Critical Civic Inquiry: Students Master Academic Content Through Rigorous Action Research Projects | by Ben Kirshner

Youth organizing groups in communities of color, often working in partnership with adults, offer rich and transformative contexts for young people’s learning. Young people investigate damaging or unjust education policies, develop promising solutions, and press for policy change in their schools and communities. In Colorado, for example, members of Padres y Jóvenes Unidos (PJU) celebrated the passage of a Colorado state law that dismantled the “school to prison” pipeline and worked with the Denver Public Schools to launch new restorative justice practices after a multi-year organizing campaign (www.padresunidos.org). Groups like PJU offer learning environments where young people come together to share stories, identify injustices, and organize campaigns to influence policies that affect their lives.  

More difficult to find, however, are examples where schools nurture robust civic learning of this kind – where students have a voice in decision-making and explore topics relevant to their lives.  A narrow focus on academic testing has too often overshadowed the civic mission of public schools. Indeed, many urban schools are deeply flawed places, and sometimes toxic to the aspirations and dignity of students of color. But hopes for a more equal and vibrant democracy depend on public schools. Young people and their families fight for high quality neighborhood schools because public schools and the teachers who staff them are guardians of the democratic promise of America. 

Why not learn from community-based youth organizing spaces to inform the design of rich democracy education inside of public schools? This is precisely what we did when developing Critical Civic Inquiry (CCI), a social justice approach to student learning, teacher development, and structural education change (see Figure 1 below). CCI aims to leverage the insights and practices of community educators to strengthen opportunities for transformative student voice in public schools.

Figure 1. Critical Civic Inquiry cycle of learning and student outcomes

The Origins of Critical Civic Inquiry

In 2008 I received a phone call from Shelley Zion, a sociologist of education from the University of Colorado Denver, whose dissertation looking at student voice had identified a troubling phenomenon. In her focus groups with students from around Denver, Colorado, Shelley found that students in the poorest and most marginalized schools articulated an analysis of educational inequality but tended to report that there was nothing that they could do to address the situation. Their schools, although successful at cultivating a deeply held belief in meritocracy, had failed to cultivate a sense of civic empowerment. Shelley’s work echoed prior research on youth “resistance,” which identifies the varied ways that young people may resist the injuries of toxic schools but not necessarily channel their desires and fears into organized collective action. Shelley invited Carlos Hipolito-Delgado, who studies ethnic identity and school counseling, and me, because of my work on youth organizing and student voice, to develop a collaborative project. Carlos brought his prior research on issues of internalized racism and ethnic identity development in Chicana/o and Latina/o communities, as well as a critique of the limitations of typical school counseling practice and a vision for transformational school change. I brought prior research about the learning environments in multiracial youth organizing groups in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as experiences facilitating Youth Participatory Action Research. 

The intent of CCI is to instigate opportunities for critique and collective agency in schools serving students of color from low-income communities, thereby fostering transformative school change in tandem with young people’s civic and sociopolitical development. We start by developing a community of learners with teachers, who in turn facilitate a cycle of participatory action research with their students: students reflect on their school experiences, identify a problem, study it through systematic research, and then develop an action plan to raise awareness or change a policy. This focus is consistent with recent calls for an “action civics” that enables students to practice civic participation through authentic projects. Our first grant, from the Spencer Foundation in 2010, gave us the time and resources to put our ideas into practice.

One distinct aspect of CCI’s design is to integrate it into a range of academic classes during the school day, including literacy, science, math, and traditional civics. We believe, drawing on core principles from the learning sciences, that students develop deep understanding of academic content by using academic tools and concepts to study and solve complex problems. CCI classes aim to deepen student engagement by embedding content in an action research project about an issue relevant to student lives, such as clean drinking water (science), college matriculation rates (math), or social relations among racial and ethnic groups at the school (literacy).  By working on open-ended problems, without a preset solution path, students develop a deeper and more agile type of adaptive expertise

How do you integrate CCI into your instruction? Since our start in 2008 our team has identified four core practices (described in Table 1). Although initially designed for academic courses, these core practices also apply to out of school settings aiming to engage young people in leadership and social change. CCI curriculum is currently being developed and piloted and will be available for wide release August 2019.

CCI Part 2 

Stay tuned for an upcoming installment where we will share evidence of student learning and engagement from our first study of CCI classrooms. 

Table 1. Critical Civic Inquiry in Schools

Key Practices Definitions
Sharing power with students Educators make an effort to learn about young people’s lives and the kinds of knowledge they develop outside of school. Students experience some choice, within parameters set by the educator, related to curriculum and classroom activity. Students gain practice in how to make collaborative decisions. Sharing power is fundamentally a relational approach to teaching. This means that educators also share something of themselves: they locate themselves for their students and aim to be an ally for their students’ development.
Exploring critical questions Educators invite students to discuss topics related to race, ethnicity, power and privilege. Why are AP classes in my school racially segregated? Why is this school in a food desert? How can ethnic studies classes be a vehicle for student learning and engagement? Critical conversations recognize that current conditions are not natural or inevitable. Such conversations open up the possibilities for what kinds of issues youth select to work on and feel comfortable discussing in a classroom setting.  
Participatory research The centerpiece of CCI is an action research project in which students study about an educational barrier at their school and then develop solutions to it. Students learn how to conduct and document interviews, administer surveys, and perform archival research. They analyze data to identify patterns and themes. This process emphasizes student-centered learning, including initiative and planning, teamwork and collaboration, reasoning about data, and communication. 
Structured presentations to the public  Students formulate an evidence-based policy argument that they share with external audiences, including guests from outside the school walls. This is both an opportunity for institutional change and leadership development for students.

Resources

www.studentsmakingpolicy.net

Kirshner, B. (2015). Youth activism in an era of education inequality. New York: NYU Press.

For student action research (also called youth participatory action research) lessons: 

http://yparhub.berkeley.edu

Students Making Policy