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December 1, 2004

youth research as civic education

Today, I’ll be working with two groups of young people who are involved in community research: my undergraduate “Leaders for Tomorrow” (who are still in the planning stages of their project), and high school students who are taping interviews with community residents for a radio show. In general, I’m enthusiastic about community research and “youth-led research” as forms of civic education. In community research, students study their social environment, collecting and analyzing data under the leadership of a teacher or other adult. In youth-led research, students choose their own issues and questions and design their methodology, with appropriate guidance from adults.

Such projects are reasonably common in schools and youth organizations such as 4H. However, I don’t know many curricula or teachers’ guides for community research or youth-led research. Instead, each project is unique and requires heavy investment by a talented teacher or a very well organized and prepared group of kids. To make community research easier, I can imagine a guide and an interactive website that helped classes and youth groups to conduct assignments like the following:

  • Survey local associations to find out which ones collaborate with which other ones. Once the data were entered into a database, software could spit out a diagram showing all the connections among groups in the community. Students could then examine the diagram to determine where there were gaps in the local social network. If a teacher repeated this assignment each year, students could begin to analyze the development of networks over time. And if students assigned each association a unique identifier (for instance, its phone number, including then area code), then a national website could begin to generate combined network maps using the data from multiple schools. Groups from different schools might find that their communities were linked and could discuss those links online.

  • Students could interview owners of local businesses and nonprofits, take photographs, and then enter the information into a GIS database. Software could automatically generate maps of the assets in the neighborhood, which could be posted on a public website. People would be able to click on a spot on a map and find out about each “asset.” (See our effort for an example that could be much improved.)

  • Students could conduct interviews with people who had lived through a problem or conflict in the community’s past, put the interviews on a website, analyze the historical issue to identify two or three reasonable but conflicting positions, and then host a moderated online discussion of the issue. This is what we did with the issue of desegregation in Prince George’s County, MD. Segregation is a continuing problem, but we chose to focus on the period from 1950-1970 because we wanted to experiment with a novel approach to historical education. However, a strictly contemporary issue could also be studied.
  • student research and service-learning

    Although student research needn’t be an alternative or competitor to service-learning, it’s worth considering the relative advantages of each. Service-learning means a combination of community service with reflection, writing, and sometimes research on the same social issue. It is very common today (present in as many as 40% of schools), and it can be a great civic pedagogy. Indeed, it can be a transformative experience for students and teachers alike, developing their skills and confidence, challenging them intellectually, and committing them to serious civic work later in life. However, service-learning often degenerates into cleaning up a park (or even stapling papers in the principal’s office) and then briefly discussing the experience. This happens because it is hard to organize challenging service-learning—as I know from my own, often unsuccessful efforts in the high school. Service-learning also degenerates because it implies and requires strong values, particular ideas of justice and virtue. These values are hard to sustain in pluralistic public schools that have not been formally charged with promoting ideals other than very vague and anodyne ones. Finally, service-learning sometimes degenerates because it is seen as a way to “engage” students who are not doing well in standard classrooms. Given this goal, some teachers avoid assigning intellectually challenging exercises in connection to service.

    Research, unlike service, is close to the main academic mission of schools. Yet community research can address public problems and enhance public goods. Thus I think research makes sense, at least as a complement to service-learning.

    Incidentally, CIRCLE has funded young people to organize research projects about youth civic engagement. This is the only form of direct work with kids that we may undertake as an organization, because we are a research center with a specific focus (youth civic engagement). The process of selecting youth groups to conduct these projects has taught us a fair amount about what seems to work. We have learned, for example, that student-run surveys of other students aren’t great. The size and quality of the samples is inadequate, so the kids don’t really obtain meaningful results. On the other hand, students can make excellent documentaries and run good focus groups.

    December 1, 2004 11:24 AM | category: a high school civics class | Comments


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