Monday, March 11, 2013

The real challenge to youth civic participation, Part 1

It's been ten months! Guess it's time for another post. 
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When we in the U.S. speak of civic education we usually focus on preparing young people to participate. The assumption is that if we provide young people with the right knowledge and skills, they will go out and participate.

There are some problems with this assumption, most of which have to do with applying skills and knowledge in the real world. For example:
  1. Schools and community-based youth programs don’t generally spend much time on local government and helping students understand how to influence local policy, such as decisions made by the school board, and they don't really encourage young people to get involved or provide clear direction on how to do so.
  2. Although we try to teach young people skills we believe are universally useful (e.g., persuasive writing, public speaking, conducting research, etc.), we rarely teach them how to combine these skills in a civic context, such as identifying a local problem, researching the causes and potential solutions, building support, and offering recommendations to the city council.
  3. Schools don't teach young people about collective action—working with others to solve real problems.
Clearly we need to do a better job of preparing young people to participate in politics and civic affairs, and many groups and individuals are working on this. But there's a bigger problem.

In the West, most adults don't work with young people. Our interaction with children and youth usually happens within our own families. As a society we have decided that academic preparation is more important than vocational training, and we have assigned responsibility for that preparation to schools. The long, formal and informal apprenticeships that once served to induct young people into adult life are no longer common. And although exceptions such as the Amish still exist, collective approaches to child rearing are rare in the United States.

Because most adults don't work alongside young people, we have fewer opportunities to observe and guide them. And children have few opportunities to directly observe how adults work and cooperate to solve important problems. The everyday lives of youth and most adults have become very separate.

As this shift has taken place, adults have gotten used to not having children and youth around. We’ve gotten used to making decisions and doing our work without explaining, demonstrating and coaching young people as they practice and learn.

And we like it.

Think about it: If my goal is to finish something quickly, then teaching someone else how to do it slows me down. Letting a novice try something so she can learn how to do it risks having it done wrong, and I'm simply not going to put my livelihood in the hands of someone else's kid. So most of us live our professional lives apart from young people and leave the teaching to teachers and youth workers.

This, then, is the other half of the challenge in preparing young people for effective citizenship—the adult half. Schools and community-based youth programs could be providing top-notch preparation for civic participation. But if young people don’t have opportunities to apply their civic knowledge and skills in the real world, we shouldn’t be surprised if they aren’t interested in civic affairs.

But we can’t simply encourage adults to start involving youth more and expect it to happen. Because the lives of adults and children have become so separated, many adults are probably not very good at teaching, coaching and working with young people.

There are also few entry points for young people into the adult world of decision-making. Many municipalities and school boards have established youth advisory bodies, but of course these groups involve only a relatively small number of young people. And their usual emphasis on “youth issues” reinforces the separation between what the youth advisory group does and the “real” decision-making done by the adults.

The Spring 2013 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review included an article supporting the seemingly obvious wisdom of seeking input from social service beneficiaries on the effectiveness of the services they receive. The authors use the example of YouthTruth, a program of the Center for Effective Philanthropy. YouthTruth surveys tens of thousands of high school students across the country on their school experience, crunches the survey data and then shares it with participating schools in the form of reports that enable educators and students to identify strengths and weaknesses and compare their results with other schools. 

YouthTruth certainly does help schools elicit student voice in school policymaking, but it seems ironic that these schools choose to participate in a project involving a nationwide, online survey and reports generated by an outside organization to tell them what their own students think.

Yet it is precisely because involving young people in important decisions is so foreign to us that something like YouthTruth exists. Most adults, including educators, don’t know how to engage young people in decision-making in a meaningful way.

Even if there are formal mechanisms for student leadership in a school or district, such as a “student board of education,” the majority of students do not participate. One might argue that it is because youth are apathetic, but one could also argue that they become cynical because they are so used to adults making decisions without consulting them. 

Whom to blame for young people's low participation rates is less important than figuring out what to do about it. If we want an engaged citizenry, we’re going to have to ensure that young people have plenty of opportunities to practice their civic skills and apply their civic knowledge. Young people take their learning much more seriously when they believe it matters to others—when it’s not just for a grade. 

This means we all have to take part. We can’t just leave it up to schools and youth programs. We need to accept that in order to promote genuine learning and the development of participatory civic skills among young people we may have to give up a little efficiency and invite them into our workplaces, boardrooms and council chambers.

But more invitations to boardrooms won’t be enough. Processes will have to be changed so that young people are supported. Schools will have to make more of an effort to connect students to adult community members, and they'll have to relinquish some control over education. Parents will have to be willing to let this happen. Adults will have to interact with young people differently. 

We'll also have to be ready for the fact that not all young people will amaze us. Some of them may not be ready. It will be uncomfortable, even stressful at first--for adults and youth.

The good news is that we don’t have to start from scratch. Plenty of examples of high-quality youth-adult partnership exist, along with tools to help us learn. You can find many of these on the Leading Now website and in my collection.

Part 2 of this post will describe some strategies for making this shift.

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