Failed Education System: does Discussion in the Classroom Lead to a Better Democracy

When schools teach about politics that the teachers are “indoctrinating” their kids and essentially molding them to fit to one side and ideology. The results however, show that Kids Voting did not have an appreciable impact on partisanship or ideological identity but it did stimulate support for conventional participation-voting (r = .24, p < .001) and for unconventional activism-protests and boycotts (r = .21, p < .001) (McDevitt). Clearly KVUSA is not indoctrinating kids, evoking the fear of which is largely what the “risk” is in teaching topical issues so since it is a non-issue, perhaps schools should proceed more confidently when pursuing this model of education.

Even though it only lasted over the last couple weeks of a political campaign, Kids Voting provided a temporary nudge towards civic engagement and effective participation, but the initially stimulated behaviors evolved into habits and, granted, while there was also a pattern of “slippage” for many of the curriculum influences, the effects a year later are still statistically significant in 16 out of 20 cases (McDevitt). The graphs included below from the study depict the developmental boost that Kids Voting provides for some but not all behaviors. Figure 3 shows the longitudinal effect of the program on news attention and Figure 4 outlines the effect on frequency of political discussion with friends. Both cases indicate that Kids Voting establishes an initial advantage for its students and while that difference erodes somewhat over the next two years, the superior levels remain in 2004 (McDevitt).

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So the results show that kids definitely support conventional participation such as voting, but do they themselves actually vote? Unsurprisingly, Kids Voting’s influence on voting is mediated by political communication in the home by way of conversation and news attention. Student-parent discussion as measured in 2002 directly influenced voting (McDevitt). The reciprocal influence inherent in interpersonal communication seems to have provided a method by which children and parents motivated each other to vote. But student-parent discussion also set dominos tumbling in a more complicated sequence, representing a cognitive route to voting, featuring increased issue salience. Caring about discrete political issues and acquiring strong opinions about them provide adolescents with a foothold into the political system (McDevitt). Meaning that the students are learning about politics inductively as they move from a specific issue to a global belief structure and with a claim to an ideological identity, there is plenty of motivation for voting. I include below another diagram from the study illustrating the pathways in which KVUSA leads to voting (McDevitt).

Another interesting find from my research of the results of this study was that Kids Voting interacted with ethnicity to narrow or completely close gaps in attention to news, political knowledge, integration of new information, willingness to listen to opposing views, willingness to disagree, and support for conventional politics. As illustrated in Figure 6 (included below), there is a gap in Internet news attention tied to SES in 2004 but only for students not expose to Kids Voting in 2002. This gap closed completely for KVUSA students. For campus activism (Figure 7), low-SES students actually scored higher than high-SES students in 2004, but this is the case only for adolescents who had participated in Kids Voting (McDevitt).

Again, as I mentioned earlier, three curriculum activities (frequent discussion of the election in class, teachers promoting opinion expression, and participation in get-out-the-vote drives) proved to be the strongest predictors as indicated by the number of significant correlations.

In the study when they asked students to identify the single most important activity that increased their interest in politics, a clear consensus emerged. That being that classroom discussion with peers along with exposure to political issues that are of significance and matter to their age group, in particular with salient issues. This finding is hardly surprising to me, as in my own time as a student my favorite thing has always been discussing salient issues with my peers in classes, so the fact that the kids in this study seemingly all said the same thing is to be expected, but still a fantastic sign overall (which I will get into later). According to the researchers, many students seemed passionate about the opportunity to freely discuss political issues with peers in a classroom setting and they emphasized that having the opportunity to debate the issues and candidates significantly peaked their interest in political issues. One student was recorded saying that hearing many viewpoints and seeing different sides through debate made him more interested in the political process and another suggested that peer discussion puts pressure on students to acquire political knowledge. “Everyone has an opinion. Maybe they are usually too shy to voice their opinion, but when everyone is discussing the issues, you are more likely to share your opinion.” Yet another reason classroom discussion is so valuable is because it prompts internal reflection and opinion refinement. In one student’s words: “By taking sides, it makes you look at more than just your opinion.” In hearing other opinions in a structured setting where they can take a closer look at other views without the bias filter of their parents or the media, they develop and strengthen their own views as well. What these comments seem to reveal is a subtle shift from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. In other words, the students are required to pay attention to news media, but once they delve into the issues they acquire a taste for politics and begin to enjoy the drama and intrigue of politics (McDevitt). The students were also asked to comment on factors that they feel inhibit political discussion and their responses, generally, were parents with strong views, biased teachers and students not feeling like they can voice their opinions and get good grades. These are all things that I myself have heard from my peers here at the University. While I personally have not witnessed anything that would make them think that they couldn’t openly share their views, it does seem to be a fairly common concern among students of a certain political ideology.

The important take away from this study is that even as a brief school intervention, taught only during the final weeks of the 2002 campaign, Kids Voting stimulated news attention, cognition, discussion with parents and friends, deliberative dispositions, and civic identity. These results held up despite a rigorous block of demographic controls with the strongest impacts involved discussion inside and outside the family. As neophyte citizens, KVUSA students were now much more responsive to the civic environment, much more attuned to political messages flowing from media and schools, and more willing to share their knowledge and opinions with parents and friends. Additionally the sheer size of their discussion networks was reported to have grown significantly (McDevitt). Given all of this, if only a brief intervention and focus can have such impressive results, what are the possibilities for prolonged and more integrated political engagement in education that isn’t only based around elections? Which leads to the next question I attempt to (and think that I do to an extent) answer.

What Age to Start Political Education? (Torney-Purta)

If discussion based education about politics has apparently so many benefits that ultimately lead us closer to the enlightened citizen criteria of democracy, then the obvious next question isn’t whether or not to implement it, it’s at what age do we start the education? To answer this we have to look at the differences in different age groups of adolescents. The main differences being at what age are kids ready to start learning the complex democratic concepts. In a study of adolescents in twenty-eight countries conducted by J. Torney-Purta for the Journal of Applied developmental science, among the major differences observed between the 14-year-olds and the 17- to 18-year-olds is a more coherent structure of democratic concepts, probably the result of cognitive development. However, basic elements of the democracy narrative are understood by the younger group. Until the eighth or ninth grade, most students in the United States receive civic education as part of their courses in national history, with the traditional place in the curriculum for the study of government being Grade 10 or later. Although important at that level, explicit civic education could also begin even earlier and still be effective, especially if it were designed to be developmentally appropriate by taking an approach oriented to practices of citizenship. By the eighth or ninth grade many students are already aware of important narratives of democracy and hold attitudes toward government that are highly similar to those of adults in their societies (Torney-Purta). This indicates that many of them are ready for more intensive and motivating study of democracy and government than they are receiving. This is part of the “untapped resource” I mentioned earlier. Interestingly, the study found that the average U.S. student performed less well (at the international average) in understanding fundamentals of democracy while performing at the top of the country distribution when asked to demonstrate skills in understanding political communication. Academic rather than practical understanding of democracy was a prominent theme in the national case studies from other less democratic countries. This seems to indicate that there is some room for improvement in our kids understanding of the fundamentals of democracy and thusly could possibly be the focus more early on in their education with a focus on application and communication coming a little later. Something to note is that in all the participating countries, the single-level models showed that the total score on civic knowledge is a significant predictor of whether a student believes that they will vote (Torney-Purta). According to the study, U.S. students appear to be deficient in understanding specific facts about their government and only average in their grasp of basic principles. The majority of students, however, have the skills to understand political communication (to read election leaflets and understand simple newspaper articles about political issues). Thusly, as I stated, perhaps we would be better off having the younger classes learning the specific facts and basic principles about government.

In the IEA Civic Education Study the differences in civic knowledge and engagement (likelihood of voting) associated with education and home resources are substantial, especially in countries such as Denmark, Switzerland, and the United States (Torney-Purta). In fact, in the United States, by far the largest proportion of variance in civic knowledge scores between schools can be explained by a combination of the average number of years students intend to continue their education and the average literacy resources in their homes. Additionally, low socioeconomic status also tends to be associated with fewer opportunities for discussion participation (Torney-Purta). This socioeconomic gap is an issue, because it extends across civic knowledge, expressed likelihood of voting, and factors in school that are likely to enhance students’ preparation for citizenship. This socioeconomic gap seems to potentially be correlated with the low civic engagement we see, in particular in regards to younger people. The large majority of young people surveyed in 1999 believed that citizens should obey the law and should vote (between 80% and 90% in the United States and most of the other countries thought these activities important or very important). In contrast, however, only 58% of these students believed it important or very important for the citizen to participate in political discussions, and the figure was 48% for affiliating with a political party. Students’ estimates of the likelihood that they would join discussions or affiliate with a party as adults provided a similar picture (Torney-Purta).

In this study too they found a distinct lack of cases in which open discussion, especially on controversial issues, was encouraged. Across countries, there were substantial numbers of classrooms where such discussion was relatively infrequent, and in many countries, although students were encouraged to respect others’ opinions, controversial issues were rather rarely the topic of discussion. For example, nearly 90% of U.S. students reported that the most frequent instructional methods when studying civic-related topics were reading textbooks and studying worksheets (Torney-Purta), with only about half as many students reported the more actively involving debates, discussions, or role-playing exercises. Since I myself am a student I can’t help but think of my own experiences and have to say that these findings corroborate with them. All through high school I only really had one teacher that encouraged and engaged us in discussion. It wasn’t until I got to college that discussion became more common place, but even then I feel that it isn’t as often as it possibly could be. Discourse theories and sociocultural theories make a similar point. They leave following suggestion for improving schools’ contribution to civic engagement in that we should do more to prepare and support teachers to combine content-rich instruction with opportunities for discussion of issues in a climate of respect.

Students were asked about the topics emphasized in their schools’ curriculum to get a picture of their opportunities to learn. Rating of the emphasis placed on voting and elections was included in the single-level path model. The extent to which the students reported that elections and voting were emphasized in school classes and curriculum was a significant predictor of the likelihood of voting (Torney-Purta). A sample of teachers was asked whether they believed that they emphasized voting and elections in their classrooms; in most countries more teachers than students thought this topic was covered. This suggests that teachers may expect students to infer that voting is important from studying electoral history or the jobs that elected officials perform. Students, however, may learn the explicitly taught facts of history or government structure without inferring that it is important to vote. This is likely due to the lack of discussion about these topics, for without discussion it is rather hard to improve student’s critical thinking skills.

According to the IEA, there are three elements of schools that are important in civic education: the formal curriculum, the culture of the classroom, and the culture of the school. The IEA Civic Education Study’s results suggest that schools can be effective in preparing students for engagement in civil society by teaching civic content and skills, ensuring an open classroom climate for the discussion of issues, emphasizing the importance of voting and elections, and supporting effective participation opportunities such as school councils. They also lament that substantive content is postponed to the later years of high school and that students are assumed to learn passively rather than by being engaged in practice. That said, this study seems to agree with and corroborate the findings of the first study included in this paper, in that they both found discussion both in general and of controversial topics to be of paramount importance in getting youth engaged and interested in the workings of their government. With all this information from these studies seemingly saying the same thing, what do we make of it?

Conclusion

In the United States we are suffering from a society largely made up of a population that wants nothing to do with politics or being involved in the government in any way, but for democracy to work it largely is not possible to be completely uninvolved. The bear minimum is that people must vote. The problem is that a lot of people either don’t see it as important or think that it doesn’t matter if they do vote and that they have no control over what happens. It is this shared apathy for politics and voting that has helped create the huge disparity in equal representation. But, as I said in the intro, this is merely the effect and not the cause. The cause is that in our education system we are failing to create enlightened citizens who want to be actively engaged. The way our education system is currently we place very little emphasis, and even less time and resources, on discussion of really any topics let alone politics and controversial issues. This is our crucial mistake. If we cannot foster norms of discussion and mutual respect of opposing views then what hope do we have of not remaining so polarized as we are now? But if we are able to take the research into account and are able to set aside the risks of unfounded criticisms from parents about methods that seem so clearly to be the best course of action and implement a new curriculum full of discussion at every opportunity, what are the possibilities of potentially ushering in a new era where the citizen is actually enlightened like Dahl said we should be, where political polarization isn’t a thing (or at least isn’t as divisive and nasty), or where politics is no longer a dirty word and is a common conversation topic without all the tenseness behind it? It might be me sharing in some of Dahl democratic optimism, but if only a couple weeks can have such profound lasting effects on our youth, then I have to think that implementing the same model for the rest of the educational system just might have the ability to change the country.

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