Education professor expands the boundaries of civics in the classroom

Mark Kissling prepares future teachers to tackle controversial subjects through dialogue and inquiry

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — What comes to mind when you think of the term civics education? Most likely something about the branches of government or how a bill becomes a law — topics that have long made up the backbone of social studies education.

However, in order for civics education to be truly effective, one Penn State faculty member argues, it needs to include subjects like citizenship, patriotism and democracy. Mark Kissling, assistant professor of education, prepares future social studies teachers to tackle these subjects. He discussed his approach and what it means for democracy on the latest episode of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s Democracy Works podcast.

Kissling said social studies teachers should not shy away from taking on controversial subjects, whether in history or in current events. This flies in the face of how new teachers typically feel, he said.

“It's very common for teachers to find themselves in the spot where they they have to be kind of the the neutral purveyor of the facts or at least there is an expectation of that,” Kissling said. “But if we think about the purpose of schooling as learning to live in community, we have to take up these these difficult issues. We have to have facts and information that we can agree upon, but we have to have conversations across these divides. And that is not easy.”

In fact, Kissling argues that ignoring hot-button issues sends its own message, something referred to as the “null curriculum” in the education world. He tries to prepare his students to have difficult conversations in a deliberate and thoughtful way.

The goal is to lay a foundation of dialogue, deliberation and civic participation that will extend far beyond high school graduation.

In order to have those difficult conversations, Kissling said teachers need to let go of the notion that they need to have all the answers — as difficult as that may seem.

“You have to come in asking questions and willing to fight against the the myths that the teacher knows everything and the teacher is an expert,” Kissling said. “If you know everything, where’s the inquiry? How does translate to your students? We need to be able to think through the problems and we need to be able to talk about them.”

To listen to the full interview with Kissling, visit or subscribe to Democracy Works in iTunes or Spotify.

Assistant Professor of Education Mark Kissling Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated September 20, 2018