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Toward Student Engagement in Community

Each year, NCSS partners with MyCollegeOptions®, the nation’s largest college planning program, to survey high school students on their perceptions about their social studies experience. Teachers receive a survey about their school’s course requirements and instructional program; they also comment on membership in associations like ours, benefits they derive from membership, and their continuing professional learning needs. This week, NCSS announced the survey findings, and all NCSS members can download a copy here.

The survey data can be used as conversation-starters with colleagues, friends, and leaders. I encourage all NCSS members to frame discussions around the survey findings that support the importance and complexities of social studies education today. We can always benefit from more student voices in education research, especially since it can be a challenge to collect data from a large sample of students nationwide. I was excited to read that a total of over 52,000 students participated in our survey.

Students could select several choices in their responses. For example: “Nearly 83% of students report gaining knowledge of world events in their social studies courses, while more than half of students (54%) have gained understanding about their roles as citizens.” It was a little striking to read that “Just 28% of students report having an interest in becoming involved in the community because of their social studies learning.” I’m interested in why relatively few students reported this interest. If other social studies research corroborates these numbers, we have an excellent opportunity to further our emphasis on Communicating Conclusions & Taking Informed Action as an outcome of inquiry learning in the social studies.

As a respondent, I may know it’s important to exercise my rights and responsibilities as a citizen, but does that mean I feel engaged in doing so? This led me to think of a few other questions: How do we foster student engagement in a community? How is engagement in one’s community an active display of citizenship?

We could first unpack the definition of community with our students. This term is a foundation in the social studies classroom and carries multiple and increasingly complex meanings. We traditionally think of a community as our “neighborhood” or “hometown,” and that is still true. However, we also extend that definition as a group of people with shared interests and values; professionals organized around a specific social or political cause; individuals participating in a MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game). We can expand their definition of community beyond a physical place. When we think about our C3 Framework’s Dimension 4: Communicating Conclusions and Taking Informed Action (PDF) in practice, students can select a specific type of community, identify an issue it faces, and propose a solution to that issue that can be enacted in real life – not just described and graded on paper. With pure engagement in defining issues and drawing conclusions about a particular community they select, students can also support and offer critique of each other’s conclusions. Will their proposed actions work? Are their solutions informed by solid evidence, are they feasible, and do they support their selected community’s overall goal or purpose? (Maybe students will learn their selected community does not have a clear goal – is that a concern, and should they have one?)

It will be interesting to watch students engage in finding an active role and voice within a type of community they select to explore. I imagine powerful discussions simply around that first lesson on defining the meaning of “community,” and students creating a shared understanding of the term that morphs over time as more communities are brought into a shared definition.

This is just one small data point in a much larger survey. I’m interested in our members’ thoughts on our survey findings. Please reach out anytime at or @LawrencePaska with your feedback – especially if there are other data points you would like me to address in future blogs.