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Books in Translation

Colleges, Careers, Citizenship
April 12, 2012 | Volume 7 | Issue 14
Table of Contents 

Civics in Action Motivates Students

Scott Warren and Daniel Millenson

In his State of the Union address, President Obama decried the growing skills gap among workers in the U.S. economy, citing business leaders who would like to employ Americans but "can't find workers with the right skills." This raises the question of whether schools are preparing students for an increasingly obsolete manufacturing economy instead of the current "knowledge economy." The idea has become a common theme in op-ed pages and education conferences, especially as the U.S. unemployment rate remains persistently high.

Chief executive officers, politicians, and think tanks have called for schools to teach 21st century skills, a phrase that encompasses everything from critical thinking to persuasive communication to group collaboration. They may be right, but their vision for public schools is incomplete. By teaching citizenship through an "action civics" pedagogy, educators not only impart such skills, but also help students make them relevant by applying them to issues they care about.

Civics is frequently taught ineffectively. State standards are overly fact-based and fail to provide students with the skills needed for effective, active citizenship (Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, 2011). For low-income and minority students, the problem is particularly pronounced because they are far more likely to experience heavily fact-based civics courses with "little or no effect on the vast majority of students" (Niemi & Junn, 1998).

Meanwhile, wealthier students are twice as likely as those of average socioeconomic status to study the legislative process or participate in service activities, and 150 percent more likely to do in-class debates—the very sorts of activities that boost civic learning and participation (Levinson, 2007).

It should therefore be no surprise that "African-American and Hispanic students are twice as likely as their white counterparts to score below proficient on national civics assessments . . . [a] similar civic knowledge gap exists between America's wealthiest and poorest students" (The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, 2011). Without pedagogies and activities that help students see the relevance of the democratic process in their own lives, the civic engagement gap and the skills gap are likely to remain wide.

Enter Action Civics

In action civics programs like those pioneered by Generation Citizen (which uses "near-peer" [mentors who are a few years older than their mentees] college volunteers to aid teachers) or Chicago's Mikva Challenge, students choose an issue that they care about, which guarantees their motivation to work on it. They learn about the democratic process through researching issues that affect them every day. They then learn 21st century skills, such as researching an issue, strategically formulating a plan of action, and persuasively writing and speaking about it by taking real action on their chosen issue. Whether they want to address teen unemployment by holding a job fair with local businesses or address one of the root causes of gang violence by training local parents to become more involved in students' lives, students learn civics by doing civics.

Doing civics involves precisely the same set of skills demanded by today's knowledge economy. Data from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement indicates that effective civic engagement can lead to improved academic achievement. In a recent study, when community service was performed as a class requirement, students saw academic performance in reading rise 6.7 percent and history 3.3 percent (Dávila & Mora, 2007). Civic engagement in high school provides fuel for future educational attainment, significantly increasing college graduation odds, even when controlling for socioeconomic and demographic factors. By becoming engaged in their communities, students grow to understand the relevance of their education, which increases their academic motivation (Dávila & Mora, 2007).

Like the hook of any good lesson, action civics establishes and builds on relevance to students' lives. And by giving students the experience applying 21st century skills to bring about change in their own lives and communities, action civics helps schools fulfill both their academic and civic missions. Civics will no longer be the most boring class in school, but rather, the class that ties every subject together in a relevant and exciting way.


Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. (2011). Guardian of democracy: the civic mission of schools. Silver Spring, MD: The Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics. Retrieved from

Dávila, A., & Mora, M. T. (2007). Civic engagement and high school academic progress: Analysis using NELS data. Medford, MA: The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. Retrieved from

Levinson, M. (2007). The civic achievement gap. Medford, MA: The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. Retrieved from

Niemi, R., & Junn, J. (1998). Civics education: What makes students learn. New Haven, CT: Yale University.

Scott Warren is the cofounder and executive director of Generation Citizen. Daniel Millenson is the managing director of Generation Citizen.


ASCD Express, Vol. 7, No. 14. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit

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  • Sandra_Wozniak 3 years ago

    The folks at the non-profit have developed a great online discussion tool that allows students to discuss top issues on authentic scenarios from different perspectives. The 2.0 web tool guides student's discussions using a critical thinking strategy called SCAN (See the issues, Clarify the Issues, Assess what's important, and Name next steps). They select a point of view and enter into a private discussion area to promote their point of view. Great way to get kids to see different perspectives and practice civil discourse. There are scenarios on the First Amendment (T-shirt Controversy), 4th Amendment (Locker Searches), Current Events (Airline Security. Internet and Privacy), etc. Register and check out the free lessons at Students have used these lessons as jumping off points for community action (Grafifiti: Art or Vandalism?). Great way to get kids thinking on relevant issues.