Equity and Inclusion in Civics Instruction

Author: Ron Watson - April 13, 2021

A rise in awareness in regard to diversity, equity, inclusion, and representation is driving an evolution in social studies instruction, particularly civics instruction.

One of the most important principles in democracy is trusting institutions such as government, media, law enforcement, and public education. But what can be done when that trust erodes? Over the last decade, public trust in these institutions has nose-dived. This lack of trust also coincides with an increased dedication to diversity, equity, inclusion, and representation. These issues are driving an evolution in social studies instruction, particularly history and civics instruction. 

From this we’re seeing change in how civics is going to be taught moving forward. A prime example is the new Education and American Democracy (EAD) roadmap. This roadmap is essentially a new set of guidelines for national history and civics instruction. The roadmap focuses on “driving questions,” which are thematically connected, and big-picture key concepts, rather than specific facts or dates. These guidelines seek to correct the gaps in history and civics instruction that have been ongoing for decades. The roadmap was developed by over three hundred educators from around the country. The purpose of this roadmap is to rebuild trust in our institutions by ensuring that equity and inclusion are at the vanguard of civics instruction. 

From this roadmap stems another central component of civics instruction: the importance of debate and compromise in our country’s origins. “Civic friendship,” as it’s referred to in the roadmap, is pushed to the forefront. This looks at the importance of disagreement in the formation of our country and government. As an extension of this, the EAD roadmap places an emphasis on inquiry-based learning. By incorporating inquiry-based learning into social studies, a more equitable foundation for social studies education can be established. Simply teaching the basics of the Constitution is no longer good enough, as it ignores a large percentage of our students. Instead, educators can teach about the entire picture of history, including the shortcomings of the past. By studying the full picture of history, all students will be provided with an equitable education of our country’s foundation and how that foundation still impacts society today. 

The EAD roadmap recognizes these pitfalls and is trying to make civics inclusive for all. So, instead of only looking at dates and facts, civics and history can be used to better recognize how hundreds of years of history form modern American society. A prime example of this can be as simple as exploring the Fifteenth Amendment, which grants formerly enslaved males the right to vote. Previously, this amendment might be taught as a simple rote fact for students to memorize. But this instruction lacks the depth that is truly needed. The Fifteenth Amendment was an ideal when it passed into law, but how was it actually practiced throughout the country? How does it connect to Jim Crow law and the Civil Rights Movement? How do these events show the evolution of the meaning of “We the People”? These happenings are interconnected and are shaped by each other. By bringing these connections into instruction, we can better give our students the equity and inclusion they deserve. 

As this approach to civics instruction continues to develop, instructional materials can help to build trust in democratic institutions again. Through an increased focus on equity and inclusion, we can foster more civic engagement from students. A shift in the teaching of history from a list of dates to an “active civics” that promotes civics participation can potentially rebuild our country’s civic knowledge and trust in democracy. 

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