Civic Education Roundup Week of July 6, 2020

This week, a challenge to the notion that young children are not old enough to benefit from expanded agency and more opportunities for civic engagement; a study of how personas can be used as a pedagogical tool to bridge the gap between students who seek to engage their peers in civic action and students who are apathetic towards politics; an analysis of the effect of a political engagement project on students’ civic participation skills in the context of a general education curriculum; and finally, a look at how high student debt affects college graduates’ decision to pursue careers in the nonprofit sector. 

Enhancing the Agency of Young Students in the Classroom

Reconceptualizing Civic Education for Young Children: Recognizing Embodied Civic action, Katherina A. Payne, Jennifer Keys Adair, Kiyomi Sanchez Suzuki Colegrove, Sunmin Lee, Anna Falkner, Molly McManus and Shubhi Sachdeva 

Schools are the first institutional experience for children in which they must work alongside others outside of their families, and are identified as important spaces for civic education; however, children are not viewed as fully fledged citizens when they go through this education. Instead, there is a view that schools give young children the opportunity to practice civic education before they become fully fledged citizens, and presume children are not yet capable of acting on behalf of a community. As a result, civic education for young children often centers around an apprenticeship model in which the role of the adult is central, whether in terms of controlling the content or the action the students take. Payne and colleagues begin with several assumptions that challenge these conventions. They use the premise that children are citizens now, not citizens in training; they see learning as embodied, and lived experiences as being the most effective way to increase children’s civic abilities; they believe children already have their own ideas on what it means to be a helpful community member; and they contend that historically marginalized communities are often excluded from formal democracy and denied high quality civics education. 

Data was taken from the Civic Action and Young Children ethnographic study, which was collected from a Head Start center in a majority Black and Latinx low-income neighborhood in a large city in Texas. Using ethnographic data contained in films depicting a typical day in the kindergarten classroom, the researchers describe three common types of civic action among young children. The first was establishing community through shared practices. Shared practices are an essential foundation for pursuing action on behalf of others because they support the development of affinity-based relationships. In the study, children demonstrated shared practices through mealtime; researchers noted one instance where a young girl equally divided up the remaining food between herself and two classmates without being asked as a sign of children’s ability to conceptualize community. Multiple instances of children offering up resources to their peers without a stated need corroborated this trend. The second was learning to negotiate relationships and solve interpersonal problems. The researchers detailed a dispute between two students over a toy and the attempted, unguided negotiation attempt that followed as an example of the ways young children learn to be a part of the classroom community through the negotiation of relationships and problem solving with each other. The third was sharing care and concern for others. The children in the study demonstrated this through comforting each other when a classmate experienced a physical injury or emotional distress. 

The researchers argue that this evidence demonstrates that citizenship is more complicated than how it has traditionally been conceptualized, and that children are not waiting until they are of voting age to contribute to their communities; civic education for young children needs to be reimagined to reflect this fact. 

Bridging the Gap Between Engagement and Apathy

Using Personas as a Tool for Civic Communication, Allison D. Rank and Rebecca Mushtare

The idea of using personas to enhance civic engagement was borne out of the researchers’ collaboration on the Vote Oswego project, a collaboration between an upper-level political science course and an advanced experience design course to discuss a political campaign’s brand strategy and implementation. Rank and Mushtare note that while students were often taught how to communicate across partisan and cultural divides, less time is spent on teaching students how to bridge the gap between different levels of political interest and attention. Personas, a user experience design tool that allows designers to put their target audience at the center of all decision making, were used as a way to help students with strong civic identity communicate more effectively between students who did not. The ability to collaborate with others to achieve public outcomes is a gap in civic learning; past research has found that while engaging in service learning as part of a general education course leads students to better see themselves as capable of taking action to address social and political problems, they did not experience such improvement on their ability to mobilize others. However, this skill is foundational to civic communication and engagement. Personas can help bridge this skill gap— they offer “fictitious, specific, concrete representations of target users,” and each one has a believable name, face, and backstory based on market (or in this case, audience) research. They challenge students with strong civic abilities to take seriously the needs of students with weak ones instead of dismissing them. 

Rank and Mushtare implemented personas into the Vote Oswego course by guiding students in the creation of the persona, and then prompting students to think critically about ways to engage with them. First, students were given voter information for their campus and told their central problem: lower than average rates of getting registered voters to vote. They then named multiple audiences for their campaign. However, students struggled when asked how to reach the various audiences. Some students struggled to move out of their assumption that students had a vested interest in politics and would just show up on election day, while others did not know enough about the political system to suggest interventions. This communication gap was where the personas came in. The class came up with six personas, each with an accompanying backstory, name, and picture, in order to visualize their target audiences. The addition of persons allowed students to make their strategy more specific— students were able to identify friends with similar profiles, which allowed them to better visualize the problems they faced, and make more tailored suggestions. The result was significant growth in civic communication skills among those with a strong civic identity. For teachers looking to incorporate personas into their own classes, Rank and Mushtare suggest first looking at relevant data to identify strategic audiences and interviewing people in those audiences when possible to better understand their profile. This content can then be used to write short, fictional personas and group them according to need, with 2-3 primary personas to drive planning. The researchers note that the class needs to be able to buy the story and value of each persona and be able to refer to each by name, instead of by vague labels such as “students.” When used in this way, personas can be an effective tool to help students practice civic communication with individuals of different backgrounds.

Civic Education Through Active Learning

Incorporating Political Engagement in General Education: An Examination of the Effects of Participation in a Political Research Action Project on Students’ Perceived Relevance, Efficacy, Political Understanding, and Political Engagement Skills, Chad Everett Woolard and Stephen K. Hunt 

The concerning trend of political disengagement among college students and graduates has been well documented among scholars of civic education. To combat this trend and address the concern that civic engagement initiatives had grown too apolitical, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities partnered with the Carnegie Foundation and New York Times in 2007 to start the Political Engagement Project (PEP). Woolard and Hunt’s study provides an overview and analysis of a political research and action project implemented at Illinois State University as part of an introductory communication course for first year students. 

Woolard and Hunt also identify three main issues that must be addressed to implement effective PEP programs. The first is bolstering political efficacy and motivation. Woolard and Hunt note that while an individual’s political motivation is often influenced by a multitude of contextual factors, political efficacy and identity are the most important. The second is sex differences in political engagement; researchers have clearly demonstrated a gap in political engagement between men and women, with women more likely to engage civically in the service and nonprofit space, but there is little research on the impact of political engagement pedagogy in reducing that gap. Third is the relevance of course material— past research has shown that relevance is necessary for students to become motivated learners, and that PEP can increase students’ perceived relevance of course material when applied in a civic education context. 

The study’s three research questions were centered around a social issues fair (SIF) that was a part of the PEP component of the introductory communication course. Students are required to conduct research on a relevant social or political issue, synthesize the information, and deliver an oral presentation that persuades their peers to take action on it. The researchers studied the difference in political engagement between speakers and audience members at SIF; sex-based differences in political engagement learning outcomes; and perceived relevance of participating in SIF relating to political engagement learning outcomes. The results found that there were no differences between presenters, audience members, and presenters and audience members at the SIF, since participants received substantial instruction in political engagement in the introductory communication course; taken with previous research detailing a positive correlation between faculty teaching in general education programs and civic competence, this suggests that general education courses are ideal sites for civic education. Second, women in the sample reported significantly higher averages on the relevance, efficacy, and political deliberation skills measures— this suggests that assignments like SIF that provide women with the opportunity to speak out on political issues they deem important can close the gap in political engagement. For the last question, the results found positive correlations between perceived relevance of SIF participation and all political engagement learning outcomes due to requirements such as the inclusion and articulation of “relevance statements.” These brief statements are designed to enhance perceptions of relevance for audience members, and likely do so for the speaker as well. Overall, Woolard and Hunt indicate that political engagement pedagogy in general education curriculums that addresses these three issues can play a key role in preparing students to be active participants in democracy. 

The Economic Feasibility of Public Service Work

Game of Loans: The Relationship Between Education Debt, Social Responsibility Concerns, and Making a Career Choice in the Public, Private, and Nonprofit Sectors, Eddy S. Ng and Jasmine McGinnis Johnson

Though there are still individuals who are willing to forgo the higher salary offered by the private sector for the intrinsic satisfaction of benefiting society offered by a public sector or nonprofit career, recent studies show that less than a fifth of graduates are willing to work in the public and nonprofit sector. Ng and Johnson’s study seeks to fill the knowledge gap around this trend and determine if it reflects declining public service motivation (PSM) among students, or the result of other factors such as a challenging labor market or high financial burden. Drawing from PSM theory, which argues that individuals motivated to help others will be drawn to the public and nonprofit sectors, Ng and Johnson use a sample of college students from Canada who are first time job seekers to pursue two research questions. First, they determine whether education debt discourages students from pursuing public sector and nonprofit jobs with lower salaries in favor of higher paying ones in the private sector; they then examine whether PSM may override financial considerations when students choose between the two sectors. 

Data was taken from a sample of 8,383 students who were pursuing their bachelor’s degree and who were active job seekers in their final year of study, assembled from three surveys known as the 2010 Brainstorm, DECODE, and the “Top Campus Employers” survey of Canadian college students. The sample was predominantly female and white, and over half of the students surveyed were pursuing business or liberal arts degrees. The average debt load for the students was CAD$15,000. The initial sectoral choice was the dependent variable studied, with students being asked to indicate which type of organization they would like to work for after graduation; the options were aggregated into private, nonprofit, and public sector employment, and those who were unsure were dropped from analysis. Education debt and PSM were the independent variables, with PSM measured on a 4 point scale according to the work values that students said they considered most important when accepting employment. Results corroborated existing knowledge on PSM theory, where students exhibiting higher PSM scores were more drawn to the public and nonprofit sectors than the private sector. Students who preferred the nonprofit sector had the highest PSM scores, while those who preferred the public sector had the second highest. When taking into account education debt, Ng and Johnson found a marginal tendency for students to pursue higher paying private sector careers with rising levels of education debt. When controlling for PSM alone, students in the sample did not opt for private sector careers with rising levels of education debt; however, when using an interaction analysis which controls for both PSM and education debt, the researchers did find that students with the highest levels of PSM and increasing education debt will still choose higher paying private sector careers over nonprofit work. Thus, in terms of initial career choice, students with “topped out” PSM scores may still prioritize economic considerations over public service. While there are some limitations to the study, such as the use of secondary data and its focus on the Canadian context, it indicates a need for nonprofits and governments to provide more incentives for students in order to continue to attract new talent to public and nonprofit work. 

Written by U4SC Summer Intern Julia Pepper