Strategies for Teaching Civic Education: An International Perspective

Strategies for Teaching Civic Education: An International Perspective

Pepper, Kaye

After the communist tyrannies in Europe fell in the early 1990s, countries there began changing to governments based on democratic ideals. The shift to democracy was monumental for countries moving away from a system where all decisions were made without input from the people. With new and unfamiliar expectations suddenly placed on citizens, it became evident that people would need to be educated about the new form of government. Looking for assistance, these countries found Civitas, an International Civic Education Exchange Program administered by the Center for Civic Education (CCE). Civitas supports collaboration between the United States and emerging democracies to help make democratic ideals a reality.

The Civitas International Civic Education Exchange Program, which is active in more than 22 U.S. states and 30 countries, provides leaders in civic education opportunities to learn from and assist one another in improving education for democracy in their nations. The program is funded through a grant from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement of the U.S. Department of Education in cooperation with the U.S. Department of State and its affiliated offices throughout the world (CCE 2001). Civitas addresses civic education activities from the development of educational policy, standards, curricular frameworks, and materials to teacher education, classroom implementation, and research and evaluation (CCE 2003).

Civitas in Hungary

Hungary is one of the many countries that has benefited from the assistance of Civitas. Through the Public Education Act of 1993, Hungary has made significant changes to its educational system. The Act established a National Core Curriculum (NCC) that set requirements based on ten comprehensive fields of knowledge, one of which is Man and Society. Subject framework and content elements of civic education are easily incorporated into this field of knowledge (Lannert2001).

In conjunction with the NCC, changes are expected in the techniques and strategies teachers use in the classroom. According to the Hungarian National Institute of Public Education (Lannert 2001), past teaching practices in Hungary generally have been characterized by teachers giving lectures, explaining material, and demonstrating experiments as students take a passive role by listening, taking notes, and learning the content of subject areas. Because of the change in Hungarian government and the move toward different approaches to teaching, teachers must assume a new role. Today, teachers must be leaders of discussions and facilitators of debates. They must provide an atmosphere of openness, trust, and honesty. Instructional methods that provide opportunities for students to apply civic knowledge, skills, and attitudes toward real-life situations are important. The Public Education Act of 1993 emphasized the importance of establishing classrooms in which students can develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills so that they will be able to make informed decisions (Halasz, Garami, Havas, and Vago 2001).

Civitas has played an important role in assisting Hungary in making this change by creating standards for teacher training in civics. These Civic Studies and Skills Standards were developed following the guidelines set by the NCC and in keeping with its regulations on teacher training. The Civitas standards focus on including the standards of civic attitudes and skills as well as the important elements of methodology. Two important features of the standards are the interdisciplinary approach that is new for Hungary’s education system and the practice-centered elements that allow students to apply the skills and concepts learned in actual settings. Civitas also was instrumental providing students and teachers with materials about civic education and sponsoring competitions and other activities in which students participate (Setenyi 1996).

Understanding Democratic Principles

Evaluations of activities carried out by Civitas-Hungary and its U.S. partners (Florida, Mississippi, and Texas) have shown positive results over the past few years. In a three-year assessment of the Citizen in a Democracy (“Polgar a Demokraciaban”) competition, participating students reported that the program increased their understanding of their rights and responsibilities as citizens. In another study, researchers found a significant difference in civic knowledge on the regional exam between the students involved in Civitas programs and comparison groups. Also evident was that student comprehension of democratic principles is an excellent predictor of political participation; as student knowledge of Hungarian democracy and disposition toward political principles increase, so does a student’s political activism. These results provide evidence of the positive influence on students, schools, and families in Hungary (Florida Law Related Education Association 2002).

In the United States, schools bear a historic responsibility for the development of civic competence and civic conscientiousness within young citizens. From the time children begin their formal education in the United States, they are made aware of national identity through celebrations of holidays, literature, and history lessons. Most students, by the time they are 14 or 15, have had formal instruction related to democracy, political institutions, and rights and responsibilities of citizens (Hahn 1999).

Guidelines for Civic Education

The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and CCE developed national standards that provide guidelines for what students in the United States should know about civics and the responsibilities of being an effective citizen. According to NCSS (1994), the primary purpose of social studies is to aid young people as they develop the skills necessary to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world. The National Standards for Civics and Government, developed by CCE in conjunction with several professional organizations, were established to serve as guidelines for schools as they plan courses of study and school curriculum in civics (CCE 2002).

In the United States, social studies educators long have supported the merits of actively democratic classrooms; however, little evidence can be found to indicate that this type of education is actually taking place. As found in The Nation’s Report Card (Lutkus, Weiss, Campbell, Mazzeo, and Lazer 1999), in a sample of fourth- and eighth-grade students, the highest percentage of students were taught civics on a weekly basis with “traditional” instructional activities-using the textbook and worksheets, hearing a teacher’s lecture, and using books, newspapers, and magazines. In addition, results of a large-scale international study designed to measure the civic knowledge, attitudes, and experiences of ninth graders indicated that students in U.S. schools were more likely to report reading a textbook or filling out worksheets when studying social studies than engaging in activities such as visits from political leaders or writing letters to share their opinions (National Center for Educational Statistics 2001). These teaching strategies closely parallel the methods previously used by Hungarian teachers.

‘We the People’ and Project Citizen

Training and professional development specifically for civic education is provided for U.S. teachers by CCE, which also oversees the Civitas program in Hungary. The Center provides materials, support, and training for teachers as they prepare students to participate in civic education programs. Two programs by the Center for Civic Education have involved more than 26 million students at all levels nationwide. “We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution,” a leading Constitutional studies curriculum for elementary, middle, and secondary students in the United States, engages students in the study of the history and principles of the U.S. Constitution. The other program, Project Citizen, focuses on active citizenship and public policy at the middle-school level. Students work together to identify, research, and pose public policy solutions to local problems. Participating students present portfolios of their particular projects in local, state, and national competitions (Hahn 1999).

The Program Effectiveness Panel of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Diffusion Network examined the reports of numerous research studies on the “We the People” program. The panel validated the results of those studies and confirmed the program’s powerful educational effects on students’ civic knowledge and attitudes. Regarding Project Citizen, one teacher in Indiana proclaimed, “[My students] love it because it is about real problems with real-life solutions which they can implement” (CCE 2003).

Activities to Promote Civic Education in Schools

The Civic Mission of Schools, a report developed by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Center for Information and Research in Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), highlighted the importance of helping young people acquire and learn to use the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that will prepare them to be competent and responsible citizens throughout their lives. The report (Carnegie and CIRCLE 2003) recommended activities that schools in both the United States and Hungary can use to help students become competent and responsible citizens:

* Provide instruction in government, history, law, and democracy.

* Incorporate discussion of current local, national, and international issues and events into the classroom, particularly those that young people view as important to their lives.

* Design and implement programs that provide students with the opportunity to apply what they learn through performing community service that is linked to the formal curriculum and classroom instruction.

* Offer extracurricular activities that provide students the opportunity to get involved in their schools or communities.

* Encourage student participation in school governance.

* Encourage student participation in simulations of democratic processes and procedures.

Final Thoughts

At this time in the history of these two countries, it is extremely important that young people develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to become effective, responsible citizens. Schools assume a tremendous responsibility as they assist students in developing the necessary understanding and dispositions. Research has shown that the most effective way for students to learn new information and apply knowledge to new situations is to have the opportunity to practice problem-solving and critical-thinking skills through hands-on activities. Hungary is training its teachers to provide these opportunities for its young citizens. Teachers in the United States should be encouraged to provide the same opportunities for their students. We are training our young people to be the leaders of tomorrow. We should place this endeavor at the top of our priority list so that we can be confident that the future of our countries and other democracies looks bright.


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Lutkus, A. D., A. R. Weiss, J. R. Campbell, J. Mazzeo, and S. Lazer. 1999. The nation’s report card: NAEP 1998 civics report card for the nation. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Educational Statistics. Available at: mainl998/2000457.asp.

National Center for Educational Statistics. 20Ot. Highlights of U.S. results from the international IEA civic education study (CivEd). Washington, D.C.: NCES. Available at: http:l! fctved/2.asp.

National Council for the Social Studies. 1994. Curriculum standards. Silver Spring, Md.: NCSS. Available at: 1.1.html.

Setenyi, ]., ed. 1996. Civitas association teacher !rainingprogram requirement system. Budapest: Civitas Association-Hungary.

Kaye Pepper, Assistant Professor at the University of Mississippi, teaches social studies methods courses. She traveled to Hungary with a U.S. delegation of teacher educators associated with the Civitas Exchange Program to meet with counterparts about civic education. She is a member of the Zeta Eta Chapter of Kappa Delta Pi.

Copyright Kappa Delta Pi Winter 2004

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