Tuesday / April 23

How Teachers Can Solve the Crisis in Civic Literacy 

What does the future hold when the majority of secondary students can’t tell the difference between a news story and an advertisement? Or when they fail to answer basic questions about enslaved people in the United States or the Holocaust in EuropeOr when 24% of U.S. millennials consider democracy to be a ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ way of running the country? Healthy democracies depend upon educated people, and today’s teachers face new challenges that may have significant consequences 

But there is hope. We can dramatically improve civic literacy by carefully selecting impactful strategies that match the specific phase in our students’ learning journey.  

How Did We Get Here? 

The decay in civic literacy could be due to the rise of social media – especially with automated bots used by opponents of democracySome of the fault may lie with standardized tests that edge social studies instruction out of the school day. Too many elementary classrooms are practically devoid of social studies content, despite the fact that we could simultaneously teach important civics as we teach literacy and numeracy 

Other reasons might be more within our control as individual teachers, such as the type of instruction we offer our students. Nearly every social studies teacher I’ve met is deeply passionate about history, geography, civics and more. But too often, students do not share our excitement for the subject. Many young people see our field as dusty and dry —an endless list of names and events that they have to remember just because we said so.  

One of the reasons that our subject is more interesting to us is because we have acquired and consolidated our understanding of the overall ways in which the discipline of social studies works. That’s why we appreciate the compelling stories and worthy lessons. Our expertise helps us guide our attention to the deeper patterns that link historical events to the present. We need to help students see how our field is organized rather than simply running them through the next set of facts 

To be fair, the source of the problem is undoubtedly a combination of all of the reasons above and more. But rather than point fingers, why not focus on the impact we have as teachers? 

A Powerful Solution

We can maximize precious instructional time by using the right approach at the right stage in the learning journey. We need to start at the surface level, to ensure students have sufficient time to acquire understanding, and then we need to move to deeper levels of learning so that they can build the organizational understanding of the field of social studies.  

Imagine a first-grade teacher who introduces the concepts of ‘roles’ and ‘responsibilities’ by showing images of people the students know – such as the school librarian, basketball coach, bus driver, and cafeteria worker. This teacher is leveraging students’ prior knowledge to help them make meaning of these concepts, which is an effective strategy for building initial understanding. Now students are ready to strengthen their learning through another instructional strategy, such as wide reading. The teacher provides books and videos about roles in a community such as police officers, fire fighters, bankers, and health care workers. This intentional wide reading will give them a broader understanding of the different types of roles and responsibilities that exist in society.  

Next, the teacher can model a think aloud about how he determines if a book is an informational text or a story book. He uses “I notice…” statements and asks students to think along with him, identifying what he does to determine if the book fits into the category of informational or not. The students practice with their favorite books, while the teacher gives them feedback as he circulates among groups. These types of explicit disciplinary literacy steps are essential for teaching complex skills.  

Now, these students are ready to move to the deep phase of learning, where they can investigate the relationship between roles and responsibilities in the classroom. After they create graphic organizers, they use the organizers to participate in a class discussion. Now they are ready to transfer their learning about the relationship between roles and responsibilities in their lives outside the classroom, such as with families, friends, or on sports teams. 

Along the way, the teacher is monitoring student understanding and adjusting in response to the data. Learning is extraordinarily complex and doesn’t usually happen in neat increments. But the VISIBLE LEARNING® research helps us make learning visible to both teachers and students. It helps us adjust our instruction based on what students need at the particular moment in the learning journey.  

Take a look at the middle school geography example in the figure below for a visual of surface, deep, and transfer levels of learning. Students need initial understanding of the key vocabulary and skills in a topic, then they can move on to deep learning and eventually transfer learning to new situations.  

Notice that surface learning involved both vocabulary instruction and disciplinary literacy skills such as source analysis. We need to explicitly teach students how to do source analysis and model the steps for them, then give them feedback as they try it out. As they progress, students increase their independence by doing source analysis in a specific context, such as the Nile River. Then, they are able to apply their understanding and skills to a new context, such as the Tigris River.  

The figure below shows specific instructional strategies that match each phase of the learning journey in this grade 6 geography example. Notice how metacognition, or students’ awareness of their learning, increases from surface to deep and then to transfer levels of learning. Imagine how this process could impact overall civic life across the United States and other democracies 

With limited instructional time and numerous standards to teach, many teachers wonder: How do we maximize precious time to ensure that students grasp enough for informed civic life? While there’s a lot that is outside of our control, we must focus on what is in our control. Visible Learning for Social Studies provides the tools and strategies necessary to maximize our effectiveness. We can choose to continue using instructional routines that frustrate our students and fail to deliver. Or we can choose to embrace the evidence, update our instruction, and impact student learning in wildly positive ways.  

We can honor the importance of teaching students surface level concepts and skills and also choose to move beyond surface level learning to increase student engagement and civic literacy. We can extend students’ learning in deep ways and facilitate the transfer of their learning to new situations. And we can decide to evaluate our impact. But first, we must draw inspiration from the courageous people we study in social studies and choose to be brave enough to make a change! The future of democracy may well depend on us.  

For more, please see our new book Visible Learning for Social Studies and this free webinar. If you would like to participate in a free book club focusing on Visible Learning for Social Studies, register at this link!

Visible Learning books

Written by

​Julie Stern is an author, trainer and instructional coach, supporting schools in transforming teaching and learning around the globe. Her depth and breadth of knowledge combined with her vision and contagious energy make her an in-demand facilitator in many areas including visible learning, concept-based curriculum, differentiated classrooms and formative assessments. Julie is the author of Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, is certified in researcher John Hattie’s Visible Learning as well as H. Lynn Erickson’s Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction. She is a James Madison Constitutional Scholar and taught social studies for many years in DC and Louisiana. Julie previously served as the director of public policy and curriculum innovation at the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools in Washington, DC, where she led the revision of curriculum in all subject areas grades 6 – 12. Her email is: and her blog is

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