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The Hawaii Core Standards for Social Studies were approved in 2018 and first implemented during the 2019 – 2020 school year. Each grade level has a document dedicated to the standards that will be addressed in Social Studies during that year. The breakdown of standards by grade level still adheres to the dominant approach of clustering the grades of K-2, 3-5, and 6-8 together. However, the identification of multiple overarching themes in the K-8 levels supports educators in approaching the grade band civic learning standards through grade level content and context. The grade level themes are connected with the four realms of social studies standards, including anchor standards from different subjects under each thematic topic. Civics anchor standards are not included in each theme, but there appears to be a reasonable balance between the prominence of each of the four realms’ anchor standards. Each grade band is also defined by five inquiry anchor standards, which resonate with meaningful civic learning as they represent an inquiry cycle that leads to informed action. The five anchor standards in order are Developing Questions and Planning Inquiries, Gathering and Evaluating Sources, Creating Claims, Communicating Conclusions, and Taking Informed Action. This framework does embody a participatory orientation as students are meant to take a central role in each of these inquiry approaches.

In addition to the standards that describe each grade level’s collection of learning themes, each theme is linked to sample content and concepts. The sample concepts include concise suggestions for how teachers could implement the requisite learning into the classroom. Sometimes the sample content is simply a list of vocabulary words or concepts without definitions, which in the realm of civics could be harmful if concepts like the “democratic values” of “common good, equality, freedom, liberty, popular sovereignty,” and “respect for individual rights” are left to the discretion of the teacher’s own subjectivity or ideology. The sample content and concepts are sometimes more specific with concrete examples of a standards’ expectations that can act as an entry point for deeper teaching and learning. Hawaii’s approach to social studies and civics is structured around an inquiry pedagogy that compels students to consider philosophical questions. This approach can be considered participatory if students are encouraged to create their own conclusions in regards to each thematic “compelling question” without being led towards a certain perspective or answer. 

Elementary School

The elementary school civics curriculum is mainly oriented towards helping students develop an understanding of their role in various levels of community and the democratic values, rights, and institutions of the United States. While the majority of the civics curriculum in elementary school has a national focus, there is a brief departure in fourth grade during which the civics curriculum is focused exclusively on Hawaiian culture, history, and government. Hawaii also introduces active civic participation into its early elementary standards. As early as kindergarten students are expected to “construct” their own questions, “use deliberative and democratic procedures” to build towards informed action regarding community issues, and “show evidence of taking individual or group action on one or more problems or issues.”  If effectively implemented at each grade level, these participatory mandates would engage students in higher level thinking processes and meaningful civic engagement. This approach is consistent throughout elementary school as the anchor standard of “taking informed action” is prominent at each grade level, as are the standards for “communicating conclusions,” which expect students to practice active deliberation, communication, and collaboration. Paired with an equitable classroom structure, this kind of student-centered and inquiry-based approach to civic education would embody many aspects of the participatory orientation.

Middle School

The middle school social studies standards in Hawaii mainly pertain to civics and politics in other parts of the world or early on in United States history. In these grades, students are expected to familiarize themselves with current and historical governing structures in other countries and develop a clearer picture of the formation of the United States government and the necessary reforms that it has had to undergo. The overarching theme of the 8th grade social studies standards is United States History, which approached through the inquiry standards could represent a participatory orientation to bureaucratic content. This would be an effective approach to learning about the structures and functions of government if implemented according to the inquiry arc. However, the actual content standards for civics within the 8th grade document only ask students to perform mid-level thought functions regarding prescribed content, evidenced by action verbs such as “examine,” “explain, or “analyze.” The learning objectives at the middle school level that most resemble a participatory approach ask students to “assess” or “evaluate” certain prescribed content regarding U.S. history. However, there is not a clear mandate for students to connect formative parts of the nation’s past to its present. The long-term effects of the historical documents and realities of the nation may influence students themselves. For example, an analysis of the Bill of Rights and the topic of Individual Liberties can be contentious as it involves philosophical questions of freedom and justice. The sample concept includes four types of liberties: civil liberties, criminal law protections, political freedoms, and religious freedoms, which are each complex concepts with evolving implementations in society. The mandate itself to “analyze how the Bill of Rights protects individual liberties from the national government” is framed to imply a certain way that individual liberties interact with the national government. It is important to approach this sort of content with a critical and unbiased lens to support students in taking part in the ongoing evolution of national documents and realities.

High School

Hawaii presents its high school civic standards in two documents titled Participation in a Democracy and United States History and Government. The latter category is mainly bureaucratically-oriented in content grounded in the history, structures, and functions of government while still featuring civics topics such as civil rights movements and organizations. The Participation in a Democracy strand of 9-12 standards paired with the pedagogy of inquiry  seems to indicate a participatory orientation towards civic education. The standards are clustered to encompass all four high school years and correspond to five central themes: Foundations of the Constitution, Institutions of National Government, Civic Rights and Responsibilities, Public Policy, and Civic Engagement. The civics anchor standards align with the different themes and are presented alongside sample content, concepts, and compelling questions. Overall, the high school standards demonstrate a participatory approach to bureaucratic content. The Participation in a Democracy class focuses on educating students about the central principles of United States Democracy, the lawmaking process, and civic responsibility as defined through traditional legal processes. The content of the curriculum is largely bureaucratic, but the Hawaii standards do set requisites for participatory action and original work that would prepare students as emergent citizens if implemented equitably and effectively. 

While not all high school standards are structured around active participation, the few standards for original work and agentive participation do propose relevant requisites for students. For example, one standard requires students to “plan and demonstrate” ways in which active citizens can “effect change” in their community, state, nation, or world. The sample concepts for this standard include peaceful protesting, forming a club, and providing a forum for debate in addition to more traditional suggestions for civic engagement through established legal and democratic structures. The focus on creating change through individual civic action is important at the high school level when students are closest to full citizenship and civic agency. There could be more scaffolding in high school for emergent adult citizens, as the Participation in Democracy and United States History and Government standards are meant to encompass the civic learning for the entirety of high school without indication of how civic learning could increase in complexity as high school progresses. Between 9th and 12th grade students might find themselves stagnating in civic learning without the structured opportunities to build on their developing civic knowledge and skills. 


The inquiry orientation of Hawaii’s standards does align with a participatory approach that could lead to meaningful high-quality civics education if implemented equitably and consistently. The way Hawaii’s inquiry pedagogy is applied to civics creates opportunities for students to participate and engage in active citizenship as young citizens. The inquiry standards demonstrate a participatory orientation to civic education through the positioning of students as the creators of original work and opinions within the context of civic learning. Each of the five inquiry anchor standards is broken into multiple learning objectives that often require the creation of original work through active verbal mandates such as “create,” “construct,” or “present.” The trajectory of the anchor standards also creates room for various forms of civic engagement that can be personalized according to each students’ sense of justice and civic agency. For example, one Communicating Conclusions standards requires students to “present arguments” through various technologies that reach a range of audiences, and one Taking Informed Action standard asks students to “create an action plan” and “demonstrate substantive evidence of implementation.” These standards appear to promote the diversity of civic action with a participatory orientation through creating choices for the students regarding the topic of focus, the communication technology, and the substance of the action plan. With effective scaffolding, students could create and implement action plans that embody an effective student-centered project-based approach to civic education. In these ways, Hawaii’s standards do demonstrate a systematic effort to engage students in the creation of meaningful original work and active civic participation.

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