Engaging Students in Civics Education Through Project Based Learning

Almost everyone in this country wants students to gain more knowledge of civics. Across the political spectrum, it is generally agreed that students need to know how the government works and the role they play as citizens of a democratic republic. Many adults often express the hope that young people will participate actively in civic life, instead of staring at their phones, immersed in social media. A healthy democracy, after all, requires an “informed citizenry” in the words of Thomas Jefferson.


It’s a common complaint, but it could be argued that many Americans have never known much about civics and government, or history. Surveys have documented this reality for decades. In the late 1990s and early 2000s late-night talk show host, Jay Leno, was famous for his “Jay Walks” on the streets of Los Angeles, where he would quiz adults on their knowledge of civics and history–to hilarious results. Today, as Americans are awash in fake news, disinformation, and conspiracy theories shared on social media, this reality has perhaps gotten worse.


Faced with this situation, a lot of people think of what schools can do, calling for more emphasis on civic education. I’m not sure how much of the solution rests with schools, since our country’s issues today run deep. But I agree that civic education would help to some extent. However, this doesn’t mean simply “more” civic education; it means better civic education.


Better, Not Just “More” Civic Education

Civic education has gotten crowded out of the school day, especially at the elementary level, by the emphasis on literacy and STEM in recent decades. So finding ways to fit it onto teachers’ plates would be nice. (I discussed some ways to do this in a book I wrote in 2020, Teaching Civics Today, published by Teacher Created Materials.) At the secondary level, some civics is still taught in social studies classes, although history predominates. Most high schools still have a one-semester course on American government, or they should.


So, more time spent on civics would be welcome, but it cannot be taught well using the traditional approach. Perhaps you remember–or probably you don’t because it was so boring–having to learn terms like “separation of powers” and “popular sovereignty,” or sitting through lectures on how a bill becomes a law and the committee structure of Congress. The memorize-factoids approach doesn’t work, in civics or history. What students simply memorize for a test is soon forgotten. No wonder adults do poorly on quizzes about civics and history!


Engaging Students in Civics Education Through PBL 

As you might expect, I think a better way to teach civics is with project-based learning (PBL). Students are more actively engaged and can explore issues that are relevant to them and their future as citizens. They retain what they learn longer and develop a deeper understanding of civics concepts. Research even showed a PBL approach worked better than traditional teaching methods when it comes to second-grade student performance on a state social studies standards-aligned test (they did better in informational reading, too).


I’ve recently written a set of 10 middle and high school civics and government performance tasks that use a PBL approach, which are now available from Defined Learning. Each task, like all of Defined’s materials, places students in a real-world career role and asks them to create authentic products. They are all aligned with the national C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards.


Performance Tasks for Grades 6-12 that Align with C3 Framework for Social Studies Standards: 

Students create a social media marketing campaign to inform people about the principles upon which our democracy was founded in 1776, such as the rule of law, equality, liberty, and due process.

Students reflect on the role of both freedom and responsibility in a democratic republic, after doing research and perhaps interviewing a variety of people, then create a short podcast.

Students investigate various proposals for changing the way we vote in America, from ranked-choice voting to mandatory voting to lowering the voting age to 16, decide what they support, then raise community awareness and contact state government officials to share their ideas.


As you can tell, these tasks all involve active, not passive learning. Students still need to learn familiar civics content, but then they apply it in a real-world situation. This kind of social studies teaching will not only help students become more informed citizens but also be more likely to do their part to tackle the issues we face today in our nation.

About the Author:  

John Larmer is a project-based learning expert. In his 20 years at the Buck Institute for Education/PBLWorks, he co-developed the model for Gold Standard PBL, authored several books and many blog posts, and contributed to curriculum and professional development. John is now the Senior PBL Advisor at Defined Learning.


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