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Educating for Full Civic Participation

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

“Can Education Transform the World?” by Joel Westheimer in Kappa Delta Pi Record, January-March 2020 (Vol. 56, #1, pp. 6-12), available for purchase; Westheimer can be reached at
In this Kappa Delta Pi Record article, Joel Westheimer (University of Ottawa) says schools have always tried to instill moral values, good behavior, and character in their students. But what exactly does that mean? For Westheimer, the question is personal: his parents were German Jews who escaped the Nazi Holocaust, but millions of others were not so fortunate. “How could such a highly educated, mature democracy descend into such unimaginable cruelty and darkness?” he asks. What did German schools teach about obedience, civic participation, and dissent? And how can today’s schools help kids to “acquire the essential knowledge, dispositions, and skills for effective democratic citizenship to flourish?”
These questions are pertinent: a 2017 Pew poll showed that 22 percent of Americans favor a political system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from Congress or the courts. Polls in other western democracies show a similar undercurrent, accompanied by disdain for the free press, civil liberties, and the courts and open hostility toward foreigners and ethnic “others.” Researching schools’ efforts to teach civic virtues and individual morality, Westheimer has found mediocre practices and a failure to distinguish among, and effectively prepare young people for, three kinds of citizenship:
• Personally responsible citizen – The key virtues here are honesty, responsibility, integrity, hard work, self-discipline, and compassion. A responsible citizen obeys laws, pays taxes, helps those in need (for example, contributing to a food drive), and lends a hand in times of crisis.
• Participatory citizen – Basic knowledge for participation (taught in schools and families) includes how government works at the local, state, national, and global level; the importance of voting; and the role of civic and religious organizations. The difference between this kind of citizenship and the one above is activism: “While the personally responsible citizen would contribute cans of food for the homeless,” says Westheimer, “the participatory citizen might organize the food drive.” An active citizen is tuned into society-wide issues, economic and environmental concerns, and knows collective strategies for accomplishing things.
• Social justice-oriented citizen – The key at this level is critical thinking about fairness, equality, opportunity, and the root causes of injustice. “If participatory citizens are organizing the food drive and personally responsible citizens are donating food,” says Westheimer, “social justice-oriented citizens are asking why people are hungry and acting on what they discover to address root causes of hunger (e.g., poverty, inequality, structural impediments to self-sufficiency).”
Westheimer’s research over the last two decades has found that the third form of citizenship is least often addressed in schools, which focus mostly on volunteering, charity, obedience, and the three branches of government. That’s necessary but not sufficient, he believes: “Education that teaches students to follow the rules, obey authority figures, be honest, help others in need, clean up after themselves, try their best, and be team players is rarely controversial. But without an analysis of power, politics, and one’s role in local and global political and economic structures, students are unlikely to become effective citizens who can work with others toward improving the world.”
How can schools do a more effective job getting students to think about the origins of major social problems and how they can be solved? asks Westheimer. “We need citizens who can think and act in ethically thoughtful ways. A well-functioning democratic society benefits from classroom practices that teach students to recognize ambiguity and conflict in factual content, to see human conditions and aspirations as complex and contested, and to embrace debate and deliberation as a cornerstone of democratic societies.” He suggests the following steps for schools:
• Teach students to ask questions. Totalitarian societies have one top-down version of the truth and discourage dissent, even making it illegal. In democratic societies, questioning and constant rethinking of traditions are engines of progress. “Education reformers, school leaders, and parents should do everything possible to ensure that teachers and students have opportunities to ask these kinds of questions,” says Westheimer.
• Expose students to multiple viewpoints. Students might gather newspaper articles or textbook chapters from different states and countries and ask how they are different, how they are similar, and why. Teachers should get students thinking about how issues that seem trivial to them might be a big deal to others. “Critical empathy” is something teachers should work hard to instill, says Westheimer. “This is the kind of teaching in a globalized world that encourages future citizens to leverage their civic skills for the greater social good rather than for their own particular interests.”
• Teach controversial issues. Schools may think they’re doing this by covering slavery, Nazism, and laws that denied voting rights to women, but what about the #MeToo movement, women’s reproductive rights, misinformation campaigns using social media, and debates about what’s included in the school curriculum? “Engagement with contemporary controversies from a range of perspectives and using multiple sources of information is exactly what democratic participation requires,” says Westheimer.
• Focus on the local. Civic education becomes much more immediate when students study and engage in projects in their immediate surroundings – school, neighborhood, town, state. A recent example of this was how students at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida responded to gun violence at their school. “Their ability to connect a very personal experience with the ways in which government, policy, and social and economic forces shape their lives,” says Westheimer, “allowed them to participate on a national scale and, no doubt, prepared them for a life of effective civic engagement.”
• Be political. Even when teachers are careful not to express their own views, some topics are controversial, with students feeling uncomfortable about the views expressed by classmates. “Democracy can be messy,” says Westheimer. “Rather than let fear of sanction and censorship dictate pedagogical choices, however, teachers should be supported and protected, encouraged to use political debates and controversy as teachable moments in civic discourse.”
• Use teachable moments across the school. Although these issues will be primarily addressed in civics and social studies classes, there are opportunities in other subject areas, assemblies, the cafeteria, and hallways. “How classrooms are set up, who gets to talk when, how adults conduct themselves, how decisions are made, how lessons are enacted – all these inevitably serve as lessons in citizenship, in how we live with one another in complex and diverse local, national, and global communities,” concludes Westheimer. “Whether teachers explicitly teach lessons in citizenship or not, students learn about community organizations, the distribution of power and resources, rights, responsibilities, and justice and injustice.”

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