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.

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