolution, and promoting knowledge of citizens’ rights and responsibilities.

Only 5 percent of educators said they believed the goal was preparing students for future political engagement.

The civics field has in general faced tensions over whether it should prioritize foundational civics knowledge—like the legislative process and development of the Constitution—or hands-on instruction that shows students how to engage in civic avenues in their own communities.

Some recent social studies standards revisions in bellwether states such as Texas and Florida seem to align, at least in part, with what survey respondents believed was the goal of civics instruction.

The Texas State Board of Education in September approved minor changes to the state’s social studies standards to ensure they align to a state law limiting how topics of race and gender can be discussed in schools. Among those changes were additions to “civics components to our social studies standards, such as understanding the founding documents, civic engagement, and an appreciation of the United States and its form of government,” said board Chair Keven Ellis as reported by CBS News.

And in Florida, a revamped approach to civics instruction approved last year emphasizes American exceptionalism while downplaying hands-on instruction.

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The RAND survey also found variations on responses between male and female respondents. More female teachers than male teachers selected developing students’ skills and competencies in conflict resolution and supporting the development of effective strategies to reduce racism as among their top aims. Male teachers favored promoting knowledge of social, political, and civic institutions, and promoting the capacity to defend one’s point of view.

When it comes to well-rounded civics instruction, it’s not an either-or scenario for Lawrence Paska, the executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies.

“Students do need to have a grounding in basic knowledge, they need to understand how our federal versus our state versus our local systems of government work,” Paska said. “At the same time, what do you do with that information as you have it? How do you use that to be informed and thoughtful as a participant in our society?”

The RAND survey also found that elementary grade teachers were more likely to say that civics education was integrated into all subjects taught at a school. The subject, like social studies more broadly, lends itself to a cross-disciplinary approach.

But given how for decades there has been a decline in social studies instructional time, especially at the elementary level, Paska hopes the survey findings point to the need for greater investment in social studies in K-12.

“Integration shouldn’t be at the expense of civic education as a foundation of its own in the school curriculum,” Paska said.

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