Get Your Students Involved in Civics


Stephen C. Sansone

In September 1998, the National Constitution Center released the results of a nationwide phone survey of 600 teens between the ages of thirteen and seventeen. Cassandra Burrell of the Associated Press reported: “…only 2 percent can name the chief justice of the United States; …21 percent know there are 100 members of the Senate; …25 percent know the Constitution was written in Philadelphia; …less than 33 percent can name Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) as the speaker of the House.”1 The Chairman of the National Constitution Center, Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell, was quoted as he addressed a Senate Appropriations Committee panel: “I believe that …reversing this tide of ignorance is absolutely critical to the health of our democracy. The Constitution doesn’t work by itself. It depends on active, informed citizens.”2

These concerns beg two key questions: First, what are we doing wrong in the area of civics education? Second, how do we educate students to join the ranks of the informed citizenry? Discussing student ignorance of civics sixteen years ago in an editorial in U.S. News & World Report, Marvin Stone observed:

Nearly all states require some instruction in government for high-school graduation. How, then, is it possible for so many students to know so little and hold such wrong ideas? Much of the blame is placed by experts on dull teaching methods and on teachers’ excessive reliance on textbooks that fail to relate theory to the actual workings of government.3

As an alternative to dull teaching and overreliance on textbooks, I would like to suggest two strategies for teaching civics. The first aims at ensuring that students develop a political identity, which will stimulate their acquisition of the information and skills that are vital to becoming a functional participant in the “informed citizenry” of our democracy. The second strategy is the development of a participatory component to the curriculum. In science class we refer to this as a lab, in English classes we “publish,” and in driver’s education we call it “behind the wheel.” In social studies, simulations are a comparable activity, but they are less well-established than their counterparts in other curricular areas.


The Development of a Political Identity

Psychologists tell us that one of the tasks of adolescence is to allow young people to develop an individual identity. By the time they enter high school most teenagers have joined with others who share similar values and have begun developing a sense of identity. They call themselves boarders, jocks, preps, or a variety of other names that identify who they are in terms of dress, music, friends, activities, attitudes, and so on. Who they will evolve into as adults begins to form here. During this time, they start to formulate ideas about the kind of person they may want to marry and the type of career they want to pursue, and put together a lot of other different pieces of their future adult identity. Ask most high school seniors to describe their ideal future spouse or the perfect job and they can supply you with a reasonably thought-out and informed answer. They have a fairly good idea of who they are socially—“this is my music, these are my friends, this is what I do for fun.” Basically, “these are my values.” They also have a fairly good idea of who they are economically—“this is the school I want to attend and this is the career I am going to pursue.”

Unfortunately, many of today’s students do not develop a political identity. I suspect that students of the 1960s would have been more likely to know their position on the political spectrum and express their opinions than their 1990s counterparts. Young people in the 1960s had the Vietnam War to deal with. For many of them, it was a natural part of their overall identity to know who they were politically. Today’s youth, on the other hand, often seem more informed about the social rewards and consequences of being politically correct over such issues as which ear to get pierced.

To develop their political identity, students need to know more than just the names of their elected officials. Towards this end, I propose that all government or civic courses contain a certain number of “base knowledge concepts” aimed at helping students develop their political identity.


Base Knowledge Concepts

Base knowledge concepts are ideas that are fundamental in the acquisition of a political identity. These concepts should form the foundation of civics courses, and should be reinforced, revisited, and reapplied often. I describe four such concepts below.

The first, and perhaps most essential, base knowledge concept that needs to be taught is the political spectrum. This concept is often a basic ingredient of all civics courses, but it is likely to be under-taught.

A typical scenario may include asking students first to read a selection or hear a lecture defining the political spectrum and its various points. This may be followed by an application activity in which students are asked to analyze a series of statements vis-a-vis the concept and/or to decide at which position they stand. Perhaps three to five class periods can be spent on the topic, after which students are expected to have internalized enough information to place themselves on an overall political spectrum.

I have found the following approach successful in helping students develop a political identity. It begins with a pre-survey in which students are asked to respond to a forced choice questionnaire on a variety of issues without having any knowledge of the political spectrum, nor any clue that the activity is tied to that concept. Each issue contains a response from the various points on the spectrum. Students have to select the one response with which they most agree.

An example of different views on an issue is contained in the box dealing with national health insurance. Although the four viewpoints included are not the only possible ones, they serve the purpose of determining where most people fall on the spectrum. On this form, all the “A” or strongly liberal responses have a numerical value of one; all “B” or liberal responses are worth two; all “C” or conservative responses are worth four; and all all “D” or strongly conservative responses are worth five. (The numerical value of three is not assigned because it represents a mixed response which is not represented in the four choices.)

When many different political issues are covered, it is possible to sum the total number of responses to determine students’ overall position on the political spectrum. Thus, if students review twelve different issues, the value assigned to the strongly liberal point on the spectrum is twelve (12 x 1 = 12); the liberal position would have a value of twenty-four (12 x 2 = 24); a conservative overall position would have a value of forty-eight (12 x 4 = 48); and the strongly conservative position a value of sixty (12 x 5 = 60). A person with views evenly divided between liberal and conservative positions would score 36 points overall, and could be considered a moderate or independent.

After introducing the concept of the political spectrum, I ask students to identify where they think they fall on the spectrum. I then compare their self-impressions with their responses on the survey. The ideal outcome is that students find that both their heart (represented by their choices on the survey) and their head (where they assessed themselves on the spectrum after receiving instruction on the concept) end up on the same point.


National Health Insurance

For years many politicians have looked for ways to provide health insurance for all Americans. Some have proposed a national health insurance program in which the government would (through taxation and/or regulation) provide health care to all U.S. citizens. Everyone would be entitled to basic benefits. It might work somewhat like the Canadian system. There a healthy person pays the government a certain amount from each paycheck; then, when people need medical care (ranging from a shot to surgery) it is covered. How do you feel?

A. Not only should we have a program like this, but the government should regulate what doctors can make, how much hospitals can charge, and the cost of prescriptions in order to keep medical costs down. Health care is a basic human right, not just a privilege of the rich.

B. We need a program that provides good medical care for all people. I know it would cost money, but so does everything else. People who have their own health insurance could keep it, but the government would provide it to those who are uninsured. The private sector has failed here, so government needs to get involved. It is the right thing to do.

C. I could perhaps see something like this in a very limited version. Whatever program is set up it would have to be run by the private sector. Doing this sort of thing through the government would be way too costly.

D. If the government provided health care to everyone we would all get sick with the amount of money they would deduct from each check. Why should I be forced to pay for all those who are not willing to work? They would enjoy these benefits at my expense? No way! The government is already way too big.



What is desirable here is that students experience and practice what it takes to be part of an “informed citizenry.” Just as athletes need to practice a sport in order to develop into good players, students need to experience and practice various aspects of citizenship to develop into good citizens. Sounds oversimplified? Perhaps. But how common it is for students simply to be exposed briefly to the concept of the political spectrum in a high school civics class—via a textbook or lecture—and then, much later, as adults, to be expected to assume a position on it and become part of the informed citizenry. Many of the parents whom I meet at parent-teacher conferences relate stories about discussions which they have had with their son or daughter on this concept when it is introduced in class—often gaining a deeper understanding of it themselves.

The activity I just described is one example of how teachers can assist students in this process. Students need more opportunities to help them develop a political identity. As my students examine various issues, for example, I require that they research the positions of the various points on the spectrum. Another activity supplies students with generic campaign statements of various political candidates (whose names, party affiliations and political spectrum positions are removed). They are then asked to vote based solely on this information. After casting their ballot they are given the missing information and analyze if they voted consistently with what they perceive to be their own position on the spectrum. I also ask students to analyze abridged versions (again generic) of five political party platforms and then have them rank order their choices. This affords them an opportunity to see where the various political parties align themselves on the political spectrum. Suddenly terms such as Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, and Socialist, have more meaning as they develop a deeper understanding of who they are politically.

In addition to the political continuum, three other base knowledge concepts are extremely useful in helping students to develop a political identity.

1. The Issues Model. The Issues Model I use is a simple formula for dissecting an issue. It works much like an instruction sheet used to guide biology students through the dissection of a frog. Here, instead of opening up an animal to determine what is inside, students open up an issue to examine its contents.

The Issues Model involves a simple three step process by which students learn to look inside an issue at its various components. The first step simply identifies the issue the students are to examine (abortion, gun control, capital punishment, etc). This information is usually provided by the teacher. The second step, the position statement, is used to determine on which side of the issue (pro or con) the various arguments fall. Again, this information is usually provided by the instructor. The third step is the heart of the model. It is where the major arguments advanced by each side are listed by the student. This information is either generated from materials given to students by the instructor (e.g., magazine or newspaper articles), or discovered through their own research. Students can also be asked to classify each argument as either a factual statement or a value (opinion) statement.

2. The Decision-Making Model. The Decision-Making Model builds directly off the Issues Model by adding two additional steps. One step asks students to provide at least one “pro,” one “con,” and one “compromise” solution to the questions under examination. (As students become more versed in using the political spectrum, they can be asked to provide solutions proposed by various points on the spectrum.) The last step asks them to choose which position they support and justify their reasons for assuming that position.

3. The Continuum of Political Involvement. Another useful concept is the continuum of political involvement, which describes various degrees of political involvement and places them in a relative position on a continuum. The continuum consists of eleven degrees of political involvement, each of which is assigned a numeric value from zero to ten. These include:

0 = Apathy

1 = Staying Informed on Issues and Candidates

2 = Informed Voting

3 = Communicating with Elected Officials

4 = Supporting a Political Action Committee or Special Interest Group

5 = Supporting a Political Party or Candidate

6 = Joining a Political Party or Special Interest Group

7 = Direct Participation in Political Activities

8 = Non-Violent Civil Disobedience

9 = Violent Civil Disobedience

10 = Revolution


Here, students learn that as they slide down the continuum, both time expenditure and risk increase. Political involvement is, of course, essential to a democracy. The continuum helps students understand the variety of choices that exist in that regard. Most students can conceptualize what type of behavior is involved through point seven. However, points eight through ten are out of their realm of experience. Several films from our recent past can be shown to illustrate these points. A very useful one, the documentary The War At Home, chronicles the anti-war movement of the late 60s to early 70s. This film clearly illustrates how risky and time-consuming political involvement in controversial issues can become. As students develop their political identity, they should have some idea of how far they are willing to get involved, and at what expense, on political issues.


Participatory Activities

Teaching the “right stuff” is but half the battle—providing students opportunities to apply it is the other half. Again making an analogy to drivers’ education, I think civics education is lacking the “behind the whee#148; activities—specifically, in participatory activities. Students of civics spend too much time memorizing all the specific parts of the car, and too little time learning how to drive it.

I am afraid that participatory activities are often used more as a result of accident than by design. A teacher might see some boxed simulation kit in a catalog, decide that it fits into a unit and that the price is right, and then purchase it. This approach, however, can be haphazard and may result in incorporating the simulation merely as a side bar to the curriculum. It is as if the teacher is saying: “Bear with me through these boring lectures, readings and worksheets and we’ll take an intellectual recess of sorts and do a simulation.” My point is that simulations, or “participatory activities” as I prefer, should be as much a part of the curriculum as lectures, readings, and worksheets. What is needed is an approach which allows teachers to employ participatory activities as part of their regular unit designs. Perhaps the best rationale for inserting this element into unit designs lies in the ancient Chinese proverb which simply states: “Tell me, I forget. Show me, I remember. Involve me, I understand.” Traditional unit designs, which lack the participatory element, address only the first two statements of the proverb— “telling” and “showing.” Unit designs which include a participatory component “involve” students.

Teachers have the option of conducting participatory activities at any of three different levels of complexity and sophistication.4

Level One: These are activities that can be either individual or group oriented and usually last one to three class periods. They usually expand a concept or topic taught in regular instruction through textbooks, lectures or films. A typical Level 1 activity would be a lesson focusing on the work of Congressional Standing Committees that is designed for two class periods. On the first day, students are placed in groups of three to five individuals and asked to consider a bill linking driving privileges for teenagers to academic performance and attendance in high school. Students may amend the bill, kill the bill and submit a clean bill, or approve the bill as written. On the second day, each group presents its recommendation and the results are used as the basis for class discussion on both the issue and the power and role of Congressional standing committees.

Level Two: These activities can be either individual or group oriented and usually last two to five class periods. They could either expand a concept or topic taught through regular instruction, or introduce students to new concepts. A three-period lesson which focuses on a flag protection amendment typifies a Level Two activity. On the first day, students are placed in groups of three to five individuals and asked to review and discuss a two page fact sheet containing information regarding the recent history of the issue, the proposed amendment and ratification process, and several of the major arguments presented from both the pro and con sides. Students are then asked to decide whether to ratify or defeat the amendment, as well as state the reasons for their action. Groups are given time on the second day to complete this process, and each group then presents its recommendation to the class. Group presentations are completed on the third day, and the activity concludes with a class debate on the issue and a majority vote on a final recommendation.

Level Three: These are activities that can be both individual and group oriented and often comprise a major part of a unit’s time allocation. The activities both expand concepts and topics taught through regular instruction and introduce new concepts.

Such activities could range in length from a five-class-period lesson on budget cutting to a mock trial lasting seventeen class periods, and a mock Congress which lasts up to twenty-four class periods. The budget cutting activity asks students to act as school board members who must reduce their high school athletic and activity budgets by 40 percent and then justify each cut to their classmates who represent the larger community.

The mock trial involves ten class periods of preparation during which attorneys and witnesses learn the rules for asking and answering direct and cross-examination questions; attorneys prepare opening and closing statements and direct and cross-examination questions; jurors are sequestered; and, court reporters prepare exhibits. The trial itself then last six class periods, followed by a debriefing activity which consumes one class period.

The mock Congress includes three phases and can be implemented within a time frame of between seventeen and twenty-four class periods. In phase one, students independently research the history of an issue and both sides of the argument about it. This occurs over a period of several weeks as other units are being taught. Research periods are scheduled, during which classes are brought into the school library to access a variety of printed and electronic media resources. During phase two, students work on organizing their research into committee reports, and prepare a bill or resolution to be presented for consideration in the mock Congress. Finally, in phase three, the legislative process is simulated with the convening of the mock Congress. Here research committees report on their issue, and bills and resolutions are submitted to standing committees for consideration prior to floor debate. Two sessions of floor debate then occur, each lasting three class periods, during which time bills and resolutions are debated, amended, and finally voted upon. Political parties are also formed; these nominate a presidential candidate, who, if elected, will either sign or veto the legislation passed in Congress.

For assessments of student performance in activities at levels 1 or 2, an evaluation can be made of a written paper or oral presentation by an individual or group. At level 3, evaluation is more challenging. In the trial simulation, it would be inadvisable to place too much emphasis on the performance of roles, because there are significant differences between them (e.g., being an attorney versus being a juror). A better approach might be to evaluate a reaction paper in which students discuss the trial. In the mock Congress simulation, in the research phase, assessment could focus on the quality and quantity of student notes. Later on, the teacher might evaluate the committee reports and bill of resolution. In the final phase, as students go through the legislative process, the teacher can evaluate contributions to the floor debate by keeping a running total of the number of meaningful contributions made by students to the debate.



As teachers of civics, one question we must ask about our classes is: “Will it make a difference?” I was a high school student of the 60s. I saw young people develop political identities. I saw young people learn about citizenship through political participation. I also saw what it did to the country. I would hate to think that the only way to achieve civic involvement is through another major and divisive issue. I believe that there is a better, more civil, approach.

What I find most alarming is not the failure of students to name government officials. I would argue, in fact, that courses which focus on students learning such rote and ever-changing data as the names of elected officials may be a big part of what is wrong with civics education. What bothers me most is when students are unable to state where they stand on the political spectrum, and when they lack the necessary skills to dissect political issues. Once students learn to define their political attitudes, express their positions and monitor important issues, knowledge about “who’s who in government” should follow naturally.

I do not feel that it is necessary to institute sweeping changes into the civics curriculum. We can go a long way with a more precise focus on concepts such as developing a political identity, and more practical “behind the whee#148; activities that allow students the opportunities to apply the skills that drive an informed citizenry.



1. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, September 3, 1998, p. 7A.

2. Ibid.

3. Marvin Stone, “Civics Gap: Alarming Challenge,” U.S. News & World Report, April 25, 1983.

4. These and other activities are presented in greater detail in a Teacher’s Guide that I have written for a forthcoming high school government textbook of which I am the co-author. See Stephen C. Sansone, American Government: Teacher’s Resource Book (Wilmington, MA: Great Source Education Group, in press). The Teacher’s Resource Book was written for the textbook by Ethel Wood and Stephen C. Sansone, American Government: A Complete Coursebook (Wilmington, MA: Great Source Education Group, in press).


Stephen C. Sansone has taught U.S. History and Government for 23 years in the Waukesha Public School District, Wisconsin, and is currently teaching at Waukesha South High School. He holds a B.S. in Social Studies and English Education and an M.S. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.