Education for Democracy: notes from a convening of people working on civic education

Last Friday, January 23d 2015, I was lucky to be one of the people invited to a convening called “Educating for Democracy” hosted by the Ford Foundation and organized by folks from Generation Citizen, Civic Mission of Schools, Spencer Foundation, and others. I got to be part of this event because of my involvement with the National Action Civics Collaborative – a network of organizations across the country committed to promoting Action Civics , a student-centered, project-based approach to civics education that develops the individual skills, knowledge, and dispositions necessary for 21st century democratic practice. Now as a doctoral student, I study how youth media and in particular civic journalism production can be used a model to develop civic, digital and informational literacies. Needless to say, I was excited to participate in a convening of the field!

The guest list included over 100 participants representing researchers, civic educators, philanthropists, organizational leaders, and youth. It was full of my academic heros – folks like Diana Hess, Judith Torney-Purta, Joseph Kahne, Cathy Cohen, Jeannie Oakes, Peter Levine, Elizabeth Moje, and Barbara Ferman, who has been my role model since I started working for her at the University Community Collaborative almost 10 years ago.

The day was jam-packed with presentations from these civic ed rock stars coupled with facilitated conversations about the role of civic learning in addressing social and economic inequality, political polarization, and the challenges and possibilities in scaling civic learning best practices. We also heard from youth who have participated in civic education and grassroots organizing groups in LA, New Orleans and New York. There was a high school teen at each of the carefully assembled group tables. Since even the best-intentioned youth-focused conferences and institutions often don’t actually do a good job including youth voices and representation at their events, I appreciated the effort to include young people at this gathering.

Below are some highlights from the notes I took throughout the day:

  • We know that young people are engaging and benefiting from civic learning opportunities in a wide variety of ways, including through grassroots organizing groups (check out Veronica Terriquez’s impressive body of work on this), after-school leadership programs, youth media and participatory politics activities online (such as using twitter to organize around campaigns like #BlackLivesMatter or #IfTheyGunnedMeDown), ethnic studies classes, and civic science initiatives. None of these models are necessarily the “best way,” but they have many common features that make them impactful…
  • Jeannie Oakes hypothesized that civic learning is powerful in 3 ways:
    1.  It helps young people to learn HOW POWER WORKS. Many civic programs teach the way power is distributed in society and who benefits from the existing arrangements. In some organizations, students actually draw power maps, or investigate the root causes of social inequality. This understanding is critical for building the capacity to address social injustice.
    2. Students participate in POWERFUL LEARNING EXPERIENCES that are supported by principles of Learning Sciences. In these contexts, students are engaged in learning that is responsive to their socio-cultural contexts; learning that is driven by social interaction, collaboration and negotiation. Learning in these spaces is situated – students are encouraged to leverage the expertise of their lived experiences and reflect on the and reflect on the concrete realities of their daily lives. Finally, youth are apprenticed into a community of practice through the process of Legitimate Peripheral Participation, guided by more capable others (near-peer mentors and facilitators).
    3. As a result, students in civic learning spaces have the experience of FEELING POWERFUL – they identify problems, set goals, develop strategies, and apply tactics that move them towards completing impactful projects, including organizing to pass or resist important legislature (such as banning school suspensions due to “willful defiance” – a policy that fed the School-to-Prison pipeline).
  • Diana Hess talked about the interesting effects of growing political polarization. Based on the way our politicians vote, our country is way more divided ideologically compared to 50 years ago. Republicans are more right and more ideologically aligned with each other. This has several interesting effects:
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    • It makes administrators and teachers afraid to talk about controversial issues, because they might not be able to negotiate conflicts or disagreements that arise; or may otherwise be accused of being biased and one sided by parents
    • Research shows that people who are less polarized are more tolerant of difference – they do not tend to demonize the other as “dangerous” to the future of America
    • Other studies show that people who ARE polarized are more politically active according to measures of civic engagement (voting, advocacy,etc), suggesting that an ideological commitment might actually be a positive thing to develop as a result of a civic learning experience
  • Similarly, the impact of increasing racial and economic segregation in neighborhoods, schools and institutions is affecting our democratic health (lots of folks referred to The Big Sort by Bill Bishop). Research shows that currently whites are actually the most segregated group, isolated from other demographics in their neighborhoods, schools, and social networks. We know that diversity is good for creativity, innovation, and civic collaboration. Additionally, the increasing “browning of america” (it is predicted that whites will be a minority in the US by 2050) is creating demographic shifts that are changing the needs of our communities and will only add to problems of polarization, and racial and ethnic conflict if we don’t create more opportunities for different people to interact with real Others.
  • Constance Flanagan’s slide on Teen’s Theories about Inequality (and the only picture I took at the event. I will get better at this!)

    Constance Flanagan studied teens’ theories of social inequality and found that privileged youth felt more comfortable critiquing and challenging structural foundations of social inequality whereas lower SES teens on the other hand were more likely to attribute poverty to individual failure and responsibility. However, all teens had many misconceptions of around social inequality as a complex system…

  • With regards to polarization and segregation, Eric Lu, who has a great TED talk about why ordinary people need to understand power (and how we can make civics sexy again – yess!!), argued that polarization reduces our capacity for empathy and makes people operate from a mindset of scarcity, instead of collective efficacy. However, he saw potential in locally-based action  and collaboration, a context where  while ideological differences still exist, they are attenuated by human and local connections. As Eric said: “It’s harder to demonize them when you have to live together.” He also suggested that we can bypass polarization by teaching “the arguments” – presenting history and social studies an unending struggle between philosophical commitments, such as liberty and equality, centralization and free-market, majority rule and minority rights, etc.
  • Sylvia Rousseau called for education that enables youth to define their own place on the map of human geography, to learn to work with others and respect human and intellectual dignity across differences. She proposed that this can be done in 3 ways:
    1. Curriculum that intentionally “teaches to the struggle,” focusing on addressing history of oppression so that students can come to understand how things came to be and how they can be different
    2. Pedagogy that is dialogic, based on Freirian principles of liberatory popular education. Paolo Freire argued that students are not depositories to be filled with information; they need to be given the opportunity to construct and contest their own ideas (Rousseau also referenced work of Deborah Meier on this)
    3. Practice of Democracy in Schools themselves. We need to see school as a democratic community and involve students in framing what their education and institution should look like!
  • There are many challenges for scaling civic learning. Scaling doesn’t just mean replication of best practices, but infrastructural support across different scales – federal, state, district-level, institutional. At my table some suggestions for scaling and infrastructuring civic learning were:
    • Expanding voting age to 16 or even ideally 14 years old
    • Creating a new accountability criteria for schools that include civic preparation “community readiness” as an important outcome measure, in addition to “college and career readiness”
    • Expanding training for staff and teachers, because it takes skillful facilitators and pedagogical shifts to be able to orchestrate these kinds of learning experiences
    • Encouraging more young political leadership (we heard a presentation from New York’s youngest city council member Ritchie Torres, who is 26 year old) and creating more opportunities for children and teens interact with political representatives and be inspired to pursue political careers
    • Using technology to scale civic learning in innovative and cost-effective ways
    • Using different language to align the goals of civics learning to interests of the business sector: social innovation, project management, collaboration, problem solving, etc.
  • Finally, as a community, we recognize the need to SCALE THE IDEA of civic education as needed and essential, imagining that with the buy-in of the public imagination, the scaling of practices will become easier.

I left feeling energized and inspired, and with the urgency to continue doing more work in this important and frequently academically neglected area!  Also, it was cool to have my entire literature review section gathered in person in one place :).

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