By Ali Berry
We live in a complicated world with a variety of interconnected global challenges: widespread inequality, racial injustice, climate change, and an ongoing pandemic. Given the scale of these problems, we need to prepare our young people to meet these challenges as informed, motivated, and empowered citizens.
But building an informed electorate is no easy feat. It requires teaching the tenets of citizenship to the next generation so they understand global issues and are motivated to find solutions.
The Importance of Citizenship Education
Schools play a critical role in educating students, not only about the formal curriculum but about life. One of the most fundamental roles of school in our society is to teach and socialize young people on how to be active members of our democratic society. High schools should prepare students for the future through traditional academics and workforce development, so they can achieve their dreams and become engaged citizens. This is the goal of citizenship education.
What Are Its Essential Elements?
Citizenship education brings education’s institutional function of creating an informed electorate to the forefront in an interdisciplinary and holistic way. It seeks to cut across all subject areas, integrating many skills and competencies that will benefit students throughout their lives as individuals, community members, citizens, and professionals. Citizenship education can transform society; more thoughtful and engaged citizens lead to a stronger and more just society.
Being a compassionate and engaged citizen has always been important. But now, with our increasingly interconnected world facing so many complex global problems, effective citizenship education is imperative. The next generation must be equipped and empowered to face the challenges ahead on a personal level, at a community level, and on a global scale. Students must think critically about the world around them and make empowered, informed decisions.
A Student View of the Importance of Citizenship
Sometimes students see a problem in their community and are inspired to act. At Grand Rapids Public Museum School, an XQ school in Michigan where students learn about housing, homelessness, city planning, and gentrification by exploring their city, one student decided to start a community garden for her senior year capstone project. A commitment to student voice at Elizabethton High School in Tennessee, another XQ school, resulted in a student liaison to the local school board.
But there are times when more dramatic, life-changing events lead students to action. Consider the teens from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who created the March for Our Lives movement against gun violence after a former student murdered 17 people and injured 17 others in 2018. Four years later, an organizer with March for Our Lives, Maxwell Frost, became the first member of Generation Z to win a seat in Congress. “I think we all have this call to action, and you feel like you have to do something,” he told the New York Times in 2022.
A Systematic Approach to Teach Citizenship Education
We are not born knowing how to be great citizens, how democracy works, or what is required to ensure it serves everyone. We have to be taught how to be an effective member of a democratic society, the same way we are taught math formulas and how to write an argument.
A tool like Composer makes it easier to teach citizenship education systematically across topics in social justice, civic learning, global competency, and social-emotional learning. On this platform, educators are able to centrally access a library of high-quality content from 30 leading providers including iCivics, Generation Citizen, Facing History & Ourselves, and High Resolves. They can create individually tailored learning sequences, integrated with curriculum design tips informed by learning science research. This means citizenship education can be taught as systematically and holistically as any core subject.
We can teach our next generation how to be effective citizens through a systematic, intentional, and holistic approach. We must return to the center one of the main functions of school—creating a well-formed electorate. Schools should place just as much value on teaching empathy and building collective action as we assign to solving a math problem and writing five-paragraph essays.
The ability to thrive in our world demands compassionate, motivated citizens, and our future depends on them. When students miss the opportunity to grow into effective members of society, our society suffers. But when young people are given the knowledge, mindsets, and skills that enable effective citizenship, they can change the world for the better.
- Teaching Resources for the US Elections from Facing History & Ourselves
- Zinn Education Project wrote an informing piece on the history of voting rights in America.
- XQ has tips on How to Address Social Justice Topics that Interest High School Students
- For students who are first-time voters, there’s a voter checklist by Vote 411.
- Check out this checklist for preparing students to participate in elections by Teaching for Democracy Alliance.
- Explore Composer’s recommended content for teaching justice, equity, and civic learning.
- For more information, please reach out to [email protected]
Ali Berry is a Product Director at XQ and was CEO of Composer, a global ecosystem and digital platform for providing young people greater access to high-quality civics and citizenship education.