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

As I was pulling together these questions, I stumbled on a Politico news-story about the ways that the candidates and campaigns are actively courting teens who will be old enough to vote in the next presidential election for the first time. I am sure we will be seeing more such coverage of the youth vote in the months ahead. Based on your books’ insights on participatory politics and civic learning, what do you see as missing from this conversation?

EM: One thing that seems to be missing from the Politico article is a view of young people as constituents to be represented rather than voters to be turned out and persuaded. Participatory politics is about understanding the conditions in which young people can take advantage of the tools, practices and networks associated with digital media in order to introduce their issues and ideas into the public discourse. So many party-based and youth mobilization efforts treat voting as the beginning and end of civic participation.

With that view, targeting young voters through social media does bring a lot of risks. However, if we think as civic educators and not just political strategists, we know that voting is just one small piece of what it means to be an engaged citizen. Young people need opportunities to learn how to evaluate and analyze information that comes in all kinds of forms. If contacting youth through media is going to expose them to attack ads and propaganda, the answer is not to simply avoid exposure, but to educate them to interpret these media and ask critical questions.

Educators have for many years addressed the questions of propaganda. Even the National Assessment of Educational Progress has questions about interpretation of political cartoons. We simply need to make sure that we update the genres and continue to engage young people in critical analysis of media. For example, a teacher associated with the EDDA project had their students analyze and create their own “rant” videos in the style of Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olberman as a way of helping them think critically about current genres of news.

I personally like the idea of reaching out to potential voters. Being invited into the process is important, and given the diversification of communications, doing it through a wide range of networks seems important. Not all young people are on twitter nor do they all check email regularly. I would just hope that those who are mining data to reach out to future voters are interested in catering to the issues represented in those tweets and posts to learn about what youth care about and to represent them, and not just to their potential for showing up to vote.

On the other side of the problem, I think there is great need to not just teach youth to critically consume informaton targeted at them, but to produce information that can be targeted for public attention. This means not only learning how to share information and ideas through presentations or posters, but to share them in spreadable (a concept you’ve really helped elaborate, Henry) ways so that they are paid attention to and have a chance of influencing others.

A key theme in the book is what participatory politics can mean for those who have traditionally been excluded or marginalized from the political process. Doing so often requires meaningful scaffolding to help young people develop their civic voice and political agency. What approaches — in or outside the classroom — have you identified that seem successful in increasing political participation?

BK: On one hand, young people who experience exclusion or marginalization from politics respond to all sorts of opportunities, which can range from very conventional leadership program such as Jr. ROTC to less common spaces that privilege their voice and perspective, such as student voice initiatives and community-based youth organizing. In a book that is coming out in June I write about a distinction between procedural and issue-based opportunities for civic voice and political agency [Youth Activism in an Era of Education Inequality, NYU Press]. Whereas procedural justifies itself because it creates spaces for “voice” and “deliberation”, issue-based approaches galvanize people around a specific problem that affects their well-being, such as immigration policy or the school-to-jail track.

Both are necessary, but the two appeal to different sets of experiences for young people. The former can be more unpredictable and appeal to youth whose primary grievance is age-based discrimination. The latter, while also undetermined, have a more explicit political agenda and appeal to youth whose primary grievance is tied to their experience as student of color or undocumented, for example.

Throughout the book, you draw on examples from established educational organizations, including Facing History and Ourselves, Global Kids, and Youth Radio. To what degree are you taking the “new” models of civic education you discuss from their established practices? To what degree are they rethinking their approaches in response to the new research that has been developed in recent years?

What I like about the chapters in this volume is that this truly isn’t an either or question, but that the practices are emerging in conversation. The programs we profile are both informed by and are informing research. For example, the Global Kids program grew out of Global Kids staff participation in a working group that I hosted on Service and Activism in the Digital Age where we brought together researchers and practitioners to identify some core principles of practice for civic education. Global Kids already brought a great deal of expertise for online leadership to the table and then built a new program that drew on some of the insights they gained from discussion with civic education and engagement researchers and developed the Race to the White House program.

Similarly Youth Radio and Facing History and Ourselves maintain close partnerships with the research community. These partnerships support an evolution of civic education that builds on what we have learned about effective civic education and adapts to meet the needs of the current society, rather than simply introducing “new” models to replace the “old.”

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 underestanding and engagement.