civics in the very early grades

I’m far from an expert on civics for young children, but I bump into the subject in various capacities–as an author of the College Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies, which covers grades k-12; as an evaluator of a pilot civics program in Ukraine, which includes a first-grade curriculum; as a proud board member of Discovering Justice, which focuses more than other nonprofits do on the early grades; and as the director of CIRCLE when we commissioned “Indicators and Measures of Civic Outcomes for Elementary School Students” by Bernadette Chi, JoAnn Jastrzab, and Alan Melchior.

If I’m asked what little kids should learn about civics, this is my working answer. Mostly, they should learn how to relate appropriately to other people: sharing resources fairly, taking turns, resolving conflicts peacefully, and addressing common problems. They should also begin to see that the same issues arise at larger scales and for adults in formal roles. Just as they should they help a classmate who’s crying on the playground, so “neighborhood helpers” like firefighters should help citizens in need. Just as they should resolve disputes with words, so should national leaders. Just as their classroom has rules, so does the society. At some point in the early grades, they should begin to realize that just as kids may fail to treat each other right, so may adults who hold official roles; and when that happens, it requires remedies. These analogies should be represented in the materials, such as historical narratives, that children read and otherwise study academically.

I don’t think we know whether experiencing high-quality civics at age 7 matters at age 17 (or 70). You might expect that it only matters if the experience is reinforced in between, but that’s an empirical question. In 1999, Sir Bernard Crick observed that, “there is no political Piaget,” and longitudinal research on civic development before adolescence is sorely lacking. Thus I base my advice on accumulated classroom experience and theory, not on statistical data.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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