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‘What Does It Mean To Be A Citizen In The 21st Century? – Fostering Civic Engagement Among Youth in K-12 Schools’.  

“[T]he young are idealistic, have an underdeveloped sense of their own mortality, and are afflicted with an exaggerated thirst for justice.”   – Margaret Atwood, The Testaments, 2019, p. 411

On August 14, 2019, Greta Thunberg set sail for the United States to participate in a United Nations climate summit held in late September in New York City. Thunberg spurned use of an airplane for her trans-Atlantic trip due to air travel’s contributions to global warming. Upon arriving in New York City after several weeks at sea, she commented: “It is insane that a sixteen-year-old had to cross the Atlantic Ocean to make a stand” (Witt, 2019). Whether “insane” or not, Thunberg’s actions symbolize an approach to citizenship and citizenship education greatly in need of revitalization in the 21st century. Such ideas about citizen engagement, that is, moving the needle from knowledge to action, have been embraced by millions of young people worldwide regarding the climate crisis and other pressing social problems such as gun control. The intent of this article is to explore new ways of thinking about citizen engagement and argue for new forms of civic education that encourage – and even require – students to “make a stand.”

This article aims to:

  • provide an overview of citizenship and citizenship education;
  • highlight new approaches to civic education that culminate in taking action;
  • provide several examples of youth civic engagement that illustrate this emphasis on action; and
  • offer suggestions and examples of promising practices for educators and parents that have been shown to produce lifelong commitments to active citizenship.

Although active citizenship is important because healthy democracies depend on citizen involvement through voting and other means, civic engagement should encourage positive, democratic social change that considers the common good of all of Earth’s inhabitants. Happily, evidence exists that among youth today, such a transformation toward action on these issues has already begun (Kaplan and Gustin, 2019). Capitalizing on this momentum by promoting active civic engagement in schools can enhance learning, making it more authentic and relevant to students’ futures as fully participatory, democratically-oriented 21st century citizens. By no means am I suggesting that young people have to bear the burden of transforming the world on their own since many allies can be found among older generations (Milman, 2019). However, as the Atwood quote suggests, youth bring a unique constellation of traits such as passion, energy, and idealism that can, in effect, change the world.

Citizenship and Citizenship Education: An Overview

Ideas about citizenship have a long history. Of particular importance has been the question of who gets to be considered a full citizen, with all the rights and responsibilities this status includes. How an individual may think about his or her role as a citizen and his or her commitments – whether to state, nation, world, none, or all of these – varies from person to person and across time and space. Unsurprisingly, marginalized groups often have very ambivalent feelings about what has conventionally been called “patriotism” or participation in the political process (Levinson, 2014; Epstein, 2008).

Today, ideas about citizenship are in flux worldwide. Globalization and transnational problems such as the climate crisis point to the need to think about citizenship in more inclusive and comprehensive ways. Large-scale efforts to address biodiversity, species extinction, and the degradation of the ocean, for example, will require new ways of thinking about individuals’ and nations’ shared responsibility for finding solutions. The responsibilities of citizenship will need to transcend local and national obligations toward a sense of global solidarity and intergenerational responsibility to save the planet (Gaudelli, 2016).

A brief excursion into the history of citizenship highlights the degree to which the status of citizenship has been both ambiguous and fraught. Historians tell us that even in ancient democracies such as Greece only a small percentage of inhabitants were considered citizens; that is, individuals with a stake in society and the right to exercise decision-making authority (Heater, 2004). In the United States, a similar story can be told (Keyssar, 2000). Originally, white male property holders were the only ones who could vote in many states. The 19th century saw a gradual expansion of the franchise. By the time of the Civil War, most white men could vote, whether they owned property or not. After the Civil War, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments changed the legal status of former slaves, prohibited consideration of race in defining citizenship, and gave former slaves the right to vote. The 14th Amendment also established the concept of birthright citizenship under U.S. law. Despite these amendments, southern states devised ways to disenfranchise their Black populations, effectively ending the right to vote until passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and even beyond.

For certain groups, the situation of citizenship and voting was even more complicated. The 1875 Supreme Court case, Minor v. Happersett, confirmed women’s status as citizens, but said that women were “a special category of nonvoting citizens – ‘members of the state’” (Weiss, 2018, p. 89). Throughout the 20th century, aspects of women’s citizenship remained contested. In some states, women could not serve on juries or marry a non-citizen without losing their citizenship (Kerber, 1999). For groups such as Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinx, efforts to keep these groups marginalized as citizens and voters persisted well into the 20th century.

What it means to be a good citizen in a democracy has been subject to debate among political scientists and civic educators for several decades, with some models promoting more activism than others. Concerns about the perceived suitability of some groups to enact the role of democratic citizen date to the beginning of the republic when Thomas Jefferson and later Horace Mann called for establishment of public schools so that children could be educated for responsible democratic participation. When millions of individuals immigrated to the United States, beginning in the mid-19th century and continuing into the early 20th century, public school educators called for creation of a new school subject, “social studies,” to take on the task of citizenship education as part of a process of “Americanization.”


Since the 1920s, social studies (typically history, geography, civics, and economics) has been most prominently associated with civic education in American public schools. In recent years, other nations around the world have adopted social studies as a means of doing citizenship education as their nations’ populations have become more diverse. Even older democracies such as England and Australia have given fresh attention to citizenship education (Heater, 2004). In newer democracies such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, efforts to incorporate forms of citizenship education in schooling have also arisen.

Although not a democracy, China has adopted an approach called “moral education” aimed at creating law-abiding citizens and occasionally including attention to environmental education. Across all continents, the important role of the citizen, whether defined narrowly or expansively, has achieved heightened recognition since it is seen as important in shaping the capacity of nations to succeed in a globalizing and environmentally threatened world (Wood et al., 2018; Wood and Kallio, 2019).

In the face of the climate crisis, new ideas have arisen about the responsibilities of individual citizens, including green citizenship (Wood and Kallio, 2019) – sometimes called environmental citizenship (Dobson and Bell, 2005) – and ecological democracy (Houser, 2009), that take a less anthropocentric and more environmentally conscious view of our obligations as citizens to each other and the planet (Kissling and Bell, 2019). Likewise, other models of citizenship can be found, some emphasizing individual virtue and others emphasizing communal responsibilities. Scholars Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne (2004) introduced a model that has achieved broad visibility internationally. The model posits three kinds of citizen enactment: the personally responsible citizen, the participatory citizen, and the justice-oriented citizen.

Personally responsible citizens are those who follow the norms and obligations of being a citizen in their nation (e.g., paying taxes, voting regularly, and following laws). Participatory citizens are individuals who go beyond this level of engagement by getting involved more actively in local or national politics, working for a candidate, or supporting legislative initiatives through interest group participation. Justice-oriented citizens may do all these things but also involve themselves in broader efforts to promote fundamental change and structural reform toward equity and social justice.

By no means is this the only model of citizenship discourse circulating today in the scholarly literature (Abowitz and Hamish, 2006). However, the Westheimer and Kahne (2004) typology gets at one dimension of difference found in other models as well – a continuum from minimal to more maximal engagement with civic life. These models point to civic education that treats youth as civic actors who can effect change by engaging in authentic civic action even before they can vote in elections. Civic action can be carried out through a variety of formal (e.g., writing a state legislator about an issue) and informal (e.g., working on a service-learning project) means, some of which have nothing to do with politics.

Activities such as these enhance personal learning and development as well as a commitment to the common good. Students have been shown to benefit in multiple ways from what has been called “authentic instruction.” Likewise, tackling topics that matter to youth (e.g., Noddings, 2007) brings with it a sense of civic purpose (Malin, Ballard, and Damon, 2015), which has been defined as “a sustained intention to contribute to the world beyond the self through civic or political action” (p. 103). In short, good civic education is congruent with what is known about effective teaching and learning.

Youth Civic Engagement: A Sense of Urgency

The Center for Information on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) (2019) reports that the proportion of young people under 30 who vote in national elections has declined in recent decades. A similar situation exists across European Union countries (Kitanova, 2019). Various efforts have been undertaken to address this problem with some success recently in ameliorating this situation, including pre-registration of young people before their 18th birthdays (Diavolo, 2019).

To engage young people in participatory, social justice-oriented citizenship that extends beyond voting, civic education also needs improvement. Understandably, young people have less civic knowledge than older groups (Pew Research Center, 2018). Research indicates that good civic education, with an emphasis on knowledge and participation, can produce a long-term commitment to remaining engaged in civic life (Niemi and Junn, 2005; Kahne and Sporte, 2009).

Empirical studies of adolescents in a variety of nations worldwide have shown (e.g., Hahn, 1998; Sherrod, Torney-Purta, Flanagan, 2010) that student engagement in authentic and intensive forms of learning aimed at inquiry about public policy issues and agency and activism in response to these investigations can produce deeper learning and foster higher-order thinking (Campbell and Levinson, 2012; Parker et al., 2013). An open classroom climate in which students feel free to share their views is also essential (Hess, 2009; Hess and McAvoy, 2015).

Examples of these approaches to civic education include traditional forms of classroom instruction and online programs outside of school. For example, the Center for Civic Education’s Project Citizen is an effort to engage students with public policy at the local level. Likewise, informal learning environments – online in digital spaces (e.g., iCivics); through youth groups such as the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts of America, and 4H; and other examples found on the website – can also create interest in public policy issues.

Over the last decade, “schooling for sustainable development,” albeit in most places along the lines of personal and participatory models of citizenship education, has gathered momentum in North America (McKeown and Nolet, 2013), Europe (European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2017), Australia, and New Zealand. In New Zealand, a 2013 mandate requires that students undertake a “personal social action” as part of their social studies coursework (Wood and Kallio, 2019). Although earlier research showed a decline in student interest in environmental topics (Wray-Lake, Flanagan, and Osgood, 2010), such school-based efforts and the leadership of individuals such as Greta Thunberg offer strong evidence that a tipping point in youth interest has occurred. Many of the examples that follow illustrate the Westheimer and Kahne approach of justice-oriented citizenship or what others might call an activist approach to citizenship; that is, one promoting social change.

A New Era of Youth Agency and Activism

When we think about the history of environmental issues in the United States, names such as John Muir, Wendell Berry, and Rachel Carson (Crocco, Shuttleworth, and Chandler, 2016) may come to mind. Indeed, when we think about change efforts, whether it be the Civil Rights Movement or another example, we often teach about individuals such as Martin Luther King Jr. who come to symbolize these movements. Sometimes, youth play a role in the stories we tell of these reform movements (e.g., the young people who sat in at the Woolworth’s counter in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960). Nevertheless, we tend to adopt explanations of the past that might be described as the “great man” theory of historical change. All too often, we ignore women, youth, and the countless numbers of foot soldiers who make a movement for systemic, structural change a reality.

When it comes to civic engagement, young people, and change, we appear to be turning away from what seemed youthful apathy about politics just a decade or so ago toward embrace of a vision of citizenship engagement that resembles Westheimer and Kahne’s social justice-oriented model. The current historical moment is notable for its extraordinary, perhaps unprecedented, level of youth activism. The examples are numerous. The survivors of the Parkland, Florida school shooting used Facebook and Twitter to bring together thousands of people in the “Never Again Marjory Stoneman Douglass” movement for gun control, which gained widespread international attention through its march on Washington, D.C. on March 24, 2018. This movement inspired Greta Thunberg’s efforts to take action in the wake of the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on the climate crisis. Even before Thunberg’s dramatic trip across the Atlantic Ocean to speak to world leaders at the United Nations, other young people have been working together to address the climate crisis. Some of these young activists include the Zero Hour group, led by Jamie Margolin; Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, an Indigenous environmental activist and hip-hop artist who serves as youth director of Earth Guardians, a conservationist group; the Sunrise movement, founded by young people in their twenties, who focus on local youth leadership (e.g., Ashton Clatterbuck in Lancaster, Pennsylvania) to address the climate crisis; and the 21 young plaintiffs in the court case Juliana v. the United States who are suing the federal government for inadequate response to the climate crisis. Indeed, many young people are clamoring for their elders to move aside and make room for their vision, energy, and leadership in politics and other civic spaces (Taylor, 2019).

The Global Climate Strikes that took place across the world on September 20, 2019 involved thousands of young people who left school to march for action on the climate crisis or participated in activities at their schools. More than 5,000 strikes were reported around the world on that day, kicking off a week of activity (Johnson, 2019). Many participants in these actions were members of civic action groups such as Citizens Climate Lobby,, and the League of Women Voters. The extraordinary level of activities worldwide, many of which involved students, seems to demonstrate that student civic engagement has reached a new milestone of activity. To buttress this claim, a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll (Kaplan and Guskin, 2019) found that one in four youth have taken some action related to the climate crisis and one in seven have participated in a school walkout on this issue. Likewise, new research just released from CIRCLE indicates that in half the U.S. states, youth voting increased in 2018, moving the needle to 23% of the 18- to 21-year-old cohort participating in this off-year election.

While these newer change efforts are, one hopes, shaking up the status quo, other related campaigns addressing the climate crisis are making incremental progress toward their goals. After years of organizing and picketing by civic groups, the University of California – an enormous system with extensive holdings – announced in September 2019 that it will divest from its investment in fossil fuels, one of over 1,000 institutions that have moved in this direction in the last decade.

These examples of student activism and justice oriented citizenship illustrate the idealism, impatience, and sense of urgency found widely among youth today. They also demonstrate a judgment that political leaders in both parties, beholden to corporate contributions and the influence of lobbyists (Farrell, McConnell, and Brulle, 2019), have failed the public, who overwhelmingly desire a response to the crisis (Hertel-Fernandez, Mildenberger, and Stokes, 2018). Social movements such as the examples offered here do affect public opinion, creating awareness, sympathy, and solidarity for their causes. Many people respect what these young citizens are doing to prevent the development of an “uninhabitable earth” (Wallace-Wells, 2019).

Pedagogies of Possibility: Thinking Locally and Globally

Given these individual and group models of activist, social-justice oriented citizenship, this section offers ideas, exemplars, and resources that educators can consider for their classrooms.

Over many years, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has promulgated what it calls “educating for sustainable development,” an idea firmly rooted in comprehensive considerations of social justice as they relate to sustainability and the environment. In some ways, the Green New Deal (H.R. 109 and S.R. 59), introduced in the United States by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Edward Markey (D-MA), acknowledges that climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies must prioritize the needs of those individuals and families with the least resources worldwide since they are often the hardest hit by environmental degradation.

To maximize student interest and agency and promote critical thinking, teaching about environmental issues through an inquiry-oriented, place-based approach is encouraged. The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), an organization comprised of teachers, administrators, and scholars, has developed an approach to teaching that relies on an inquiry-oriented approach well-suited to teaching environmental issues. In this four-step process, known as the C3 (College, Career, and Civic Life) Framework, teachers utilize an “Inquiry Arc” in which students explore compelling questions that drive interdisciplinary investigations. Drawing upon disciplinary tools and concepts, students assemble and assess evidence from a range of primary sources to arrive at answers to their questions. After coming to conclusions about their questions, students are encouraged to communicate their understandings and take action in response to their inquiries. In the process of investigating difficult and perhaps overwhelming topics such as the climate crisis, students will assuredly come face-to-face with diverse viewpoints, even antagonistic standpoints. Even many adults within established organizations like the Sierra Club or the Natural Resources Defense Council differ markedly in terms of their emphasis on environmental priorities, strategies, and tactics. To deal with these diverse, often passionately held, viewpoints, teachers can find guidance in books such as Diana Hess’s Controversy in the Classroom (2009) or Nel Noddings and Laurie Brooks’s Teaching Controversial Issues (2017). What is important here is the promotion of student inquiry and active engagement with compelling problems – not landing on a predetermined position on any of the particular issues confronting citizens, young and old, today. This critical pedagogical orientation and active participation in authentic questions will keep students from becoming overwhelmed and paralyzed by the prospect of a bleak future for themselves and the planet. Likewise, engaging students as voices of authority in considering how to effect change will nurture long-term commitment to civic action that is at the heart of effective citizenship education.

One example of this approach that may be familiar to readers of this journal is the Southeast Michigan Stewardship (SEMIS) Coalition. This partnership program has served for over a decade as an outstanding example of the ways in which students become civic leaders by researching and responding to local issues of concern. In Volume II of this journal, Johnny Lupinacci and his co-authors (2017) describe the ways in which an elementary school teacher organized her students to rehabilitate a nearby vacant lot and turn it into an outdoor garden. In partnership with community groups, these students started by conducting surveys of neighborhood priorities. With help from their partners, teachers and parents were able to transform the blighted lot into a sanctuary of green space. In another article about the SEMIS Coalition’s work, Ethan Lowenstein (2016), along with his teacher and student co-authors, describes working with adolescents on place-based education. In this case, students become Youth Ambassadors and serve as the voice for their peers regarding problems related to their school and community, many of which deal with environmental and social justice issues. At the annual SEMIS conference, which brings together teachers, pre-service teachers, administrators, parents, and professors, Youth Ambassadors describe their research and change efforts to a broader audience. The long-term goal is to have these Youth Ambassadors continue to serve as important civic actors after they graduate from high school. In all this work, teachers emphasize finding solutions rather than just identifying problems. Emphasizing partnerships with community-based organizations and parents may require that teachers develop new skills related to outreach and engagement. Lupinacci, Lowenstein, and their co-authors would acknowledge that this work stretches teachers and takes time. However, they also argue that, in the long run, such investments in forging partnerships may even be efficient and will certainly yield massive dividends in terms of helping students experience self-efficacy and making change.

Place-based, inquiry-oriented work can be broadly interdisciplinary, pulling in science, social studies, language arts, and the visual arts. Place-based education can begin in preschool through investigation of problems that students notice around their schools and playgrounds, for example, erosion of the soil after a heavy rainfall (Lowenstein and Smith, 2017). Gardens (Casey, DiCarlo, and Sheldon, 2019) and field trips to local farms (Pope and Patterson, 2012) provide opportunities for raising questions about where food comes from, how it is produced, and whether it is healthy – for humans and the land. Students in elementary schools can read works of fiction such as Dr. Seuss’s story of the Lorax (Burroughs, in press) to think and talk about the sharing of resources. These early lessons in scarcity, abundance, and decision-making about natural resources might prompt conversations about such issues in the community like those described above. On the SEMIS website, teachers can find lesson plans that might be adopted and adapted for their own use. The NCSS-sponsored journal, Social Studies and the Young Learner (Libresco and Balantic, 2016), offered an entire issue entitled “Have You Hugged Your Mother (Earth) Today?” featuring a number of creative teaching ideas on environmental issues for grades K-6.

As students mature, tackling environmental issues in the news of the day as case studies in politics, economics, history, geography, and sociology/anthropology can help them understand that these problems are complex and respect no state or national boundaries. The local and global, historical and contemporary aspects of human civilization making, for better or worse, converge across the disciplines. Looked at from an environmental or geographic perspective, the history of the Fertile Crescent in ancient Mesopotamia can be considered an exercise in sustainability (Shuttleworth, in press) and civilization building. Adolescents might research the different ways in which Indigenous groups in their areas think about land and water use and its contrast with American legal tradition. Investigating case studies, such as the Flint (Michigan) Water Crisis (Heath and Kenreich, in press) or the Dakota Access Pipeline (Passe and Sepulveda, in press), can serve as reminders of the acute socioeconomic and race-based disparities in how environmental degradation affects different citizens across the country. They might also examine the history of social movements in this and other countries to question how they got started, gained momentum, and whether they produced lasting social change. Drawing on other school subjects, students can respond to their inquiries through poetry, art, creative writing, and music. They can hone their skills in public speaking at a city council meeting and engage in persuasive letter writing to politicians or the local newspaper. They can sponsor a local conference or reach out cross-generationally or across different groups in their communities to forge alliances aimed at change. Each of these teaching strategies should promote critical reflection, a deeper understanding of the complexity of many public policy issues, and the regular compromises that get made to get something done.

To complement place-based education focused on local settings with global perspectives and cases, teachers might consult a variety of other sources: UNESCO’s Education for Sustainable Development standards, the Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education’s Education for Sustainability Standards, and the US Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development’s National Education for Sustainability K-12 Student Learning Standards, Version 3.

Teachers might find two additional resources helpful for general guidance in linking the local to the global. The first suggestion is somewhat dated but still useful: the Education for Sustainable Development Toolkit. The second is Victor Nolet’s (2016) wonderful book, Educating for Sustainability: Principles and Practices for Teachers. Of course, good teachers adapt ideas found elsewhere to their own school and classroom contexts. Nevertheless, these standards and pedagogical suggestions will surely stimulate the process of adaptation due to the deep thinking that has gone into each of these publications.

As noted earlier, effective civic education with long-lasting impact in terms of civic engagement rests upon involving students in inquiries about topics they care about and structuring these inquiries toward culminating activities that are authentic, meaningful, and aimed at taking some sort of action. Today, these activities might be conducted in or out of school, online (Middaugh and Kirshner, 2014), or in the public square (Gallay et al., 2016). The recent good news about rising student interest and involvement in citizen action and justice-oriented citizenship on the climate crisis suggests that young people are eager to confront this problem and contribute, even lead the rest of us, to a solution, recognizing that the future is theirs. Certainly, educators, parents, and other adults need to support their energy and idealism in any way we can as today’s youth seek to create a better, more sustainable world for all living things.

Author Bio – Margaret Smith Crocco () is professor emerita from Teachers College, Columbia University. She has also served on the faculties of Michigan State University and the University of Iowa. Besides teaching about the place of environmental issues and sustainability in social studies, her scholarly interests include the teaching of women’s history and American history.

Article originally published in the winter issue of the Green Schools Catalyst Quarterly, and reprinted with permission from the Green Schools National Network.