What the Sciences of Human Learning and Development Tell Us about Civic Reasoning and Discourse

Published date01 January 2023
AuthorCarol D. Lee,Na’ilah Suad Nasir,Mary Helen Immordino-Yang
Date01 January 2023
Subject MatterThe Complex Demands of Civic Reasoning and Discourse
54 ANNALS, AAPSS, 705, January 2023
DOI: 10.1177/00027162231188575
What the
Sciences of
Learning and
Tell Us about
Civic Reasoning
and Discourse
There is perhaps no more important skill to cultivate in
today’s students than civic reasoning: the ability to think
about social issues in complex ways. Civic reasoning
involves the integration of knowledge, epistemological
orientations, and ethics, and this integration is influ-
enced by individuals’ perceptions of themselves and
others, and by the problems they seek to address in the
civic domain. We synthesize research from psychology,
learning science, human development, and brain devel-
opment to identify conditions that maximize opportuni-
ties for children, adolescents, and adults to learn to
engage in civic reasoning. We argue that a commitment
to democratic principles, and the development of the
reasoning skills and ethical dispositions that undergird
them, results in a more engaged populace that is willing
and able to understand multiple perspectives and to
make sound decisions for the collective good.
Keywords: civic reasoning; human development; civic
engagement; K–12 teaching and learning;
disciplinary learning
Social challenges are complex, and their
complexity makes them difficult to teach
Correspondence: cdlee@northwestern.edu
Carol D. Lee is Edwina S. Tarry Professor Emerita in
the School of Education at Northwestern University
and president of the National Academy of Education.
Her research focuses on cultural and ecological sup-
ports for learning, particularly in the area of discipli-
nary literacies.
Na’ilah Suad Nasir is president of the Spencer
Foundation, with prior appointments in education and
African American studies at the University of California,
Berkeley, where she also served as vice chancellor for
equity and inclusion. Nasir’s research examines the
racialized and cultural nature of learning, especially with
African American students in schools and communities.
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang is Fahmy and Donna
Attallah Professor of Humanistic Psychology and pro-
fessor of education, psychology, and neuroscience at the
University of Southern California. She is founding
director of the USC Center for Affective Neuroscience,
Development, Learning and Education (candle.usc
and learn about, particularly in the current political moment, which is marked by
increasing polarization and tribalism. However, wrestling with complex social
challenges is critical to the development of civic reasoning for young people and,
thus, it is critical for schools to provide the spaces for this work to occur.
Reflecting the country’s deep political divisions, levels of trust in government are
the lowest ever recorded, and the greatest distrust is among people who self-
identify as conservative (Pew Research Center 2022a, 2022b; Rainie, Keeter, and
Perrin 2019). The most devastating example of this distrust is the attack on the
Capitol on January 6, 2021. But questions about the validity of the last presiden-
tial election, and even of recent state elections, persist to this day in several states.
The challenges of immigration, climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and
the war in Ukraine impact American lives directly, yet the country is deeply
divided over how to address them. Vociferous disputes about what to teach in our
K–12 public schools have broken out in local schools, school districts, and state
legislatures (Pollock et al. 2022). These disputes center on the teaching of history
and on how to address issues of race and gender in classrooms. These fights have
resulted in book bans in some districts; bans on the teaching of critical perspec-
tives about identity and nondominant group histories in certain states; and per-
sonal and professional attacks on teachers, principals, and district leaders.
Whether the battles are about political divisions or about what to teach in our
schools, they are not new. However, the recent and intensifying conflicts are
pressing reminders of the need to prepare our young people to wrestle with con-
testation in ways that can sustain and advance the American democratic experi-
ment. In this article, we focus on the opportunities for public education to lead
in such efforts. As the only institution that requires the participation of the coun-
try’s children (the majority of whom are enrolled in public education), education
has a dual responsibility both to prepare young people for future participation in
the workforce and, equally important, for participation in citizenship. (Here, we
define the term citizenship as participation in the civic domain by all U.S. resi-
dents, including those without legal citizenship.)
The unique structure of governance and democratic decision-making pro-
cesses of the U.S. provide avenues through which we can peaceably and produc-
tively deliberate over differences. This structure allows for a nation-state that
presumes heterogeneity as a core value. Preparing young people for engagement
in civic life in a complex society like ours is no small feat, and it requires that we
deploy processes of learning and development in ways that allow them to make
sense of social and political issues. Our focus here is first to explore the founda-
tional understandings of how human learning unfolds and develops over time and
then to understand what that process means for supporting systemic efforts to
prepare young people for civic reasoning, discourse, and participation. Ultimately,
the more we support this work, the more our young people will mature into citi-
zens adept at participating in democratic practices and making decisions in the
interest of the public good.
In this article, our arguments are informed by syntheses of research from
across the behavioral and social sciences: cognitive, social, and cultural psychol-
ogy; human development; the learning sciences; and the neurosciences. From

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