'No Backpacks' versus 'Drugs and Murder': The Promise and Complexity of Youth Civic Action Research

Fall, 2010

Source: Harvard Educational Review. Vol. 80, Iss. 3; pg. 352-380. (Fall, 2010).
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this article, the authors focused on the civic learning experiences of high school students in two different communities to explore two interrelated ideas:
1. The power of congruence - the sense that one's immediate civic institutions are working for one's benefit - to encourage feelings of civic efficacy in youth.
2. The deep complexities of disjuncture - the sense that one's immediate civic institutions are not looking after one's best interests - for the civic learning experiences of youth.

This article presents an analysis of a subset of the data from a design-based research (DBR) project in which a team of teachers and researchers employed the understandings of civic learning and identity outlined above to redesign the traditional U.S. History II course.

Contexts and Participants
Two high schools were selected to participate in this project. Allwood High and Surrey High.
The research and design team included three high school social studies teachers, a university professor, and a doctoral student , with three undergraduates and a master's degree student in supporting roles. Jill Tenney, the participating teacher from Allwood, is a white woman in her fifth year of teaching at Allwood High School at the time of the study, and Kevin Brooks, the participating teacher from Surrey, is an African American man in his fourth year of teaching at Surrey High School during the 2007-2008 school year.
This analysis includes data from two schools. In these two schools, eighty-seven students in five different classes participated in the project.


This project revealed both how civic action research can facilitate the connection between the curriculum and students' lives and how there are complexities in making such connections. Congruence and disjuncture profoundly shaped these students' civic learning experiences, dramatizing how fundamentally civic identity development is embedded within particular social, historical, political, and economic contexts that both enable and complicate meaningful civic learning.

This article demonstrates the need for civic education practices that are attentive to the qualities of varied communities. Civic learning is a situated endeavor embedded within settings with particular political, historical, economic, and social dimensions. However, all settings are not one-dimensional in terms of their impact on civic learning.
Settings of congruence have the benefit of resources, order, and trust but may seem to lack passion and significance.
Settings of disjuncture are troubled by institutional failure, chaos, and mistrust, but civic learning in such contexts has the urgency and meaning that comes from standing directly in the crucible of society's most pressing civic problems.
Hence, educators should create practices and curricula for civic learning. These practices will result in more meaningful civic learning for youth across varied communities.

Updated: Apr. 10, 2011