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Illinois recently revised its 2017 social science standards to be implemented in the 2022-2023 school year. The revisions are publicly accessible through documents that present the existing Social Science Learning Standards alongside the new revised standards. Though there are also categories for instruction and curriculum shifts, the revisions consist only of alterations to the wording and complexity of the standard learning objectives; no instructional or curriculum shifts were identified in any of the grade level or grade-band documents that are accessible to the public. Illinois approaches social science through a pedagogy of inquiry, defining content through the framework of inquiry cycles, essential questions, and disciplinary concepts. The revisions made regarding the inquiry standards at each grade and grade-band typically shift objectives further towards a participatory approach with changes to diction, increased specificity, and mandates for student-centered learning. The inquiry cycle is composed of three realms in which students develop Inquiry Skills, learn about Evaluating Sources and Using Evidence, and practice Communicating Conclusions and Taking Informed Action. This framework for inquiry sets a strong foundation for a participatory-oriented approach to civics education. Civic standards in Illinois are divided into three categories: Civic and Political Institutions, Participation and Deliberation: Applying Civic Virtues and Democratic Principles, and Processes, Rules, and Laws. These categories reveal a balance within the content of civic learning as students get to learn about civic processes and institutions while practicing with means of participation and deliberation within those societal structures.   

In recent years, Illinois has instituted legislation that intended to improve access to quality civics education. Illinois provides civics mandate guidance documents for the middle and high school levels, which guide educators in implementing civics instruction that fits the legal requirements. In 2015 House Bill 4025 was signed into law requiring all high schools to provide a semester-long civics course that includes discussion of current and controversial issues, service learning, and simulations of the democratic process. Then, in the 2020-2021 school year, middle schools in Illinois began to be required to provide a semester-long civics course which also focused on current and societal events, service learning, and democratic process simulations. The service learning component of the legislation is identified as a fundamental implementation gap that is at odds with ideologies around civics education expressed in the Illinois School Code and the Illinois Social Science Learning Standards. Both the school code and the learning standards are strongly rooted in a participatory orientation with goals to guide students in using civic competencies throughout their lives and to “not just acquire and produce knowledge but also to live a life of action – to engage in the workings of our democracy.” To remedy the gap between these participatory goals and the realities of implementation, Illinois has enacted the Engaging Youth for Positive Change (EYPC) program. The purpose of the EYPC program is “to educate young people in a way that engages them in their community and gives them the skills, confidence, and experience necessary to make a difference.” This initiative embodies a participatory student-centered approach to civics learning  that provides a concrete framework for helping middle and high school students become lifelong active citizens.

Elementary School

At the elementary level, the civics standards are integrated with the social science curriculum and defined at each grade level. For the K-5 civic standards, the two categories that are most highlighted are Civic and Political Institutions and Processes, Rules, and Laws, which mainly approach bureaucratic learning content. If approached through the inquiry cycle, this realm of civic learning would be approached in a student-centered way. There are also standards that approach civics with a participatory orientation though the learning objectives for civics at the elementary level don’t require students to create or develop original work. Though the inquiry standards at these grade levels do have active mandates for the creation of original work, the civics standards themselves aren’t explicitly linked to the construction of original arguments or the creation of action steps. The revisions to the social studies standards seem to increase scaffolding at the elementary level with the addition of the phrase “with guidance and support” to many of the early elementary content standards. Scaffolding is crucial for expanding students’ civic knowledge and abilities, so this addition is a helpful reminder for educators at the early elementary level.

Standards for participation and deliberation at the elementary level are highlighted at the 3rd and 4th grade levels and expect students to “compare procedures for making decisions in the classroom, school and community” and “identify core civic virtues and democratic principles that guide governments, society, and communities” respectively. The description of civic virtues in the 4th grade implies a character-oriented approach to civics that associates certain dispositions with core civic virtues, naming “honesty, mutual respect, cooperation, and attentiveness to multiple perspectives” as examples. These dispositional traits are presented alongside the idea of democratic principles “such as equality, freedom, liberty, and respect for individual rights” as concepts that “guide our state and nation.” The 4th grade is the only time in the elementary standards that character education is approached or that the concepts of civic virtues and democratic principles are defined with examples. Students are asked to “identify” those virtues and principles rather than developing their own relationship to those civic virtues, practicing the application of those democratic principles in various situations, or interrogating the nuance and complexity of those ideas when considered in different contexts.

Middle School

At the middle and high school levels, the EYPC program is interwoven with the civics curriculum. The EYPC activities for the inquiry and civics standards are presented alongside standards from middle and high school that correspond to the EYPC learning objectives. The EYPC activities all have the potential to be culturally relevant and participatory if effectively implemented with the recommended student-centered approach.  While both the middle and high school civics standards still include content dedicated to the structure and function of local, state, national, and international governments as well as the roles and responsibilities of  citizens and government officials, these realms are balanced by opportunities for students to actively participate in civic society. However, the civics strand of standards regarding the application of civic virtues and democratic principles through participation and deliberation  reveals a greater focus on deliberation than on participation at the high school level. Though students are on the cusp of adult citizenship in high school, the grade band standards mainly ask students to “analyze,” “identify and explain,” and “compare and contrast” without requirements to produce original work or present any conclusions that were created through deliberation. 

Some civics standards at the middle and high school level deviate from a passive approach, such as those with mandates to “apply civic virtues and democratic principles in school and community settings.” Though these standards are accompanied by the expectation that educators will figure out how to teach to that standard on the local level, the learning objective itself embodies a participatory approach to civics by positioning students as practitioners of civic engagement at accessible levels of society, such as school and community. Many of the middle and high school standards for inquiry skills are active, expecting students to “develop,” “create,” and “construct.” There are also suggestions for how to engage in civic participation at the local level presented in the EYPC activities. These activities include, but are not limited to, the students observing a city council meeting and getting to meet with a city council member, having policy debates in class after researching proposed ordinances in their area, and speaking with community organizers and stakeholders. If all the EYPC activities are effectively integrated into the corresponding middle and high school standards at multiple grade levels, civic education in Illinois would be both participatory and progressive.

High School


Overall, the foundation of inquiry in the Illinois social studies curriculum applied to civics would align with the participatory approach to learning. The standards regarding inquiry contain a number of learning objectives at various levels that expect students to “create” actionable questions, “construct” arguments or explanations, “present” their own ideas, or “develop” communication regarding social issues and stakeholders. Two standards in this category describe learning objectives that expect students to participate directly in civic life. These standards expect students to “take measurable action to effect changes that bring about equity, inclusion, and the community and civic good” as well as “use deliberative processes and apply appropriate civic engagement strategies and procedures to address local, regional, state, national, or global concerns, and take action in or out of school.” Both of these mandates embody a participatory and student-centered approach to civic learning that positions students as active young citizens. The entire EYPC program embodies the same participatory pedagogy that centers students in the learning processes. With the inquiry skills standards and the EYPC program as a foundation for all learning, Illinois demonstrates a participatory orientation to civics. If civic learning is approached through the participatory inquiry process and the EYPC program framework, Illinois students will get the opportunity to participate in high quality effective civics education.

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