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Guide to Civic Education

Civic Education Resource Guide

Are you a member with experience or interest in the field of civic education?  If so, please share your knowledge and thoughts with us! 

Resource Guide Summary: 
This guide will provide readers with an overview of the purpose of civic education, different definitions of civic education, and what makes civic education effective.  The guide concludes with some critical questions in civic education.

Throughout the last few decades, many countries around the world have transitioned to systems of democracy.  Though a democratic system is largely seen as the ideal system of governance the world over, true democracy is a work in progress. Today, many countries operate as largely functioning democracies, while others are struggling to overthrow dictators and achieve this ideal.  Achieving democracy is however, one battle, and maintaining and preserving it, is another.  Moreover, as more and more countries transition to democratic systems, the meaning and essence of what a democracy truly is, is greatly contested.

However, there are certain features that are thought to be essential to democracy, such as the presence of a legitimate government based on the will of the people, free and fair elections, equality in citizenship, the rule of law, independent judiciaries and constitutionalism.  Preserving these core features relies on the government in power, as well as the citizenry who are guaranteed rights from the state and given responsibilities towards it.

The role of citizens in achieving and maintaining democracy has become exemplified in the struggle that individuals across the Middle East, for example, have faced in thrusting their countries towards this system of government.  Thus, it is critical that citizens are aware of their rights and roles as citizens.  In many countries, civic education can help to raise this awareness.

What is civic education and where is it taught?

Though civic education has various definitions, (Branson, 1998) defines civic education as “education in self government” and UNESCO (2011) describes citizenship education as one which (among other things) holds the value of critical thinking highly, one which thoroughly prepares youth to participate in the political process, and one which actively incorporates women in critical aspects of the country’s affairs.  Healthy Action (n.d.), defines civic education as “the process of educating citizens on their rights, duties and responsibilities to empower and motivate them to identify what areas of the political and governance processes they can effectively participate in; what they can do to influence political outcomes and thereby improve the quality of governance at both local and national levels.”  Civic education therefore, based on these definitions entails education that raises citizen awareness that empowers them to participate in the political process, and that includes all segments of the society, including those that are often excluded from the political arena.

In many countries, civic education is often a taught through the school system.  The range, breadth, and content of the curricula varies from country to country and oftentimes the curriculum is structured around the ideals of the regime in power.  This distinction is most clearly pronounced when comparing civic education in a relatively well established democratic country with one that is ruled by an authoritarian regime.  In the case of the latter, civic education has often been used not to create responsible and informed citizens and to promote democracy, but to engender obedience towards the state.  Naturally, this and many other factors have lead to students in different countries displaying vastly different amounts of knowledge on their political system, which raises questions about what and how this knowledge is being taught.

To fill what often results as a gap in citizen knowledge of democratic behaviors and norms, many civil society organizations in various countries develop or adapt existing international curricula and implement programs aimed at closing the gap in citizen awareness of the key ideas and principles of democracy and democratic governance.  Many of these organizations respond to particular issues that their country has displayed in the past in either implementing a system of democracy or in preserving it.  Moreover, these organizations find ways of making this education relevant to the students, whether it is by teaching them to partake in their local systems of government or by modeling democratic behaviors in the classrooms.  Examples in Egypt, include Tanweer Center for Development and Human Rights and Development and El Sadat Association for Development and Social Welfare.   

What makes civic education effective?

In assessing civic education, whether taught by the schools or by the civil society organizations, there are several factors which are thought to be related to positive outcomes in increased political participation and the internalization of democratic values.  For example, a USAID’s (2002) report concluded that the effectiveness of civic education was found to be highest, when training was recurrent, when teaching methods were engaging and co-operative, and when the students found their teachers to be “knowledgeable and inspiring.” Healthy Action (n.d.) also asserts that effective civic education should be based on the principles of universality, in that it is agreeable to all, the principle of impartiality in that it refrains from utilizing or teaching through partisan lens, and clarity in that the goals of the program are apparent.

Critical questions in civic education:

Whether taught by the school system or through civil society organizations, two important questions about civic education emerge:  1)  Are these programs actually teaching students to embody democratic behaviors and values and 2) How effective are these programs in instilling democratic values and in increasing political participation? These questions are crucial to understanding the impact and role of civic education in both existing and emerging democracies.

Civic education has great potential to instill within citizens key values and behaviors to promote the presence and emergence of democracy in countries all over the world.  Moreover, civic education is an important vehicle through which citizens may gain the skills and tools to achieve a country where “democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people.”  (Abraham Lincoln)


Branson, M. S. (1998). The role of civic education: A forthcoming education policy task force position paper from the communitarian network. Retrieved on June 30th, 2012 from

Finkel, S.E. (2002). Civic Education and the mobilization of political participation in developing democracies. The Journal of Politics, 64(4), 994-1020.

Finkel, S. E. (2003). Can democracy be taught. Journal of Democracy, 14(3), 137-151.

Finkel, S.E. and Ernst, H.R. (2005). Civic education in post-apartheid South Africa: Alternative paths to the development of political knowledge and democratic values. Political Psychology, 26(3), 333-364.

Healthy Action. (n.d.). Civic Education. Retrieved on 03 Dec. 2012. a href=””>>.

UNESCO. (2011). Democracy and renewal in the Arab world: UNESCO in support of transitions to democracy. Roundtable, UNESCO headquarters.

USAID, Office of Democracy and Governance. (2002). Approaches to civic education: Lessons learned. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from


Civic Education Resources Inventory: The Civic Education Resource Inventory provides information on civic education resources from around the world. The inventory contains citations of over 588 resources related to school-based civic education. The original request asked contributors to submit citations of the most important print resources published in their respective countries related to civic education. As a user generated resource, the inventory is dependent on the submissions of contributors. While the Center for Civic Education sought submissions from educators in all regions of the world, some areas are more heavily represented than others. Whenever possible, the Center has provided citations in English. However, some titles and abstracts may appear in other languages when English translations were unavailable. Finally, while the Center edits all submitted entries, because this resource inventory is user-generated the language, style and detail of citations will vary. If you see information you believe is inaccurate, please notify our web manager at

Center for Civic Education: The Center is dedicated to promoting an enlightened and responsible citizenry committed to democratic principles and actively engaged in the practice of democracy in the United States and other countries.
Res Publica: A Framework for Education in Democracy: Res Publica: An International Framework for Education in Democracy represents an international effort to develop a resource that can be used in the creation of curricular programs designed to develop educational programs to prepare young people and adults for citizenship in a constitutional democracy. The Framework is being developed in the belief that there is a need among educators in democratic nations for a resource that attempts to survey the field of education for democratic citizenship and to set forth comprehensively its principal content. Begun in 1996, previous drafts have been commented upon by reviewers in every inhabited continent.

The Center for Civic Education welcomes any individual or organization to comment freely and critically on this Framework on a continuing basis. (PDF Version)

Human Rights Education Associates: Human Rights Education Associates (HREA) is an international non-governmental organisation that supports human rights learning; the training of activists and professionals; the development of educational materials and programming; and community-building through on-line technologies. HREA is dedicated to quality education and training to promote understanding, attitudes and actions to protect human rights, and to foster the development of peaceable, free and just communities.

International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achieve…: The IEA Civic Education Study is the largest and most rigorous study of civic education ever conducted internationally. This research tested and surveyed nationally representative samples consisting of 90,000 14-year-old students in 28 countries, and 50,000 17- to 19-year-old students in 16 countries throughout 1999 and 2000. Questionnaires were also administered to teachers and school principals. The content domains covered in the instrument were identified through national case studies during 1996-1997 and included democracy, national identity, and social cohesion and diversity. The engagement of youth in civil society was also a focus.

Street Law, Inc.: We’re Street Law—a nonprofit organization that creates classroom and community programs that teach people about law, democracy, and human rights worldwide. Street Law program participants benefit from “real-life” lessons and insights, which they can use to effect positive change for the rest of their lives. Our accessible, engaging, and interactive programs empower students and communities to become active, legally-savvy contributors to society.

Suggested IEA Publications and Reports:

Amadeo, J.A., Torney-Purta, J., Lehmann, R., Husfeldt, V., and Nikolova, R. (2002). Civic knowledge and engagement: An IEA study of upper secondary stu….Amsterdam: IEA.

Executive Summary of Citizenship and Education in Twenty Eight Coun…

Executive Summary of Citizenship and Education in Twenty Eight Coun…

Torney-Purta, J., Lehmann, R., Oswald, H., and Schulz, W. (2001). Citizenship and education in twenty-eight countries: civic knowledg…. Amsterdam: IEA.

Steiner-Khamsi, G., Torney-Purta, J. and Schwille, J. (1999). New paradigms and recurring paradoxes in education for citizenship. Amsterdam: Elsevier Press.

Torney-Purta, J., Schwille, J. and Amadeo, J. (1999). Civic education across countries: Twenty-four national case studies from the IEA Civic Education Project. Amsterdam: IEA.


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