What Can Be Done to Encourage Civic Engagement in Youth?

Article excerpt

WHAT CAN BE DONE to encourage civic engagement in youth? The observations here draw on a ten-year study of citizenship education that I conducted in five countries: Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States.(1) Each country has had universal suffrage and public education since at least early in the 20th century. Their populations, while unique, share many civic beliefs and values, including the importance of citizen participation and respect for individual fights.(2)

Beginning in 1985, I sampled secondary schools from among the different types of schools prevalent in each country and within its different regions. I collected data in approximately 50 schools across the five nations, administering questionnaires to almost 4000 adolescents ages 14-19. The questionnaires contained scales to measure student political attitudes concerning interest, trust, and efficacy (the belief that citizens can influence decisions); student political behaviors, such as following the news and discussing politics; and student perceptions as to whether the classroom climate encouraged them to express their beliefs about controversial issues.

I also made visits to the participating schools to observe their equivalents of American social studies classes. I paid particular attention to the "classroom climate," that is, the extent to which students discuss public policy issues, especially those that are controversial, and the atmosphere in which such discussions occur. Further, I conducted interviews with teachers and students. I asked about course content, methods, and purposes. I asked for teacher perceptions of student attitudes and the context that might influence them. Additionally, I asked about teacher philosophies with regard to handling controversial issues.

Issues-centered Education in five Democracies

This study of citizenship education across five democracies indicates that when students frequently discuss controversial issues in their classes, when they perceive that several sides of issues are presented and discussed, and when they feel comfortable expressing their views, they are more likely to develop attitudes that foster later civic participation than do students without such experiences.(3) Here are glimpses into the ways teachers in each nation used elements of issues-centered content and pedagogy and took steps to promote an open classroom climate.

Denmark

The law governing Danish folkeskoler, which pupils attend through the 9th or 10th grade, requires that the school model democracy.(4) In order to prepare citizens for democratic participation, folkeskole students are given numerous opportunities for decision making. In weekly class meetings, students from the first grade on discuss and resolve classroom and school problems, hear from and advise their representative to the student council, and, from eighth grade on, decide on topics to be studied in social studies and other subjects. Student councils have a budget, and two of their members serve along with parent and teacher representatives on the school council.

Danish students select the topics they will study in social studies/social science classes within the broad directive that twenty-five percent of their course should be spent on each of four areas: sociology, politics, economics, and international relations. Students in one 9th-grade class chose to study the war in the Balkans, racism in Europe, and the 1996 presidential election in the United States. Older students who attend a gymnasium similarly make choices about their studies; in the classes I visited, students were studying a variety of topics, from Denmark's welfare system to political parties and elections. Moreover, social science is not the only subject in which students are involved in selecting topics. One class explained to me that they had chosen to study the French Revolution in history, football (soccer) in sports, environmental chemistry in chemistry, and particular novels in English class. …