Youth Need Every Teacher to Be a Civics Teacher Today - Here’s Why (and How)

Dr. Nicole Mirra is an Associate Professor of Urban Teacher Education, Learning & Teaching at Rutgers University in the Graduate School of Education. Dr. Antero Garcia is an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University and Vice President of the National Council of Teachers of English. Dr. Mirra and Dr. Garcia recently published their book, Civics for the World to Come (2023), which they discuss below as our guest bloggers.  

Civics for the World to Come

More and more data points are telling us the same thing: young people feel that much of what they are learning at school is disconnected from the increasingly turbulent world in which they are coming of age. 

A national survey by Gallup and the Walton Family Foundation conducted in November 2023 found that large swaths of youth are pessimistic about the future and stressed that their classes are not supporting them to engage with real world issues. In another survey from Common Sense Media published in January 2024, young people reported that elected officials are not focused on the issues they care most about and doubted if they would have more opportunity in life than their parents. These findings compound existing data about increased mental health concerns among youth and lower school attendance and engagement.

As teacher educators and scholars of literacy and civic education, we believe that the root of young people’s distress reaches beyond any one singular culprit (e.g. the pandemic or social media) but rather speaks to a deep and abiding civic uncertainty. Young people want education that is oriented toward the social issues that are stalking them into adulthood - from climate catastrophe to war to political polarization - and that can support them to build a more empathetic and compassionate world than the one they experience today. 

This data, reflecting the pain of our youth, is a call to transform our entire approach to civic education in public schools – one that engages every educator across grade levels and subject areas. 

How we teach civics is outdated and out of touch with what young people need to know and do to face the existential challenges they face in the 21st century – and it ignores the knowledge and creative ideas that youth already possess to light the way forward. We need a fundamentally different approach that makes civic learning the core of every subject area and the central purpose of public schooling.

For over a decade, our work has examined two core problems with today’s approach to civic education. First, what counts as civic knowledge is too narrowly defined. And second, there is a disappointing disconnect between school-based civic knowledge and real world action.

Civic and historical knowledge as measured in state standards and on the NAEP assessment amounts to a collection of trivia isolated from historical context or real-life purpose. The New York Times published some sample test questions that exemplify just how random the questions can feel.

Perhaps students cannot recall on demand which constitutional amendment forbids cruel and unusual punishment, but they can tell you about any number of cruel and unusual attacks on democracy and their futures that are happening around them. An epidemic of school shootings that legislative bodies have not taken action to stem. Books being banned in their classrooms. 

It’s clear that students are immersed in deep, complex civic learning right now. Why isn’t it valued?

Some respond that students need to learn those isolated facts about how government works so that they will be ready to address these challenges when they get older. The logic here is that civic knowledge is what youth learn now and that civic action is what adults do later.

Yet we know that this is not how learning works – people pursue information when they need it to achieve desired outcomes in their everyday lives. When young people care about something that is meaningfully affecting their lives, they are motivated to fill in the background knowledge. We see this with youth-led movements for issues like peace, gun control, LGBTQ rights, and climate justice. 

A just-the-facts approach to civics fails to value young people’s knowledge and experience. It fails to meet the challenges of the moment. And it fails to connect to robust democratic participation. We need a new model for civic education.

Our book, Civics for the World to Come: Committing to Democracy in Every Classroom (Norton, 2023), argues that civic education should be integrated into every subject area – not just an individual civics or social studies class. We believe that all teachers can enact commitments in their teaching that support youth to build better futures. These commitments include:

1. Inquiry – We need to support students to ask big questions (Why are things this way?)

2. Storytelling – We need to support students to listen and tell their civic stories (Whose voices need to be heard?)

3. Networking – We need to support students to learn from others across lines of difference (How can we connect with each other?)

4. Imagination – We need to support students to play and dream about the future (What society do we want to build together?)

5. Advocacy – We need to support students to turn their dreams into reality (How do we get to the future we want?)

 Focusing on these skills in all of our classrooms can provide a powerful foundation for a renewed public life in which young people are seen as the burgeoning civic leaders that they are.