What Makes Students Care About Politics?

About once a year a major news outlet does a story on what we vaguely refer to as “civics education.” In the week that follows people at water coolers lament the fact that standardized tests are crowding out history and government lessons. They worry kids won’t grow up to be active members of society. Then, like most third-tier educational priorities, civics education disappears into the background and patiently waits for the spotlight to shine on it again.

Yet despite being relegated to the education policy kids table, civics education is not without merit. The founding fathers’ lofty rhetoric on the need for citizens to participate is still good advice for current democracies. But there are two important questions about civics education that still need to be answered. First, does civics education work? That is, does the knowledge transmitted actually influence behavior? Second, if it does work, what sort of variation is there in outcomes? Do certain ways of teaching “civics” lead to certain results?

A fairly definitive answer to both questions comes from a new study led by Joseph Kahne that examined over 5,500 California and Chicago high school students over a 2-3 year period. Overall, the study supported previous research that showed civics classes do increase civic and political engagement. Specifically, leading discussions about societal issues and providing students with service learning opportunities (i.e volunteering) led to increases in voting intention, interest in politics, and “community based or expressive actions.”

Though none of that is terribly earth-shattering, the answer to the second question is striking. Kahne and his team found that different types of curricula do lead to different outcomes. When students took classes that focused on having open discussions of political issues, they were more likely to say they intended to vote, were interested in politics, and were interested in diverse opinions. Kahne calls these actions “big P” politics. On the other hand, classes based around discussions had no significant effect on students’ propensity to volunteer or engage in a project involving community action. Kahne calls these actions “little p” politics.

The opposite occurred with students who took civics classes that focused on service learning experiences. These students were not more likely to engage in “big P” politics (voting intention, interest in politics, or interest in diverse perspectives), but they were more likely to engage in “little p” politics (volunteering or taking action on a community issue.)

So the question is, what kind of citizens do we want? Young people who will remember to vote and vigorously debate policy with their friends, or a horde of activists who will fight for change at all levels of our society? Ideally, civics classes will combine discussion with community projects, thus producing a generation of doers who also remember to vote. But if that’s not possible, what should be our priorities?

Our disregard for the nuance in civics education is emblematic of a larger problem with our education system: We’re still not quite sure why we want kids to learn what we want them to learn. People advocate for civics education as a way to pay lip service to the idea of a well-rounded curriculum, but there’s not a strong effort to define certain outcomes and figure out how to get us there. We’re still stuck with the vague notion of learning “civics.”

The same problem exists to a lesser extent in math and science. Is our goal for students to have the base knowledge necessary to become scientists? To run their own business? To be smart enough to do their taxes and avoid unhealthy behaviors? Do we merely want them to get into college? Obviously the goal is to prepare students for all of these things, but if that’s not feasible than a clearer picture of what outcomes we’re after will allow teachers and students to better focus their time on a specific area. Getting more specific in our vision of what we want kids to do with their skills will also help spur curricular variations. For example, one 9th grade algebra curriculum could be tailored to students who are interested in scientific research, while another could be tailored to students who are more likely to use math in a business context. Schools already do this to some extent, but not nearly to the degree that a perfectly efficient system would. These kind of tweaks are small, but they add real options and thus they have the potential to pay big dividends for certain kids.
Kahne, J., Crow, D., & Lee, N. (2013). Different Pedagogy, Different Politics: High School Learning Opportunities and Youth Political Engagement Political Psychology DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2012.00936.x

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