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

Over the past five years, the MacArthur Foundation has funded two large-scale, multi-disciplinary networks bringing top researchers together to focus on issues impacting the lives of youth. The first out of the gate was the Youth and Participatory Politics network, headed by Joe Kahne. (I have been lucky to be able to participate here). And the second, our sibling network, headed by Mimi Ito, focuses on Connected Learning. During the first phases of this work, the Networks have released a series of white papers, some of which I have featured on my blog. See, for example, this post exploring the release of the original Connected Learning white paper or this one about some of the initial findings on participatory politics. We are now starting to see book-length studies and anthologies emerge from this research as the teams have started to consolidate their findings and sharing them with the world. New York University Press has launched a Connected Learning book series, which will among other projects, publish the book my research team has developed -- By Any Media Necessary -- which we expect to come out in early 2016. But there are many other books at very states of development and I am committed to featuring as many of them as I can via interviews on my blog.

Today, I am showcasing one of the first of those publications, #youthaction: Becoming Political in the Digital Age, edited by Ben Kirshner and Ellen Middaugh. This anthology brings together thinkers from both networks, as well as a range of other experts and practioners who are focusing on how we might re-imagine civic education for an age of networked politics and learning. This book offers a great introduction to core insights that have emerged around connected learning and participatory politics and what they mean for folks who are on the ground, working in classrooms and after-school programs.  The essays are highly readable introductions to some core projects and could not be more timely in their implications as we are about to enter into a new election cycle, where the youth vote is apt to be hotly contested, but also are in the midst of a range of protest movements, especially concerning race and gender, where young activists have taken strong leadership roles. Across the book, there are important questions asked about how the political lives of American youth are changing and the ways that school-based civic education needs to shift to be able to meaningfully contribute to the process by which they find their voice and learn to take action as political agents. We can think of this collection as an example of what happens when you "cross the streams," that is, when these two networks, already diverse in their membership, work together towards a common goal: Middaugh has been involved with the Youth and Participatory Politics Network and Kirshner with the Connected Learning network.

Over the next two installments, I am going to be speaking with the book's two editors, Kirshner and Middaugh, as they discuss some of the core lessons we might take from this book about the role of education in fostering the civic education and the desire to make meaningful change in the world.


You frame the book in relation to the concept of “participatory politics” as proposed by the multidisciplinary Youth and Participatory Politics network. What do you see as the key insights that have emerged from our research as they relate to the field of civic education?

EM: I think there are three critical things for educators to grapple with. The first is that social media is playing an expanded role in how young people get and share information about social and political issues. This has been a consistent finding in the YPP Survey project, Pew Internet and American life surveys, and the Educating for Democracy in the Digital Age survey of youth in Oakland. This hasn't replaced traditional broadcast media, but seems to be an added layer of information. This means it is easier for young people to get information without having to go seek it out and to see news accompanied by public opinion, but it also means that they may be getting false information, information that is heavily colored by opinion or even inflammatory commentary.

Schools are currently very good at teaching students about good sources and where to seek out information, but we see fewer models of teaching how to sort through the information that is circulated online and make decisions about how to put that information into context. Furthermore, as many schools ban social media, teachers aren't even given the option to bring discussions of critical and responsible use into the classroom.

The second idea has to do with political discussions. Formal news is one source of information, but informal political discussions also play an important role in learning about political issues. Participatory media provides opportunities for young people to share their perspectives and to hear what others think. However, we see preliminary evidence through the YPP survey project that participatory media also exposes young people to a good deal of conflict in political discussions. The kinds of interest driven communities where young people are perhaps most likely to encounter diverse perspectives are also the communities where they are more likely to see (though not necessarily directly participate in) political conversation with outrage language and personal attacks (article under review).

While some conflict or difference of opinion is a natural outcome of discussion across political difference, it can also lead to the avoidance of political conversation, something that we see in Diana Mutz's studies of political discussion in face-to face settings. If the online conversations that young people see are conflict laden, they may hesitate to take advantage of the opportunities they have to use new media for political expression. Or, more likely, we see some who are comfortable with heated conversational style (as 40% in our study suggested they were) take advantage of the opportunity for self expression and those who are least comfortable withdrawing from such conversations altogether.

While this may seem to be simply a matter of personal preference, civic educators believe that discussion of controversial issues is a skill to be practiced so that such conversations can be both honest but also inclusive and productive. We see in the classroom there is an established tradition of teaching for discussion of controversial issues, but we know a lot less about teaching for productive discussion online, where some of the qualities of conversation may be different. Chapter 8 by Justin Reich, Anna Romer, and Dennis Barr deals most directly with this question sharing Facing History and Ourselve's design principles for using social networks to engage students in dialogue across difference. Chapter 9 by Katherine Schultz, Erica Hodgin, and Johanna Paraiso also share examples of how social network sites can be leveraged for students to engage in dialogue with outside adults and get experience with feedback from strangers.

Third, we see that digital media provides wonderful opportunities for young people to produce and circulate media to share their perspectives on social issues(as we see in MAPP'S case studies of young activists embedded in participatory subcultures), but as you have written about in your comments on the digital participation gap and is reinforced by Jenn Schradie's work on the digital production gap, we can't assume that all young people will find their way to making use of digital tools and networks in empowered ways. Some will find their way through experimentation or informal peer based networks (as the MAPP team illustrates so well).

However, the question for civic education is how educators can create engaging opportunities to foster these skills. A number of chapters in the book share emerging efforts towards this end--Chapters 4 (Gutierrez, Nixon & Hunger), 5 (Vilchis, Scott, and Besaw), and 6 (Hull, Jury, and Sahni) highlight the power of youth learning to tell their own stories and frame their own narratives of their experience of community and the issues that they grapple with. Chapters 3 (Soep), 5 and 10 (Tynes & Monterosa) also stress how important the process of design and the habit of design-thinking is to student learning. In Chapter 7, Antero Garcia and I pay attention to the question of circulation and spread and consider how educators might incorporate these concepts into educational design.


MacArthur has also funded a sister network focused around the idea of Connected Learning, and their findings also seem to be in play here, both implicitly and explicitly, across a range of essays. What does “connected learning” mean specifically in the context of civic education and how does this concept shape the book’s focus on both informal and formal educational settings?

BK: Many of the chapters discuss projects that embody key elements of Connected Learning: they tend to be “production-centered” (especially using video or digital storytelling), “openly networked” (by connecting young people with audiences in the community), and embedded in “peer culture.” And, like many Connected Learning settings, several of the chapters discuss hybrid spaces that combine school-like features with more informal emphasis on creativity and student interests. [These terms are further defined here. ].

I have been particularly drawn to the ways that the language of “interests” can shape shift when deployed in a civic education context. In typical Connected Learning settings “interests” refer to hobbies or curiosities that motivate children’s learning. This meaning of interest can also animate youths’ civic activity when focused on a geographically distant problem, such as poor health care infrastructure. But for young people confronting structural racism or poverty in their everyday lives, political “interests” take on a different cast, more resonant with the language of “self-interest.”

Although for a long time self-interest had a negative connotation in civic research (where the assumption was that the goal was to get young people to care for others or become more altruistic), in the community organizing literature self-interest is the starting point for ordinary people to build political power…and eventually gain momentum through recognition of shared experiences and collective goals.

So to wind back to your question: in the context of civic education—depending on the setting and location—connected learning can also mean attending to people’s self-interests for quality schools or clean air, which has a less carefree quality to it. Mimi Ito and colleagues wrote about the connections between politics and interests in a terrific recent article in Curriculum Inquiry, where they unpacked the meaning of “connected civics.” I recommend it!

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.