Civic Ideals into Practice:Democracy in the Elementary School

Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of the ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship in a democratic republic. An understanding of civic ideals and practices of citizenship is critical to full participation in society
and is a central purpose of the social studies.
So begins the description of
the tenth, and perhaps most important, strand of the National Council for the Social Studies' Curriculum Standards: Civic Ideals and Practices. This strand guides teachers and young people in examining the meaning of citizenship, identifying democratic ideals, exploring the connections between the "common good" and citizen action, and practicing forms of civic discussion and participation. In this article, I will address various strategies for
making democratic concepts and the practice of citizenship relevant and concrete in the lives of young people.
Citizenship can only be learned meaningfully within the context of community, and the school is the sole institution available to all children to learn about the roles, rights, and responsibilities of being a community member. While family, church, the media, and the streets all play powerful roles in children's development, it is schools that provide the greatest opportunity for youth to work toward shared goals and to uphold both individual rights and the common good. The communal nature of public school classrooms offers students an excellent opportunity to balance the development of individual character, autonomy, and confidence with the strengthening of a public self through dialogue, decision making, and cooperative learning. An important component of civic education is teaching the ideals and principles of our democratic government. At the elementary level, this can at appear to be a daunting task. Liberty, justice, equality, human rights, and democracy are abstract concepts, and therefore, easily misinterpreted by young minds (Torney-Purta, 1991; Wade, 1994a). While teachers might choose to introduce these concepts within the context of social studies units, a more effective approach is to address them as concrete aspects of democratic practice in the classroom, school, and community. Democratic participation in these three spheres offers a further important benefit beyond conceptual understanding: the opportunity to develop the habits, skills, and attitudes of civic participation through direct experience.

The Necessity of Civic Participation
Plato believed that if people intellectually understood the good, they would be good. Aristotle, on the other hand, felt that people would become good only if they engaged in the practice of just and virtuous actions. Most advocates of civic education assert that we should heed the advice of both Plato and Aristotle, lest we risk action without conviction or reasoning that does not carry over into action (Lickona, 1991).

Certainly, some basic academic knowledge is essential for democratic citizens. An understanding of democratic processes and institutions (Pratte, 1988), the conflict and content in U.S. history (Battistoni, 1985) and formal instruction in civics, history, and citizenship (Barber, 1984) have all been proposed. Yet all of these educators and many others assert that knowledge alone will not suffice in efforts to develop active citizens. Three other components are necessary: skills for participation (e.g. communication, critical thinking, persuasion, compromise), attitudes that engender the will to act in the public sphere (care for others, civility, respect, compassion, benevolence, integrity), and active involvement in community life (Barber, 1984; Battistoni, 1985; Pratte, 1988). Students don't need isolated civics lessons, they need opportunities to develop all four components through the practice of civic behaviors (Pratte, 1988). Following are just a few of the many ways to involve students as participants in their classrooms, schools, and communities.

Developing a Democratic Classroom

A democratic classroom is one in which students make choices and decisions that effect their daily lives in school. Students identify democratic classrooms as "ours," not as just their teacher's. Teachers can offer students the opportunity to make decisions about what they study, how they demonstrate their learning, and how the classroom is arranged. Students can also raise issues of mutual concern and engage in problem solving. Rather than teaching negotiation, critical thinking, or perspective taking as isolated skills, teachers can enhance students' motivation to develop and practice these skills through the process of addressing classroom issues of concern to them.

One useful strategy for involving children in these aspects of democratic participation is the class meeting. In a daily or weekly meeting, students present issues of concern, take turns leading the meeting, and devise plans of action to solve problems. The teacher can also bring decision making opportunities to the meeting. (For further discussion see Wade, 1992).

An important focus for student decision making either in or outside of a class meeting is the development of a set of class rules or a class bill of rights. After discussing the type of classroom community necessary to support student learning and respectful relationships, students can brainstorm rules or rights that will uphold such a community. This activity can be conducted during the first few weeks of school or as a mid-year assessment and revision of the rules determined by the teacher.

Teachers can take further advantage of the learning opportunities provided by a democratic classroom structure by guiding students in discussing their direct experiences of equity, discrimination, democracy, justice, and so forth in the classroom community. As students recognize the place of these abstract concepts in their own lives, they can then begin to apply them to social and political issues in the world around them.

Building a Democratic School Community

Dewey advocated building community in public schooling through students' participation in the planning process and their active contributions in doing good works for the school (Beninga, 1991). Lappe and DuBois (1994) studied schools nationwide that were effective in developing student interest in school and community participation. They found that building caring, collaborative relationships within the school creates a climate conducive to learning and a culture of mutual responsibility. Shared decision making encourages common ownership of school life and the many concerns students experience at school.

There are many possible approaches to building a democratic school community. Whole school assemblies, multi-age lunch table groups, and cross age tutoring provide opportunities for students to transcend the grade level segregration so common in public elementary schools. Yearly whole school themes of study with some school-wide activities can develop school pride and spirit. Single projects that involve cross grade level participation (e.g., a school newspaper, a quilt with a square for each student, a lunch time talent show) can help to build a sense of school community as well.

In a democratic school, students must be respected and honored as unique individuals. At the same time, teachers must set high standards for students' supporting each other and valuing the school community as a whole. Students must be actively and openly encouraged to go beyond being responsible just for their own individual behavior and academic development.

School-based service-learning projects in which students help in the library, read to the kindergarteners, or carry out projects focused on issues such as recycling, conflict resolution, or drug awareness, can be effective expressions of social responsibility. From washing the blackboards to answering the phone on the secretary's lunch hour, there are many ways elementary children can enhance the well-being of the school community.

Finally, if the school is truly a democratic community, there should be opportunities for whole school decision making. In small schools, students can gather for weekly school meetings, similar to a class meeting. In larger schools, students can gather for school-wide assemblies, voice their opinions, and vote on matters of mutual concern. A student council can also serve as the basis for a representative democracy. While many elementary schools have student councils, few function as representative democracies. Too often, student council representatives engage in special experiences by themselves and do not view themselves as public servants to their classmates. Typically councils deal only with those issues deemed worthy by the teacher who serves as the advisor to the group. It is essential that council representatives for each classroom be elected by the class, raise issues of concern to the school community, and frequently consult with and report back to the class on these issues. Whenever possible, council representatives should distribute surveys, conduct opinion polls, or gather votes from their constituents before making decisions.

Civic Participation in the Community

Educators contend that involvement in the local community can result in rich rewards for students' civic learning (Barber, 1984, 1992; Battistoni, 1985; Lappe & DuBois, 1994; Pratte, 1988). Those who have initiated programs involving students in community projects, community research, social service organizations, and government agencies have observed a number of positive benefits (Battistoni, 1985). When students work toward common goals and others depend on their actions, they understand the idea of democratic citizenship (cognitively and affectively) better than if they had learned through classroom instruction alone. Classroom discussion about broad political and social issues is also enhanced by participation. Student participation in the community can also provide important benefits for the community: services provided, solutions found, and an improved image of the role of youth in society.

There are many avenues for civic participation available to elementary children. They can write letters to the editor, city council members, or state legislators. They can create art displays on community issues for the public library or the post office. Elementary children can also conduct interviews with local citizens, research a community issue, and present the findings at a public gathering.

In addition, service-learning projects addressing the needs of the elderly, the homeless, animals, or the environment can provide a focus for community involvement (Wade, 1994b). Barber (1992) maintains that service is central to a civics curriculum if students are to realize the obligations engendered in democratic citizenship. "Service is something we owe to ourselves or to that part of ourselves that is embedded in the civic community. It assumes that unless we assume the responsibilities of citizens, we will not be able to preserve the liberties they entaiquot; (Barber, 1992; p. 246). Often students will present ideas for service-learning projects if their teachers encourage them to become aware of local concerns in their neighborhoods and community and to brainstorm possible approaches to taking action.


If elementary students are to develop an understanding of, skills in, and commitment to the practice of citizenship, teachers will need to involve them in democratic participation in the classroom, school, and community. Specific plans cannot be found in a social studies textbook or curriculum manual. Opportunities for problem solving, decision making, and serving others arise from within children's experiences of community life. Teachers can take advantage of these opportunities and put civic ideals into practice for elementary children.

Barber, B. R. (1992). An aristocracy of everyone: The politics of education and the future of America. New York: Ballantine.
Barber, B. R. (1984). Strong democracy: Participatory politics for a new age. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Battistoni, R. M. (1985). Public schooling and the education of democratic citizens. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Beninga, J. S. (Ed.). (1991). Moral, character, and civic education in the elementary school. New York: Teachers College Press.
Lappe, F. M., & Dubois, P. M. (1994). The quickening of America: Rebuilding our nation, remaking our lives. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Lickona, T. (1991). An integrated approach to character education in the elementary school. In J. S. Beninga (Ed.), Moral, character, and civic education in the elementary school (pp. 67-83). New York: Teachers College Press.
Pratte, R. (1988). The civic imperative. New York: Teachers College Press.
Torney-Purta, J. (1991). Schema theory and cognitive psychology: Implications for social studies. Theory and Research in Social Education, 19, 189-210.
Wade, R. C. (1992). A democratic primer: Problem solving in a fourth grade classroom. Democracy and Education, 6(4), 15-19.
Wade, R. C. (1994a). Conceptual change in elementary social studies: A case study of fourth graders' understanding of human rights. Theory and Research in Social Education, 22 (1), 74-95.
Wade, R. C. (1994). Community service-learning: Commitment through active citizenship. Social Studies and the Young Learner, 6(3), 1-4.

About the Author
Rahima C. Wade is Assistant Professor of Elementary Social Studies at the University of Iowa. Her research interests include community service-learning, social studies teacher education, and multicultural education.