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Towards Deeper Civic Learning

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This post is by Peter Levine, the director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), at Tufts University, and Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the deputy director of CIRCLE.


Last month, Arizona and North Dakota became the first two states to require high school students to take and--if they wish to graduate--exceed a cut-off score on the civics test that the federal government administers to individuals seeking to become naturalized U.S. citizens. At last count, similar laws are pending in fourteen other state legislatures.

Proponents argue that every citizen, whether native born or naturalized, should possess certain key pieces of knowledge, mostly about the Constitution and American history. Further, they argue that today's students often lack such knowledge; that existing state policies do little to promote civic education; and that a multiple-choice test can improve instruction and motivate students to learn this material.

Only, that argument fails on multiple levels. For one thing, American students' concrete factual knowledge of American history and laws does not look especially weak, depending on how one judges their responses to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics assessment and other surveys. Further, most states do in fact mandate civics courses. (Thus, among students who complete the 12th grade, at least 90 percent have taken at least one semester of civics.) Moreover, many states already require students to take civics exams that are more difficult, and cover more topics, than the naturalization test. 

Most important of all, if the goal is to promote active and informed citizenship, then it makes little sense to ask high schools to teach to a multiple choice test like the one used by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Rather, and as we argue in our new paper, "Civic Education and Deeper Learning"--part of Students at the Center's Deeper Learning Research Series--the priority should be to give students frequent opportunities to read and talk with one another about pressing social and political issues, identify civic problems that interest them, deliberate about possible solutions, and when their deliberations suggest a promising course of action, pursue it.

Out of concern about the civic health of their communities, state legislators may be tempted to go with a simplistic, quick-fix approach, such as requiring students to memorize basic facts about American history and law. But that's no way to teach active citizenship. As we've found through our own research and the research literature writ large, the best and most effective civic learning is in fact deeper learning; and the deeper the learning, the more it empowers young people to be good citizens.




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