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Lesson 6.15

Civics, history and geography:
How do kids learn about their country and the world?

When, where and why?

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Civic readiness and engagement is a central purpose of universal public education.

Schools and teachers convey civic knowledge and norms to each generation of students. The facts about these subjects don't change dramatically from year to year, but public understanding of them can. How does civic education in California actually work?

Education standards and frameworks for history

As children advance through grades, they learn about their community, their state, their country and the world. The expected content of education in each grade level is defined by state standards that are further refined through curriculum frameworks. These frameworks are periodically reviewed and adopted by a vote of the State Board of Education.

When the History and Social Science framework was last revised and adopted in 2017, it increased emphasis on civic learning along with other priorities. The revised framework also added financial literacy, voter education, genocide, and a broadened view of the contributions of diverse people including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans and people with disabilities.

After an educational framework is adopted, changes trickle their way toward the classroom experience in each grade level. Publishers revise textbooks and learning materials. Schools select materials and purchase them. Administrators schedule training for teachers to learn about the materials and discuss them. Finally, teachers incorporate the materials into their lesson plans. It takes time for a change to work its way through.

Want to know what's taught in each grade? Here's a summary of the themes:




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 that had been specifically approved by the State Board of Education.

In 2012, California's legislature adopted the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), which eliminated most categorical funds and placed the money in the hands of school districts instead. Districts must certify that all students have access to materials aligned with state standards, but they have significant freedom to choose materials, particularly for high schools classes.


"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 learning content. Half a century ago, Dave Frishberg's catchy song for Schoolhouse Rock taught a generation of Americans how an idea becomes a law. It's still relevant.

“The qualifications for self-government are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training.” —Thomas Jefferson

It's also not enough.

Decades ago, a survey found that only 38% of American adults could name the three branches of government, but 59% could name the Three Stooges. The good news is that this grim statistic has improved. In 2022, a survey found that nearly half of Americans can name the three branches of government. The bad news is that a quarter can't even name one.

ballot box and USA flag

In the Ed100 blog:
Learning to vote

The civic mission of schools

One of the critical functions of public education is to prepare citizens to participate in our democracy. There are reasons for concern.

The most basic expression of civic participation is voting, which reflects the public’s sense of engagement or disengagement in their democracy. Young voters and nonwhite voters tend to participate at particularly low levels, especially in primary elections. Primary elections are very important in California because, since 2012, the state has used a top-two primary system for major offices. Depending on the circumstances, the primary can decide the outcome.

But voting is just one expression of civic engagement. In 2011, the Annenberg Institute underwrote an important report, Guardians of Democracy, which recommended "proven practices" that schools can use to deliver on the civic mission of schools. The practices fall in six categories, summarized here:

Summary of “Proven practices” for the civic mission of schools


Classroom instruction

Formal instruction in U.S. government, history, and democracy increases civic knowledge. This is a valuable goal in itself and may also contribute to young people’s tendency to engage in civic and political activities over the long term. However, schools should avoid teaching only rote facts about dry procedures, which is unlikely to benefit students and may actually alienate them from politics.


Discussion of Current Events and Controversial Issues

When young people have opportunities to discuss current issues in a classroom setting, they tend to have greater interest in politics, improved critical thinking and communications skills, more civic knowledge, and more interest in discussing public affairs out of school. Conversations, however, should be carefully moderated so that students feel welcome to speak from a variety of perspectives. Teachers need support in broaching controversial issues in classrooms since they may risk criticism or sanctions if they do so.


Service learning

Service programs are now common in K–12 schools. The ones that best develop engaged citizens are linked to the curriculum.


Extracurricular Activities

Students who participate in extracurricular activities in high school remain more civically engaged than their contemporaries even decades later. Everyone should have opportunities to join high school groups, and such participation should be valued.


Student Participation in School Governance

A long tradition of research suggests that giving students more opportunities to participate in the management of their own classrooms and schools builds their civic skills and attitudes.


Simulations of Democratic Processes

Simulations of voting, trials, legislative deliberation, and diplomacy in schools can lead to heightened political

knowledge and interest.

In 2014 many similar themes and recommendations were echoed in a report by the California Task Force On K-12 Civic Learning. This is a good example of how task forces can help form a consensus for policy action.

The Annenberg Institute has tracked trends in Americans' civic knowledge for decades. Each year on Constitution Day (September 17), it releases annual survey results that quantify the appalling state of basic civic knowledge. One bright spot: the findings demonstrate that students who take a civics course in high school tend to score higher than those who don't.

Register at 16, vote at 18

There are some reasons for optimism about the future of effective civics education in California.

Although students can't vote until they are 18 in California, they can register to vote up to two years ahead of time. This means that the first step to election participation can take place while students are in high school and actively learning about civics.

Under the direction of the Legislature, the office of the California Secretary of State has been working to increase pre-registration, with mixed results. Unsurprisingly, plopping a stack of pre-registration forms in the school office isn't enough to get things going — a successful campaign requires deeper organization and engagement.

Dr. Marika Manos spoke about the California Seal of Civic Engagement at the Ed100 Academy for Student Leaders

In the Ed100 blog
How students earn the Seal of Civic Engagement

To increase ongoing focus on civic learning, in 2021 the California State Board of Education established the State Seal of Civic Engagement, an honor that students can earn as an addition to their high school diploma. The program has struggled for simple, logistical reasons: there are thousands of high schools in California. In each one, someone has know about the program, understand the criteria, identify students who earn the honor, and know how to communicate with the appropriate person at the school district central office about it. That person, in turn, has to order physical stickers by early April at the latest, collect information from each school about which students will receive the honor, and arrange for the stickers to be affixed. All in time for graduation. Simple, right?


Google Earth Logo Back in the day, many school teachers kept a dusty globe on top of a filing cabinet, periodically pulling it down to point out countries that had been renamed. Some classrooms still have globes, of course, but today’s teachers have better, more up-to-date options, including Google Earth. Learning the states and capitols? Online games are the best way to learn them, free.

Access to digital learning resources remains uneven, which has a significant impact on geographical literacy.

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 roughly a quarter of a million students take each year.

American students are not star performers when it comes to geography, and national annual testing shows that today's students are basically neither better nor worse than their predecessors when it comes to geographic knowledge.

This is a shame, because the scores show a lot of room for improvement. 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. According to the report, "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."

California's grade-level standards for geography are included as part of the social science framework.

Thinking globally

This lesson focused on civic learning with an emphasis on local, state and national concerns. The next will consider language learning, which can connect students to a more global perspective.

This lesson was last updated in July, 2023.
Previous updates: December 2017,
October 2018
April 2019
June 2019


Which ONE of the following is MOST 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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