Connected Learning, Participatory Politics, and Civic Education: An Interview with Ben Kirshner and Ellen Middaugh (Part Three)

You raise some questions in your conclusion about our current understandings of what constitutes “authentic” political engagement. What’s at stake in this shift? Why is there a tendency to see face-to-face engagement as more “authentic” or more “legitimate” than forms of politics that get connected online?

EM: This is something I definitely see, not just in critiques of so-called slacktivism, but at the classroom level. So often, the brainstorms about how to engage youth in civic action go straight to posters, letter writing campaigns, phone banking for candidates, bake sales, etc., which are all great efforts, but at times, leads toward a project that could be more effectively or efficiently handled through social media.

For example, is it worth doing a letter writing campaign to get street maintenance done in an underserved community if there is a website for such requests? Or might students have a greater chance of success if they mobilize their friends and family to “just click” so that the site gets a large number of requests? I’m not suggesting I know the answer. One could argue that the letter writing campaign takes more effort and therefore might hold more sway or one might suggest the larger numbers with less effort will hold more sway. I think these are important questions for people to consider.

This is a question that I think is going to take a while to answer. Right now, we have centuries of academic work that has focused on the question of what makes democracy work and only about 20 years of work that asks this question in the age of the internet. So many of our well established ideas of political engagement are bolstered by an historical view established prior to the internet.

I think there is always a tendency to want to see tangible results from our efforts–a candidate elected, a number of meals served, votes turned out. It’s a little less clear what it means when an issue trends on twitter, a comment gets a certain number of likes, or an email petition gets a large number of signatures. However, this is something that political parties and corporations are clearly working to figure out in their efforts to maximize their efforts, and I think it is worth consideration of how citizens might figure this out to maximize their own efforts to have influence. One thing I like about Chapter 11–LInton’s chapter– is that we see this process from the perspective of young people who are actively working to figure out how to use both methods to maximize their impact on the political process.

As you have worked with educators around participatory politics, what do you see as the major misconceptions or resistances you have encountered? What advice would you offer to teachers who are struggling with those issues?

EM: For teachers, there is a real and legitimate sense of risk when it comes to teaching for participatory politics. There is the risk of giving up control and the confidence that you will cover the content and skills you planned to (and that may be tested) when you allow students to, as one teacher put it, “go down the rabbit hole” of investigating an issue online.

When there is pressure to cover a large amount of curriculum and to avoid disciplinary issues, the natural response for many is to create a tightly controlled environment, minimizing the opportunities to go off topic or for students to get into arguments. Opportunities for experimentation and productive failure can feel like a luxury.

What has been striking to me is how when teachers start with what seem like relatively small steps–allowing students to research their own resources rather than providing them, to collaborate and comment on each others’ work via google docs, or to share information to a small controlled public audience through protected social networks–the students respond in a major way. Most of the teachers I spend time with care a lot about how well they are doing their jobs and if they are reaching their students, and those increases in student engagement seem to be a powerful motivation in the face of the risk of giving up some control and certainty.

So my advice is to start small–change one thing at a time–for example make a small amount of time for a new skill at regularly intervals, or pick a contained unit to try innovating with, connect students to a small but invested audience. I certainly wouldn’t discourage teachers from thinking big and innovative if that is their approach to teaching in general, but I think that too often, we start with examples of innovation that are hard to replicate and can be intimidating or unrealistic in the eyes of teachers. It is important to shed light on the power of first steps.

Johanna Paraiso speaks powerfully to this process as a teacher in her section in Chapter 10. The other thing I would recommend is finding a community of teachers who are innovating to serve as a support and place to bounce ideas around. This could be at your school site, if you are part of PLCs or through networks like Digital Is, the Teachers Teaching Teachers series, Facing History and Ourselves (Chapter 9) or Educator Innovator. Trying out new things in isolation can be tough. Having colleagues to check in with can be helpful.

A final thought is that it can be helpful to include students in the process. Let them know what you are trying to do and get their feedback and help. Not all students are technically savvy, but some are, and they can and often want to help. Again, even getting help from students in small ways can contribute to shifting the learning environment from one that is completely teacher centered to one in which students start to share responsibility.

BK: To pick up on Ellen’s point about including students…I have found that in cases where students become highly engaged in a participatory politics project—that differs from business as usual at the school—the most effective way of building support from colleagues and principals is when they see students excited about learning and persisting with challenging tasks. Though the latter might not always happen, in cases where student engagement is high, I encourage teachers to showcase this in creative ways, whether by inviting people to visit the classroom, setting up opportunities for students to present to colleagues, or distributing digital artifacts to school colleagues.


Ben Kirshner is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at CU Boulder and Faculty Director for CU Engage: Center for Community-Based Learning and Research. Through his work with CU Engage Ben seeks to develop and sustain university-community partnerships that leverage the resources of the university to address persistent public challenges. Ben’s research examines youth organizing, participatory action research, and new forms of digital media as contexts for learning, development, and social change. He is a Network Advisor for the MacArthur Foundation’s Connected Learning Research Network.

Ellen Middaugh is an Assistant Professor of Child and Adolescent Development at San Jose State University and Senior Researcher with the Mills College Civic Engagement Research Group. Her research focuses on how new media is changing the social context of adolescent development and the implications for educational practice. Current projects include studies of youth experiences with online conflict and of emerging classroom practices to support information literacy for civic understanding and engagement.