Better Civics: How to Get the Questions Right

A popular refrain of the moment is that we need civics education in classrooms again. More civics. New voices join that chorus without offering ideas about what that civics might look like. We need better civics but requiring all the right answers on a citizenship test before graduating misses the point.

We need to ask ourselves better questions if we want to make civics matter. Let’s start by considering what we believe the citizen’s role is in our constitutional scheme. What about the role matters?

This is the story of one classroom where this question had maximum impact. Students studying government at Case High School in Racine discovered the difference between studying THE FOUNDERS and studying what it means TO FOUND an enterprise— an alliance, a country or a constitution. The distance between these two concepts is the difference between memorizing the three branches of government and understanding what limited government requires. Only one of those concepts make it possible for a free people to govern themselves.

When we ask students to focus on THE FOUNDERS, it sounds as though these individuals made a magic discovery, like finding a lucky penny. They were the mythically right people in the right place at the magically right time.

Teaching government from a bulleted list

Our textbooks, lesson plans, and documentaries then tell the story of one event after another. Our government classes approach the text of the U.S. Constitution as one clause after another. We talk about Supreme Court cases as one decision after another. In one case they got it wrong. In the next case, they got it right. No one knows what shifted between those two statuses. The march of time beats on and on and on. The students’ job is to listen, to recall facts, to know what happened well enough to get the answers right when asked.

Flipping through pages in a textbook and looking only to questions of the past, students want to know what this civics class has to do with anything that’s relevant to them. Most of us have been there. It is a fair question and one that has been used to reduce the amount of class time given to the subject. It’s past time to take it seriously.

Teaching government as problem-solving

The students at Case High School have a good answer where we can all find faith in the next generation. Their teacher Jeanne Schierstedt, approached the 2017–2018 school year with a new plan. She had spent three weeks of her summer vacation studying the bigger questions of political life with the National Academy for Civics and Government, presented by the Center for Civic Education. Ms. Schierstedt took careful notes as she started to understand more about the foundational questions that animate political life and constitutional schemes. She started drafting an outline for moving beyond the small questions of who did what. She was going to make it possible for her students to dig deep into why and how.

Last year, she grounded the approach of her government classes with one question that persisted throughout the semester, “What are we founding here?” At each stop along the familiar timeline, her classes investigated the problems being solved by starting something new and evaluated the effectiveness of those solutions.

With another new school year on the horizon, I asked Jeanne what she thought the results were for her new approach. She kept coming back to the idea that her students had “more why.” With more context for these founding events, Ms. Schierstedt’s students had a better understanding of their own capacity to lead change and their own experience using an important framework for an ongoing inquiry using constitutional questions.

The old approach came by way of powerpoint presentations and student note-taking. The new approach allowed students to drive the inquiry. They learned the process while studying the American Revolution. What was new about this thing called the United States of America that came into existence through its Declaration in 1776?

Some students reported that this was the first time they understood why England would be mad at the colonists and tax them like they did. Their previous courses had only focused on the colonists’ anger before moving onto the next topic. Then students had to think carefully about what kind of government it established. Little of it is familiar to our form of government today but many students get through their required government course without realizing how it was different. This understanding, of course, sets the stage for making an inquiry into the U.S. Constitution of 1787.

What was new about that proposal in 1787? What form of government did it establish? This is where students began to realize that the founding generations saw problems in the original scheme. They saw problems, imagined solutions to those problems and then advocated for the change they believe the country required to survive.

Through open-ended questions, Ms. Schierstedt’s students had access to the whole history of a free people struggling to govern themselves. They now had the benefit of their own experience interrogating the history that revealed there are few easy answers.

Teaching government as unfinished

Then they encountered the 14th Amendment. Students could not decide for sure that it represents another founding for the U.S. They looked at the text on its own terms. They researched relevant cases. They saw something resembling founding more in the equal protection clause than in the citizenship clause and they could tell you why. They now have a framework that requires understanding the experiences of past decision-makers while looking forward to evaluating the solutions they attempted. When it came to the 14th Amendment, Ms. Schierstedt’s students understood its past but questioned whether it had much leverage on influencing the future. This is the same evaluation that some constitutional scholars recently published to mark the amendment’s 150th anniversary.

With a seemingly small shift from founders to founding, Ms. Schierstedt remade her government class to be a place for constitutional scholars. The students who studied there understood founding as problem-solving and saw themselves being able to do that work. For them, the citizen’s role requires using the Constitution as a tool for understanding problems, recognizing solutions and measuring our success.

In Ms. Schierstedt’s classroom, the citizen’s desk is where it all starts and where it might need to begin again. Fortunately, that is precisely the kind of work these students are prepared to do.


Please share Jeanne’s story with someone you know who is doing the work that makes self-government possible. Favorite teacher. An unappreciated public servant. Check out our collaborative community for the civic-minded too.
Tell them that Jeanne sent you ;)