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Lesson 6.15

Geography, History and Civics:
When, Where and Why

How do kids learn about their country and the world?

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California last adopted history-social science standards in 1998. The standards covered the topics of history, geography, and the study of government. More recently, the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts (see Lesson 6.3) included expectations related to students’ literacy in these subjects, but that does not replace California’s current content standards. In addition, some in California are paying new attention to Civics education.


In 2013, the National Council for the Social Studies published the C3 Framework to provide states with voluntary guidance for upgrading their social studies standards. (The 3 C's stand for College, Career and Civic life.) This Framework focuses on skills, leaving the selection of curricular content taught at each grade level for each state.

"NOW MORE THAN EVER, students need the intellectual power to recognize societal problems; ask good questions and develop robust investigations into them; consider possible solutions and consequences; separate evidence-based claims from parochial opinions; and communicate and act upon what they learn."

- From the introduction to the C3 Framework


As things currently stand, the state of California expects K-12 schools to teach historical analysis skills as well as specific history topics in particular grades:

  • 4th grade - California history
  • 5th grade - US history, a new nation
  • 6th grade - World history, ancient civilizations
  • 7th grade - World history, medieval and early modern times
  • 8th grade - US history, growth and conflict
  • 10th grade - World history, modern
  • 11th grade - US history, the 20th century

Along with these expectations, the state adopted a Curriculum Framework for History-Social Science in 2016 and is updating the list of approved instructional materials. These changes put a lot more emphasis on civic learning. The Framework also adds financial literacy, voter education, genocide; and the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans and people with disabilities to the history of California and the United States.

Prior to 2012, the state used a uniform process for textbook and curriculum adoptions. It created a Curriculum Framework to guide classroom instruction in a given subject area, adopted textbooks for grades K-8, and provided categorical funds that districts could only use for the purchase of the adopted materials. High schools could spend the funds on materials they showed were aligned with state standards and the framework. Assembly Bill 1246 changed this process, giving districts more flexibility over their instructional material choices, but still requiring that materials be aligned with state standards and that districts certify that all students have access to them.


Google Earth Logo Remember the globe that your elementary school teacher kept on top of a filing cabinet to point out places on Earth? Classrooms still have globes, of course, but today’s teachers have a globe that’s irresistible to video-game-charged young students: Google Earth. Assuming they have access to the internet, teachers have the tools to make the physical part of geography really fun to look at. Learning the states and capitols? Online games are the best way to learn them, free.

Obviously, access to these tools is uneven. Some schools lead in acquiring and using the technical tools to teach geography in this way, and not all teachers are comfortable with them. But they are changing the way students learn about geography from a dry exercise in 2-dimensional distortions to a whiz-bang, ooh-aah pleasure. If Google Earth is not already in the school near you, it soon will be, if your school's infrastructure steps up to the requirements.

Iraq --
Can you name
the places on
this blue-green
spinning rock?

Technical jobs related to geography have been growing for decades, driving increased demand for postsecondary education in the field. The College Board offers an Advanced Placement Human Geography exam, which has been growing in popularity.

All this success and excitement would seem to imply broad advances in geographical knowledge among students. In 2003 a widely publicized survey by National Geographic revealed that most Americans could not find Iraq on a map, but it seems an easy bet that this has since improved. The 2001 “Nation’s Report Card” already showed progress in student achievement against the geography standards. In 2010 new student surveys were conducted, and an updated report was released in 2011. National Geographic’s annual geography bee has grown into a media event, spawning interest in the competition.


"I'm just a bill, yeah I'm only a bill..." There's a lot to be said for the power of music to communicate content. Dave Frishberg's catchy song for Schoolhouse Rock taught a generation of Americans how an idea becomes a law.

One of the critical functions of public education is to prepare citizens to participate in our democracy. There are reasons for concern. A notorious survey finding found that only 38% of American adults could name the three branches of government, but 59% could name the Three Stooges. Voting, the most binary and measurable expression of civic participation, reflects the public’s sense of disengagement. Young voters and nonwhite voters participate at particularly low levels, especially in primary contests (which in most California races is the election that decides the matter).

California lawmakers addressed this concern in 2013 by requiring that voter education information be included in the American government and civics curriculum at the high school level when the State Board of Education next revises the history-social science framework. They specified that the curriculum include information such as the importance of registering to vote and how to access and understand the voter pamphlet and other materials in order to become an informed voter.

Civic participation is more than voting. identified an important disconnect in a 2005 survey. Participation in public service or service learning during high school does not appear to lead to more formal civic participation. According to their report:

“While those surveyed were willing to volunteer or do charity work, they did not engage in more formal forms of civic and political life. Sixty- four percent of all students said they volunteered more than once during their four years in high school, but only 9 percent could say the same thing when asked how often they had worked to change a policy or law in their community, the state, or the nation. Even when asked how often they had worked to change a school policy or school rule, only 12 percent responded “more than once”—with 67 percent saying not at all.”

In hopes of finding more effective ways to incorporate civic education into various parts of the curriculum, the California Department of Education created the Civic Learning Task Force. Among its important recommendations: Civics education is so important that it should start in kindergarten — and not wait for a single class in the 12th grade.

Nationally, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools has identified proven practices for civic learning and also provides policy recommendations.

Next Steps

Here are some resources that might help you support civics education.

  • The California State PTA provides resources to help make civics a priority in our schools.
  • What Families and PTAs can do to support civic learning.
  • The Civic Learning Award celebrates public schools' efforts to engage students in civic learning.
  • Five Tips for a Great Education (a blog post by Carol, one of the writers of Ed100)


Which of the following is true?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Carol Kocivar July 14, 2016 at 8:22 pm
The Crisis in Civics Funding
Julie Silverbrook, Executive Director of The Constitutional Sources Project, spells out concerns in a piece in The Washington Times.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 10, 2016 at 2:08 pm
Helping Kids Understand Elections
Whatever your political persuasion, this election season is a great chance to engage kids in a real life civics lesson. From discussing the pros and cons of candidates, to analyzing media messages, to simply learning what a primary election is all about, this is a great week for kids to learn more about our democracy. What can parents do?
See the Ed100 blog for more..../politics-for-kids/
user avatar
Carol Kocivar January 26, 2016 at 11:36 am
Guidebook: Six Proven Practices for Effective Civic Learning (2016)
* Highlights proven strategies for implementing high-quality civic learning
*Provides suggestions for how to implement each practice in schools and classrooms
You can download it here:
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder November 7, 2015 at 10:22 am
As part of the process of becoming a US citizen, immigrants must pass a test. Here is information about what they are expected to know:
Students learning about civics might be interested in this game:
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder May 21, 2015 at 10:17 pm
At the 2015 Convention of the California State PTA, Ed100 co-author Carol Kocivar interviewed California Chief Justice Hon. Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye regarding her views about civics education. The Chief Justice had many interesting ideas about ways that schools can make the judicial system real and interesting to students. This clip is about 23 minutes in length; my ears perked up at about 16 minutes in because it includes some concrete ideas about things schools can do to make civics come alive. Another chestnut: there are about 300,000 teachers in California. Which do you think there are more of: teachers or lawyers? Check the clip at 3:40 for the answer!
user avatar
Tara Massengill April 21, 2015 at 6:13 am
My daughter's 5th grade class is working on projects to coincide with learning their states and capitol. They were each supposed to pick a state and plan a family vacation to it. We are a military family, and our daughter was born in Nebraska. We spent a total of 7 years there, more than anywhere else. Naturally, my daughter picked Nebraska as her destination. Her teacher then proceeded to tell the entire class that she didn't know why anyone would want to visit a Midwestern state, since there was nothing good about any of the Midwestern states. Really got me hot under the collar. Shouldn't a teacher say something educational about each and every state?
user avatar
g4joer6 April 20, 2015 at 9:00 am
2 thumbs up for Schoolhouse Rock
user avatar
cnuptac March 26, 2015 at 11:08 am
Our history is being lost because it's the least important to the district. Math and tech is the new wave but what they forget is history repeats itself and if you don't want wars then u need to explain what happen to make the war happen and not repeat it
user avatar
Sherry Schnell February 5, 2015 at 9:05 pm
It is so critical that students understand the awesome responsibility of living in a democracy. The government IS the people, so they need to be thoughtful and engaged. There is no blaming someone else for the problem. If there are potholes, that is YOUR responsibility. If there is too much poverty, YOU need to be part of the solution. And the first amendment and free speech. We would be lost without it. We need to make sure our children understand that.
user avatar
Mary Perry September 21, 2014 at 8:50 am
The Civic Learning Task Force recently completed its recommendations. Among the efforts it will be taking on to strengthen civic learning in California is a website: Check it out, especially the blog by Carol Kocivar that provides "Five Tips for a Great Education."
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