In recent years, political scientists have found that civic education improves the democratic capacity of students, yet little research has been done to date on how and why civic education works when it does. In this study, we go inside the classroom to explore how teachers teach civics to find out what works best at preparing young people for responsible, democratic citizenship.
Using a survey of American students, principals, and teachers, we examine the varied instructional methods being employed by social studies teachers in ninth‐grade classrooms across the country to determine which methods and which combinations of methods do the best job of enhancing students’ democratic capacity defined as their political knowledge, political efficacy, and intent to vote.
Our results suggest that there are four broad teaching approaches employed by social studies teachers: traditional teaching, active learning, video teaching, and maintenance of an open classroom climate. Teachers may employ some combination of these approaches. The analysis indicates that approaches that foster an open classroom climate (encouraging student input) in combination with the others tend to be the most fruitful across the board. While any combination including an open classroom climate maximizes benefit, traditional teaching (i.e., use of methods including textbook reading, worksheets, memorization, and so forth) combined with an open classroom climate seems to do the best. Also, the results suggest that the combinations that work best for stimulating internal efficacy vary greatly from those stimulating the other citizenship outcomes.
Taken together, our results suggest that fostering an open classroom climate when teaching civics is the surest way to improve the democratic capacity of America's youth. Further, teachers should be attentive to the instructional tradeoffs necessary to creating student capacities for both active and informed citizenship.