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The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework

Street Law, Inc.

Over 40 years of educating about law, democracy, and human rights

The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework

Lee Arbetman is executive director of Street Law, Inc. As an active member of the National Council for Social Studies, Arbetman served on the advisory committee to assist in the development of the C3 Framework for civics.

In September 2013, a coalition of social studies organizations, led by the National Council for Social Studies, issued the “College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for State Social Studies Standards.” The framework focuses on inquiry, concepts, and engagement to guide states and districts as they refine their social studies content standards, and develop fewer, higher, and clearer standards for instruction in civics, economics, geography, and history, grades K-12. Determining specific social studies content and instructional strategies remains a function of state and local institutions. While not a part of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), C3 makes important, explicit connections to CCSS. The C3 Framework provides a robust context for teaching the critical reading, writing, listening, and speaking literacy skills that are at the heart of CCSS.

What is the C3 Framework and how was it developed?

The C3 Framework, a result of a three-year state-led collaboration, is designed to strengthen and change social studies education. The framework ensures social studies remains a vital component of curricula, alongside the Common Core State Standards for English/Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics.

The framework, with its focus on inquiry, is formed by the core social studies disciplines: civics or government, economics, geography, and history. Also, the framework includes companion documents for anthropology, psychology, and sociology.

The purpose of C3 is to help states upgrade their social studies standards and to guide practitioners – districts, schools, teachers, and curriculum writers – as they strengthen their social studies programs. The framework does not serve to replace state standards.

The C3 Framework objectives are to:

  • Enhance the rigor of the social studies disciplines;
  • Build critical thinking, problem solving, and participatory skills as students become engaged citizens; and,
  • Align academic programs to the Common Core State Standards for ELA.

The efforts to establish this framework by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) included 23 state teams, the Los Angeles County Office of Education and the University of Delaware, a 15-member professional organization task force, 17 writers, and a national 50-teacher collaborative council. More than 3,000 individuals provided guidance and input during the development process.

What guiding principles underlie the C3 Framework?

The framework is driven by the following principles about high-quality social studies education.

  • Social studies instruction prepares the nation’s young people for college, career, and civic life.
    Inquiry is at the heart of social studies.
  • Disciplinary integrity and interdisciplinary connections matter.
  • Social studies emphasizes the development of skills and practices as preparation for democratic decision-making and includes communicating conclusions about society’s challenges based on evidence.
  • An Inquiry Arc with four articulated dimensions represents the framework for teaching and learning.
  • Social studies education should have direct and explicit connections to the Common Core State Standards for ELA.

How is the C3 Framework organized?

The C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards provides guidance to states on the concepts, skills, and disciplinary tools necessary to prepare students for college, career, and civic life. In doing so, the C3 Framework offers direction and support for rigorous student learning in social studies. That guidance and support is articulated by an Inquiry Arc—a set of interlocking and mutually reinforcing ideas that feature the four dimensions of informed inquiry in social studies.

  • DIMENSION 1: Developing Questions and Planning Inquiries
  • DIMENSION 2: Applying Disciplinary Concepts and Tools
  • DIMENSION 3: Evaluating Sources and Using Evidence
  • DIMENSION 4: Communicating Conclusions and Taking Informed Action


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Developing Questions and Planning Inquiry

The first dimension includes the development of questions and the planning of inquiries. With the entire scope of human experience as its backdrop, the content of social studies consists of a rich array of facts, concepts, and generalizations. The way to tie all of this content together is through the use of compelling and supporting questions.

Questioning is key to student learning. The C3 Framework encourages the use of compelling and supporting questions, both teacher- and student- generated, as a central element of the teaching and learning process. For example, a compelling question like “Was the American Revolution revolutionary?” is both intriguing to students and intellectually honest. Developing compelling and supporting questions is challenging, and teachers need to provide guidance and support to help students learn how to craft them.

Applying Disciplinary Concepts and Tools

Dimension 2 provides the backbone for the Inquiry Arc. Working with a robust, compelling question and a set of discrete supporting questions, teachers and students determine the kind of content they need to develop their inquiries. This process is an artful balancing act. The interplay between Dimensions 1 and 2 is dynamic. Students access disciplinary knowledge both to develop questions, and to pursue those questions students must use disciplinary concepts and tools.

Learners of all ages, typically begin proposing solutions to compelling questions based on their experiences. Because social studies content is based in human experience, students develop hunches about the questions under study. Rich social studies teaching pushes beyond student hunches by offering students opportunities to investigate those questions more thoroughly using disciplinary (civic, economic, geographical, or historical) and multi-disciplinary means.

Dimension 2 outlines the concepts and tools that define the disciplines. For example, the historian’s habit of describing how individuals’ perspectives of the present shape their interpretations of the past, alongside the curricular content and the distinct habits of mind from the other social science disciplines, inform students’ investigations. The collective practice from Dimensions 1 and 2 contribute to an inquiry process for social studies.

Many compelling questions can be best explored through the use of multiple disciplines. Recall the question, “Was the American Revolution revolutionary?” To answer this question, students examine a range of economic, geographic, historical, and civic concepts to craft a full-bodied, evidence-based response to this question.

Evaluating Sources and Using Evidence

With compelling and supporting questions in hand and a sense of the relevant concepts and disciplinary tools identified, the Inquiry Arc of the C3 Framework turns to Dimension 3. As a discipline, social studies is evidence-based. The disciplinary concepts represented in Dimension 2 provide a solid foundation from which students begin to construct answers to their questions.

Equally important for students, however, is knowing how to fill in their knowledge gaps by learning how to work from sources and evidence to develop claims and counter-claims. Helping students develop a capacity for gathering and evaluating sources, and using evidence in disciplinary ways is a central feature of the Inquiry Arc. Sources come in many forms, including historical and contemporary documents, data from direct observation, graphics, economic statistics, maps, legislative actions, objects, and court rulings. Wide-spread digitization makes access to these and many other types of sources readily available, now more than ever before.

The availability of source materials, however, does not translate automatically into their wise use. Students must be mindful, not all sources are equal in value and use. To the point, sources do not, by themselves, constitute evidence. Rather, evidence is constituted by the material students select to support claims and counter- claims, construct accounts, and craft arguments. Helping students develop a capacity for gathering and evaluating sources and then using evidence in disciplinary ways is a central feature of this dimension of the Inquiry Arc.

Communicating Conclusions and Taking Informed Action

Indicators of progress under Dimension 4 take the form of individual essays, group projects, and other classroom-based written assessments, both formal and informal. Students should not be limited to those avenues alone. Although there is no substitute for thoughtful and persuasive writing, the framework advocates expanding on the means by which students communicate their preliminary and final conclusions through discussions, debates, policy analyses, video productions, and portfolios.

Although the manner in which students work to create their solutions can differ, students need diverse opportunities to work individually, with partners, in small groups, and within whole class settings. Readiness for college, career, and civic life is as much about the experiences students have as it is about learning any particular set of concepts or tools. Thus, the learning environments that teachers create are critical to supporting student success. Students flourish to the extent that their independent and collaborative efforts are guided, supported, and honored.

Often mastery of content no longer suffices. Active and responsible citizens identify and analyze public problems; deliberate with other people about how to define and address issues; take constructive, collaborative action; reflect on their actions; create and sustain groups; and influence institutions both large and small. Teaching students to act in these ways—as citizens—significantly enhances preparation for the 21st century workplace, as well as college and civic life.

What are the connections to the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies?

The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and the technical subjects call on all K-12 teachers to share in the responsibilities of literacy instruction, across all disciplines.

Rigorous, robust social studies programs are an ideal bridge to the reading, writing, speaking, and listening skill development at the core of the CCSS. The C3 Framework fully incorporates and extends the expectations for literacy learning outlined by the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and literacy.

Capture Connections C3 CCR


Capture Connections C3 CCR 2

What implications is C3 having in the classroom?

For some, teaching social studies in line with the philosophy of the C3 Framework represents an instructional shift. For example, while most teachers have traditionally focused on disciplinary concepts and content, C3 contemplates a similarly rigorous focus on developing compelling questions, evaluating sources of information, using evidence, communicating conclusions, and taking informed action. From a student’s points of view, C3 instruction is more interactive, issue-focused, and skill-based.

This approach has implications for creating stronger standards for enhanced professional development for teachers at the state and district levels, and thoughtful curriculum development that prepares students for active democratic decision-making, alongside college and career success.

Resources: This White Paper is based closely on the public document: The College,Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards: Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of K-12 Civics, Economics, Geography and History. This document, published by National Council for the Social Studies, is available online at Also available at that site are webinars and numerous other resources that help educators use the C3 framework.

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Source: McGraw-Hill Education (Reproduced with permission)

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