Op-ed: What citizenship means for the 21st century

Posted: September 17, 2012

THE NATIONAL Conference on Citizenship and National Constitution Center last week celebrated the 225th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787, in Philadelphia, and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills is exploring how citizenship has changed in the 21st century. Rapid technological advancements, economic globalization and political forces around the world have had a profound impact on our democracy and on what it means to be a productive member of society. With every political or financial scandal, every crisis and every election, we cannot help but wonder what can be done to strengthen American democracy so that everyone represented in "we the people" has the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to solve pressing problems of the 21st century.

In some ways, we are grappling with age-old questions of how to get on in the world, how to communicate, collaborate, solve problems and interact with others in a civil and respectful manner. When working to instill leadership qualities and experiences for young people, we are treading a familiar and well-worn path. But the scope, magnitude and complexity of the world today force us to think deeply about the best way to prepare young people to meet these modern-day challenges. Besides basic skills in reading and math, young people today need to acquire 21st-century skills and competencies that include:

*  Knowledge of economic and political processes.

*  Skill in understanding what is presented in the media.

*  The ability to work well with others, especially diverse groups.

*  Creativity and innovation to solve problems in new ways.

The 21st-century competencies - captured as the 4Cs of communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity - are critical for success in college and career. They are also essential for effective citizens and a vibrant democracy. The knowledge and skills needed to engage in civic and political life - whether that be in one's school, hometown or local clubs, or state, national, global and/or virtual landscapes - are the same skills needed to solve hands-on, real-world problems in college and in the workplace. The skills one needs to engage in civic discourse are the same needed to work with diverse colleagues, address challenges and creatively solve problems.

Research reveals that civic education, especially when it is interactive and involves discussion of current issues, is an important way to develop non-civic skills that young Americans need to succeed in the 21st-century workforce. According to a study conducted by Judith Torney-Purta and Britt S. Wilkenfeld at the University of Maryland, "Students who experience interactive discussion-based civic education (either by itself or in combination with lecture-based civic education) score the highest on '21st Century Competencies,' including working with others (especially in diverse groups) and knowledge of economic and political processes."

In addition, the Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools reports that students who receive effective civic learning are:

*  More likely to vote and discuss politics at home.

*  Four times more likely to volunteer and work on community issues.

*  More confident in their ability to speak publicly and communicate with their elected representatives.

*  Less likely to drop out of school.

Civic learning in schools is necessary to prepare America's young people for informed and active participation in a healthy democracy - to provide them the opportunity to explore their civic selves well before they are old enough to vote. Educators know that it is not enough to test for content knowledge and comprehension - they know that application of content knowledge and the development of 21st-century skills takes practice. Civic engagement is not a spontaneous phenomenon - it requires dedication from all community stakeholders to ensure that our nation's future citizens have an appreciation of democracy and the needed skills to preserve it for future generations.

We are working with leading civic learning organizations to explore and expand what 21st-century citizenship entails - and show why we must explicitly include civic learning in a 21st-century curriculum. At P21, research and collaboration with leading employers have shown us that the 21st-century workplace requires high-level skills for all workers, and it's no surprise that civic life in the 21st century also requires more nuanced skills and competencies for all our citizens.

In this election season we urge parents, educators, policy-makers and community members - as well as the students themselves - to reflect on what 21st-century citizenship means to them. It is imperative that these opportunities are made part of an authentic 21st century learning experience for every student, to ensure that all our students graduate ready for college, careers and citizenship.


Kellogg is vice president of Education Networks of America, and board member of Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Herczog is vice president of the National Council for the Social Studies.

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