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Civics education
August 15, 2018 — The first day of school at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Credit: Carl Juste/TNS via ZUMA Wire

School systems are failing their students with outdated and inconsequential civics education that is only focused on facts and memorization.

The simple multiple-choice questions found on most civics tests require memorization of unconnected facts in order to pass. Samples include:

Which of the following includes three of the 13 original states?

Who is in charge of the executive branch?

Which of the following are national U.S. holidays?

Today, students have a lot more on their minds than memorizing the three branches of the U.S. government. They are in the streets exercising democracy in the pursuit of political change. Students will no longer tolerate gun laws that fail to keep them safe in their schools or neighborhoods.

Related: COLUMN: Marjory Stoneman Douglas students give legislators a civics lesson

In a similar manner, their teachers are engaging in expressing their frustrations and concerns over funding and school safety, taking to the streets in demonstrations, walkouts and strikes. Teachers will no longer tolerate being treated less than the professionals they are. Arizona educators, who walked out of classrooms and schools on April 26, are the latest to join teachers in Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia in actively protesting and raising concerns with their legislatures.

Students and teachers hold signs, make speeches, craft policy proposals and negotiate with lawmakers. In short, they are demonstrating what real civic engagement looks like. Yet how do our schools prepare them for these actions when the civics topics they learn in school do not include logical and critical thinking about how government systems work, and how public engagement in the processes can create the change they hope to see?

”If the old adage holds true that we measure what matters, then state civics tests need a serious overhaul so that they accurately measure students’ abilities to ask hard questions, shift their personal perspectives, argue with evidence and truly listen.”

Ironically, many students will not be asked to demonstrate any of these skills when they take their required civics test in order to graduate from high school.

What should schools do?

Developing and providing curricula, and testing that is based in real-world problem-solving, are critical. Students’ actions today exemplify civic competencies as described by The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. These competencies go beyond memorization and include intellectually rigorous thinking with participatory engagement in schools and communities.

Young people don’t become competent in these areas by magic. They have teachers who intentionally provide curricula that are meant to cultivate these skills and dispositions. The student-leaders from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School impressed us all with their public speaking and debate skills — which they gained by participating in one of the largest district-wide debate programs in the country.

“Student engagement” does not mean passively watching or listening to something interesting. It means asking questions, grappling with diverse opinions and learning to articulate ideas. Students need frequent opportunities to practice engagement by doing work that is meaningful and authentic for them.

Related: How social studies can help young kids make sense of the world

Community connections are also key to civic engagement. Students need to understand their local communities. People are not compelled to engage with something or someone they don’t know. This requires that schools go well beyond the traditional annual field trips and get kids out and into their communities on a regular basis.

City High School, in Tucson, Arizona, focuses on community connections and place-based education, emphasizing the importance of civic engagement in all grade levels through various projects. Students at City High School grapple with issues of public concern when they study the widening of city streets and the various businesses that will be affected; when they walk the perimeter of the Tucson Convention Center and learn about eminent domain; when they study water issues in the Southwest; and when they learn about legislation that threatens the very same natural wilderness areas they camp in during school trips.

Compare this learning to the types of questions on current state civics exams, which are based on fact-based citizenship tests. While it may be important for students to cite certain facts within evidence-based arguments, their understanding and application of principles must move beyond simple memorization.

If the old adage holds true that we measure what matters, then state civics tests need a serious overhaul so that they accurately measure students’ abilities to ask hard questions, shift their personal perspectives, argue with evidence and truly listen.

Our educational system needs to adapt to this thinking by promoting civics curricula and instruction that engage students and teachers in real-world democratic decision-making. And only then should students be put to the test.

This story about teaching and civics education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Joan Gilbert is a retired educator and a fellow with the Public Voices OpEd Project.

Eve Rifkin is a public school educator of over 20 years, co-founder of City High School in Arizona and a fellow with the Public Voices OpEd Project.

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