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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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The subjects of History, Geography and Civics are central to the purpose of public education.

These topics are inherently complicated, partly because they are influenced by constantly evolving public norms and beliefs. The facts about these subjects don't change dramatically from year to year, but public understanding of them can shift quickly.

Knowing Much About History

As children advance through grades, they learn about their community, their state, their country and the world. The state's curriculum framework for history and social science defines the sequence in which they learn about these topics. A long-awaited draft update to this framework was approved by the State Board of Education in 2016. The revised framework puts increased emphasis on civic learning. It also added 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.




Learning and Working Now and Long Ago


A Child’s Place in Time and Space


People Who Make a Difference


Continuity and Change


California: A Changing State


United States History and Geography: Making a New Nation


World History and Geography


World History and Geography: Medieval and Early Modern Times


United States History and Geography: Growth and Conflict


Elective Courses in History–Social Science


World History, Culture, and Geography: The Modern World


US History and Geography:
Continuity and Change in Modern US History


Principles of American Democracy (One Semester)
Principles of Economics (One Semester)

California's content framework reflects the influence of the C3 Framework (C3 stands for "College, Career and Civic life") developed by the National Council for the Social Studies.

In the past, California's school districts had limited choices when it came to textbooks and other instructional materials. The school finance system provided school districts with dedicated "categorical" funds usable only for instructional materials. It was sort of like coupons: districts could use the funds only to purchase books approved by the State Board of Education.

In 2012, California's legislature passed many laws to give school districts more power over how they use their funds. The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) created a new system for allocating money to school districts, including the money formerly associated with categorical programs. Assembly Bill 1246 gave districts significant flexibility to choose instructional material choices, particularly for high schools, but still requires districts to certify that all students have access to materials aligned with state standards.


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 technology 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. National Geographic’s annual geography bee has grown into a media event, spawning interest in the competition.

All this success and excitement would seem to imply widespread advances in geographical knowledge. Moderate those hopes. To be clear: American students are not star performers when it comes to geography, though their performance has improved slowly and steadily over time.

Knowledge of geography has real consequences. In 2017 the New York Times commissioned a national poll to see what proportion of American adults could accurately locate North Korea on a map. "Just 36% got it right." The answers were literally all over the map. In a followup question, the poll asked whether America should take military action against North Korea. "Respondents who could correctly identify North Korea tended to view diplomatic and nonmilitary strategies more favorably than those who could not."


"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.

Decades ago, a notorious survey found that only 38% of American adults could name the three branches of government, but 59% could name the Three Stooges. Things have not improved. In 2016, a survey found that nearly a third of Americans could not name any of the three branches of government. Only one in four could name all three.

Voting, the most basic 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).

There are some small reasons for long-term optimism. In 2013 California lawmakers directed the State Board of Education to include voter education information in the American government and civics curriculum at the high school level. 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.

To support the development of civics education programs, in 2021 the California State Board of Education is expected to establish a Seal of Civic Engagement that students could earn for their high school diploma.

In California, students can't vote until they are 18, but they don't have to wait until their birthday to register. The office of the California Secretary of State provides a Back to School Pre-Registration Toolkit to help encourage sixteen- and seventeen-year olds to pre-register. The Toolkit provides sample social media posts, downloadable posters and brochures you can use to join the campaign.

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 the hope 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 recommended practices and policies to promote civic learning.

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.

Updated December 2017, October 2018, April 2019, June 2019


Which of the following is true?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Carol Kocivar August 4, 2022 at 1:39 pm
Model Curriculum:

The 2022-23 State Budget provides an increase of $14 million one-time to support county offices of education in developing model curricula related to the Vietnamese American refugee experience, the Cambodian genocide, Hmong history and cultural studies, and Native American studies.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar May 24, 2022 at 12:00 am

California's state seal of civic engagement: lessons from year one.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar May 26, 2022 at 2:25 pm
Oops. Link correction.
user avatar
Selisa Loeza October 25, 2021 at 10:48 pm
The California History Social Science program has an abundance of continued resources for educators and community members.

It was actually the now Director of the UCLA branch, who inspired my care in civic engagement when he was my junior year AP History teacher.

Check out for more resources:
user avatar
francisco molina August 13, 2019 at 11:42 am
At my district the 8 graders have the book Creating America, an excellent text for many contents, probably the most important about Civics, but nobody evaluates their content and the Hispanic families that don't read English are missing a big chance to learn about the American Civics.
user avatar
Sonya Hendren August 19, 2018 at 6:14 am
Link corrections: The California State PTA provides resources:

What Families and PTAs can do to support civic learning:

user avatar
Caryn August 22, 2018 at 9:27 am
Thank you very much, Sonya. We really appreciate you helping us stay as current and accurate as possible. As you can imagine, keeping up with broken links is quite the task.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 27, 2018 at 4:18 pm
A portrait of civics education in the United States: The 2018 Brown Center Report

This report provides a portrait of how complex and varied civics education is in the United States, using student performance, state policies, teacher characteristics, and survey results as windows into students’ experiences. Overall, the 2018 Brown Center Report argues that education policy and practice in the United States should place greater emphasis on schools’ role in supporting and strengthening American democracy.

user avatar
Jeff Camp May 1, 2018 at 11:20 am
How to measure quality of civic learning and improve it

The Teaching Channel has produced a guide, Educating for Democracy, that brings together resources from across the nation on how to assess students’ civic learning. Among the topics, it examines capstone graduation projects, state- and district-level civic assessments, a rubric on civic writing, and online assessments to develop civic reasoning created by Stanford University.
user avatar
Jeff Camp September 15, 2017 at 11:28 am
New 2017 poll of American civic ignorance
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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