NCOC Featured Discussion

Civic Literacy - A Critical 21st Century Skill

Guest post by Barbara Stein, Partnership for 21st Century Skills

October 19, 2012
The morning of the 67th Annual Conference, NCoC offered guests the opportunity to network and participate in small group discussions with leaders in the field of civic engagement. This post by Barbara Stein is a summary of her table’s discussion on civic literacy. We hope you’ll continue the discussion here on NCoC.net by posting in the comment section at the bottom of the page.



The Partnership for 21st Century enjoyed being part of the exciting conversations around civic learning at 67th Annual National Conference on Citizenship held in Philadelphia on September 14th. I had the opportunity to host a morning coffee chat discussion around the urgency of the topic of civic learning, as well as the challenges to fully realizing it as priority.

The Partnership is a corporate-education alliance that advocates for education that equips ALL students for the real challenges of today’s world. We believe in the 3 Rs, but we also think in today’s world students must have the 4 Cs – critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity – integrated into their learning. A few critical elements must also be in that mix, including financial literacy, global awareness, and, of course,
civic literacy.

In the past we have worked with business and education leaders to identify what they deemed the essential competencies needed to succeed in today’s work world. They aligned very closely with our 4 Cs. These competencies are equally important to developing productive citizens who contribute fully to our civic life. We are now beginning a major initiative specifically focused on citizenship as a 21st century skill, funded in part by the Hewlett Foundation.

Effective citizenship has always required finely honed skills. However, the ever-accelerating rate of technological change, globalization as a factor in everyone’s life, and the massive but conflicting information flow mean our students need even more critical skills to participate in, and constructively contribute to, civic life.

On September 14th, our coffee chat discussion group grappled with these issues and more. Participants included nonprofit civic education groups, a civic education based charter school initiative, nonprofit civic learning curriculum developers, researchers, and a very insightful high school senior.

We discussed the tight confines of the school day and the fear, particularly in low achieving schools, of diverting attention from anything not directly linked to standardized test scores. Educators, who sense themselves “under the gun” to achieve so many tangible goals, need support and professional development in integrating civic learning into their instruction. Our discussion group echoed this point that civic learning does not have to be one more “add on” to the busy school day, but could be integrated within existing subject matters. Civic education advocates need to do a better job in helping schools understand and accomplish this. And of course, as exemplified by our high school senior who is an active debater, extra curricula programs can also enhance students’ skills, as well as their overall educational performance during the normal school day.

At the Partnership, we have been surprised by how often we hear about and see schools effectively developing 21st century skills through programs that include a strong civic learning element. Civic learning is not limited to just government, social studies, or civic classes. We’ve seen civics incorporated in many other areas including biology, English, and history. Action research in any of these areas often motivates students to delve deeply into content areas so they then can develop well-researched recommendations to their civic leaders. Students learn the content, its real life consequences and 21st century skills simultaneously. Not surprisingly, those schools that found a way to weave civic learning into their overall educational program found students more engaged in learning.

Early on when we began discussing 21st century skills, we were confronted by those who worried we were somehow dismissing the significance of content. In reality, it is impossible to develop 21st century skills separate from content, and applying these skills increases content knowledge. Civic learning is one wonderful way to accomplish this. Another fortuitous, though hardly surprising discovery, is that the skills that make a good citizen are the very same skills that determine success in college and the workplace.

On Constitution Day this year, P21’s Past Chair, and Vice-President of Education Networks of America, Lillian Kellogg, and National Council on the Social Studies Vice-President Michelle Herczog jointly wrote an op-ed piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer. In it they noted: “With every political or financial scandal, every crisis, and every election – we cannot help but wonder what can be done to strengthen American democracy so that everyone represented in ‘we the people’ has the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to solve pressing problems of the 21st century.” This election year certainly underscores the necessity for all of us to analyze complex problems, evaluate complicated data, understand global relations, and critically assess opposing perspectives.

As the Partnership continues its work, and focuses more attention directly on citizenship issues, we look forward to working with a variety of civic groups in making a strong case that just as we need 21st century skills to build a strong economy, we need them to grow and enhance our vibrant civic life.
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