Defining Citizenship Learning

by Carl Glickman

When most school leaders think of educating for citizenship, they immediately identify preparation taking place in a certain class or subject or as a requirement for so many hours doing community service.

Although volunteerism and charitable work are wonderful, they are not the same as learning to become a democratic member of a community working with people who are different in respectful and productive ways. Neither a course in history or civics nor doing service projects gets at the DNA of a democracy — which is well-informed individuals participating jointly as equals to solve a community concern.

Purposeful schools that take their civic mission seriously are interesting and intellectually challenging places for students, teachers, administrators, parents and the community at large. They have lively halls where students and adults talk with each other with ease about classroom, school and community issues. Student work that improves conditions of the larger society is seen on continuous and changing display on classroom walls and in attractive arrangements.

These classroom and school environments foster genuine interest in students and engage students in seeing first-hand the relevance of what they are learning. Students do interdisciplinary problem solving using their learning of math, music, art, history and language to bear upon issues of the environment, preventative disease, economic development, aging, safety, aesthetics, transportation, government, law, free press, bullying and violence. Students of different races/ethnicities, socioeconomic levels, genders and lifestyles learn to work respectfully, comfortably and productively with each other as faculty and school leaders team students together to analyze and solve common problems.

Students learn the content knowledge, employment and health skills, aesthetic appreciations and understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship — teaching that is not the sole responsibility of civics, history or social studies teachers. And such learning is intended for all students, not only those in advanced classes or those who can participate in after-school academic fairs. This is done by ensuring there is time within the curriculum and within the structure of the school week for teachers to work together to plan and assess such student work.

The superintendent can drive the concept of educating for democratic citizenship in the planning process, and through resource allocations to schools, by making sure that the outcome of teacher and student work is recognized by the school board, the news media and the general public.