Civics Classroom Resources for Direct Instruction

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor


The new Illinois Social Studies Standards and civics course requirement demonstrate that the “how” is as important as the “what” in closing the civic education gap. Just as knowledge of the Rules of the Road does not prepare a person to operate a motor vehicle; the ability to pass a test on civic knowledge does not prepare an individual for civic life. One needs to “get behind the wheel” and practice the knowledge, skills and dispositions of civic efficacy. Inquiry is the “GPS” that guides effective direct instruction in the civics classroom.

Inquiry begins with questioning. Albert Einstein realized this when he stated:
“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask… for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”
The new civics standards ask students to address essential questions that reflect enduring issues; as well as develop their own essential and supporting questions (SS.IS.1 &3). Civic course design and teaching strategies should be anchored in compelling inquiries where students use disciplinary knowledge to investigate the issues facing our democratic republic. Student preparation for engagement in the workings of our democracy begins with questions.

There are a number of free resources available to help facilitate direct instruction rooted in inquiry.
  • The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) from the Right Question Institute is a simple but elegant protocol for helping students design good questions. Teachers can register for their Educator Network for free and have access to training in the QFT and classroom resources.
  • The C3 Collaborative Project from the National Council for the Social Studies includes resources to help teachers develop questions and plan inquiries for existing or new lessons.
  • To understand the connection of questioning and innovation, Warren Berger hosts a blog named after his best-selling book, A More Beautiful Question. This site gives a more global perspective on the importance of questioning in our daily lives.
  • C3teachers.org has sample student inquiries for civics that can be used/ adapted to guide direct instruction.
Do you have any resources to share to help facilitate effective direct instruction in the civics classroom? Please send your suggestions to MDaneels@illinoiscivics.org. Together, we can prepare Illinois students for college, career and civic life.

Parsing Proven Civic Learning Practices, Part I: Direct Instruction

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar, Robert R. McCormick Foundation


In the next four weeks, Illinois Civics Lead Teacher Mentor Mary Ellen Daneels and I will walk through the four proven civic learning practices central to the new high school civics course requirement: direct instruction, discussion, service learning, and simulations. I’ll begin each week with a post on the efficacy and indicators of each practice, and Mary Ellen will follow in the middle of the week with an entry on an effective resource to incorporate this practice into your classroom.

We begin with direct instruction and the understanding that civics course exposure, particularly as an upperclassman, improves civic knowledge and skills. Classroom learning experiences are also predictive of positive civic dispositions, and direct instruction, when practiced in an “open” classroom environment, leads to positive social norms like working hard, voting, obeying the law, and media attentiveness.

Indicators of direct instruction begin with course design and teaching strategies. Teachers should make explicit civic learning connections between formal instruction and concrete student actions. Moreover, courses should include historic and contemporary political and civic texts that communicate ideas in writing, speech, and other media.

Course content can be expansive, but should certainly address the U.S. Constitution and its fundamental principles as applied to both the past and present (the Illinois Constitution requirement lives on!); the structure of government at various levels (national, state, and local); and ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship in a democratic republic.

Finally, critical thinking skills are central to the new Illinois Social Science Standards and the coming civics course requirement. For example, students should be able to evaluate international, national, state, and local public policies on the basis of intended outcomes and related outcomes. They should also be able to propose any necessary policy reforms.

Please examine our complete list of indicators of direct instruction.

Answers to Your Questions About the New Course Requirement

Since the new high school civics course requirement was signed into law by Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner last August, we have been inundated with questions about both its general and specific parameters. While school and district accountability lies in the hands of the Illinois State Board of Education and its regional offices, we have attempted to answer these questions to the best of our abilities.

Our frequently-asked questions section of the IllinoisCivics website categorizes questions by course overview, funding, course implementation, and professional development and resources. In total, 42 questions are addressed, and we encourage you to comb through each of them and inform us where we have fallen short or failed to anticipate a question entirely.

A couple of questions have surfaced repeatedly and are worthy of further examination here:

Do existing American government courses satisfy the civics course requirement?
Yes, with two caveats: First, qualifying government courses must address the content specified in the law, including instruction on government institutions, current and controversial issues discussions, service-learning, and simulations of democratic processes. Second, this course must be offered in addition to the existing one-credit United States History and/or Government requirement.

What additional guidance is available to schools as they develop new civics courses or modify existing courses? 
Beyond a statewide system of professional development opportunities starting this summer, teachers, schools, and districts are encouraged to explore a comprehensive list of state and national organizations positioned to support the new civics course requirement. Also, new Illinois Social Science Standards were adopted by the Illinois State Board of Education in June 2015 and will take effect during the 2017-2018 school year. The standards contain a K-12 civics strand and will be helpful in providing guidance for course content and curriculum.

Once more, please let us know what remaining questions you may have about the new course requirement and our plans to support its implementation throughout Illinois.

Announcing the IllinoisCivics Summer PD Tour

As alluded to in our preliminary post last month, teacher professional development opportunities are central to our #CivicsIsBack Campaign. We are building a train-the-trainer model, where a cadre of teacher mentors representing every region of Illinois will receive intense training during the first full week of June in Bloomington-Normal. For the balance of the summer, mentors will be deployed to two-day workshops that touch every corner of the state.

These workshops, held in partnership with local colleges, universities, and Regional Offices of Education, will center on teaching the 2016 Election, but address all facets of the new civics course requirement, related updates to state social studies standards, and perhaps most importantly, why civic learning matters (visit our recent four-part series on this subject).


Attendees will also learn more about the programs, curricula, and resources of nationally-recognized civic education partners, Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago, Facing History and Ourselves, and Mikva Challenge.

To view our full calendar of regional workshops this coming summer, please click here. Each of the workshops is hyperlinked to an online registration form. We encourage you to register at your earliest convenience as space at each location is limited.

Although you are welcome to attend the workshop most convenient to you, we have attempted to serve the entire state and thus allocated each of the state’s 102 counties to one of nine regional trainings. A map making these demarcations clear is accessible here.

Finally, please note that the Illinois Civics Teacher Academy, included within the Professional Development Calendar, is an initiative of Kankakee Community College. It entails are more intensive four-day experience with residential options for out-of-town attendees, and focuses specifically on law-related education.

Civic Learning Prepares Students for College and Careers (Why Civic Learning Matters, Part IV)

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar, Robert R. McCormick Foundation


I’ve already established why civic learning matters and its fostering of students’ civic development. Moreover, when provided equitably, civic learning helps close the civic empowerment gap. In today’s fourth and final post on this subject, I’ll demonstrate how civic learning builds 21st Century competencies, improves school climate, and reduces the school drop-out rate.

 Schools have a historic civic mission, but they must also prepare students for college and careers. The combination of traditional and student-centered classroom-based civic learning opportunities builds 21st Century competencies transferable to success in higher education and professional careers like creativity, critical thinking, economic knowledge, global awareness, media literacy, and working collaboratively with peers.

Schools must not merely teach democracy. They are themselves mini-polities and should practice democracy in their day-to-day governance. Civic learning helps improve school climate by teaching the importance of community, respectful dialogue, teamwork, and diversity. The benefits of sustained, positive school climate transcend civic learning. Positive school climate promotes students’ social-emotional development, which in turn leads to cognitive gains and greater student achievement across subject areas (National School Climate Council, 2007; Cohen, 2006).

Finally, while the number of students who graduate from high school on time is at a four-decade high, more than two-in-ten students still fail to complete high school in four years. The problem is more pronounced for students of color, with one-third of African-American and three-in-ten Hispanic students failing to meet this threshold.

Bridgeland et al (2006) interviewed high school drop-outs, ages 16-25, and concluded that “…while some students drop out because of significant academic challenges, most dropouts are students who could have, and believe they could have, succeeded in school." Many recommended making school more interesting, and suggested that if schools offered experiential civic learning opportunities like service learning and simulations, linked to the “real world,” it would have improved their chances of graduating.

The case for school-based civic learning closes with a unanimous verdict in its favor. Its return in Illinois will help resuscitate our civic health and restore both faith in and functioning of our governmental institutions.

Bridging the Democracy Divide (Why Civic Learning Matters, Part III)

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar, Robert R. McCormick Foundation


Civic learning closes the civic empowerment gap, but research suggests that students of color and lower economic strata are less likely to experience these high-quality opportunities in school.

In a study of 2,500 California high school students, African-American students reported fewer civic-oriented government classes. Asian American and Latino students were less likely to experience an open classroom environment, and Latino students also had fewer service learning experiences.

These inequities also assumed a class-based dimension: students of higher socioeconomic status were more likely to report studying how laws are made, to participate in service activities, and to experience debates and panel discussions.

Unequal learning opportunities lead to a racial and socioeconomic civic achievement gap every bit as stark as those in reading and math. Across the last three iterations of the National Assessment of Education Progress in Civics among 12th graders, white and Asian students vastly outperform their African-American and Hispanic peers on measures of civic knowledge and skills. The same is true of students’ maternal educational attainment. Test scores rise in order for students whose mothers dropped out of high school through those that completed college.

These civic achievement gaps translate into participatory inequalities and related disparities in public policy outcomes. These disparities begin with voting, but widen when it comes to contacting public officials, service on a committee or as an officer in a group, or even taking consumer actions for political purposes.

Thankfully, research demonstrates that “demographics are not destiny,” and that universally-available, high quality, school-based civic learning opportunities can close the racial and socioeconomic empowerment gap that cripples our democracy.

A majority of K-12 students in Illinois are non-white, and similar percentages qualify for free or reduced lunch, the standard measure for poverty. Thanks to the new statewide civics course requirement, students of all races, ethnicities, and social classes will experience proven civic learning practices as we make definitive strides towards closing the participatory gap that plagues our democracy.

Civic Learning Educates Youth for Democracy (Why Civic Learning Matters, Part II)

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar, Robert R. McCormick Foundation

Civic learning matters: High-quality, school-based civic learning builds students’ civic knowledge, skills, and commitments, critical ingredients for informed and effective engagement in our democracy throughout life.

Students exposed to high school civics courses exhibit greater civic knowledge. The quantity and proximity of civics course exposure predicts civic knowledge. My own research has demonstrated that high school students benefit most from taking a civics course as upperclassmen.

In a national survey of youth ages 18-24 after the 2012 presidential election, those with quality high school civic learning experiences were more likely to understand campaign issues, form political opinions, recall facts about U.S. political system, and vote.

It is a mix of traditional and student-centered learning practices that yields optimal student civic outcomes, including skills and commitments. An international study demonstrated that students scored highest on social norms like working hard, obeying the law, intent to vote, and media literacy when enrolled in courses with a mix of direct instruction and experiential practices like discussion, service learning, and simulations of democratic processes.

In order to participate in our democracy, individuals must both believe that they can make a difference and also that government and institutions will be responsive to their engagement. A longitudinal study of Chicago high school students demonstrates classroom learning experiences and service learning opportunities are the primary contributors to building students’ civic engagement commitments.

The new civics course requirement in Illinois encapsulates these practices, and our implementation plans will support teachers, schools, and districts with teacher professional development and access to curriculum and resources aligned with the desirable student outcomes articulated above.
In the next post we will address the issue of equity in both students’ civic learning opportunities and related civic engagement outcomes.

Why Civic Learning Matters, Part I

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar, Robert R. McCormick Foundation

Low levels of civic engagement are well-documented across successive generational cohorts in the United States. Our citizenry is increasingly disconnected from the elected and appointed officials who represent us in government. At the same time, the scale of problems facing our democracy have grown as civil society has shrunk, weakening our collective capacity to address them.

These problems are particularly acute in Illinois, and most pronounced among our youngest citizens. According to the 2012 Illinois Civic Health Index (2013, McCormick Foundation and the National Conference on Citizenship), Illinois Millennials (ages 18-29) fare poorly when compared to their national peers on several measures of civic engagement. Fewer than three-in-ten vote regularly in local elections (29.8% in Illinois compared to 34.9% nationally), ranking 47th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Illinois Millennials rarely speak to (29%, 45th) or receive favors from (7.2%, 42nd) neighbors, or work with them to resolve a community problem (2.2%, 48th).

While by no means a panacea, high-quality, school-based civic learning opportunities present a partial solution to what imperils the very state of our democracy. Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools (Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics, 2011) makes a profound case for the benefits of school-based civic learning, including:
  1. Promoting civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions
  2. Closing the civic empowerment gap
  3. Building Twenty-First Century competencies
  4. Improving school climate
  5. Reducing the drop-out rate
I'll elaborate on each of these documented benefits in the next three posts that follow.