increasing the odds of success for young people’s civic work

My favorite civic education courses and programs are ones that ask kids to discuss local issues, deliberate about what to do, act together, and then reflect. This seems the best pedagogy, but it presents a consistent challenge.

Middle-class, suburban kids tend to identify problems that they can address effectively within a finite amount of time. For example, they might note that there’s always a traffic jam in the high school parking lot at 3 pm, come up with an alternative traffic plan, and offer it to a principal who is delighted to adopt it. They learn skills, gain confidence, and feel great. Meanwhile, their low-income, urban peers are identifying homicide or the dropout rate as their key concern. They either fail to address such problems or they realize that they will fail and shift to some other objective. Often they decide to raise awareness among their peers, knowing that “awareness” is ultimately not very useful. As a result, their sense of political self-confidence (or “efficacy,” in the jargon) often declines as a result of their work. For evidence, see:

I think this is the great issue in the field. Some possible solutions  include: 1) careful, guided selection of topics for students’ projects, which Fehrman and Schutz recommend; 2) very skillful preparation and reflection, including constructive reflection on the barriers that students encounter (which Ferhman and Schutz also recommend); and/or 3) not starting over with new projects every semester or course. I would advocate more experimentation with cumulative civic projects, in which students are asked to build on what their predecessors began. That reduces their power to choose issues and strategies, but it also gives them more chance of success. After all, most adult community projects don’t start and end within 14 weeks; we build on previous work.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.