June 3, 2011

Educating for civic engagement

Highlighting the University's commitment to global citizenship, a group of international educators gathered at Emory recently to discuss approaches to fostering civic engagement in established and emerging democracies.

Held for the first time in the United States, the 7th annual CitizED International Conference (PDF) offered a forum for 50 university professors and researchers to share best practices in citizenship education.

The May 12-14 forum was jointly sponsored by Emory's Division of Educational Studies, Emory College of Arts and Sciences, the Laney Graduate School and the Office of International Affairs.

"Emory has emphasized global citizenship and engaged scholarship in the University strategic plan, encouraging citizens to be active in their local communities and at the national and global levels," says conference organizer and Charles Howard Candler Professor of Educational Studies Carole Hahn.

Hahn's own research compares citizenship models for educating multicultural youth in Denmark, England, Germany and the Netherlands. Atlanta was an ideal location for the conference, she says, given the city's rich history of youth involvement in staging boycotts, walkouts and sit-ins during the civil rights movement.

Eight Emory doctoral students in educational studies presented research as part of the event. Topics discussed ranged from U.S. high school teachers engaging students in politically sensitive topics to democracies in transition influencing human development and citizen participation.

Among the keynote speakers, Diana Hess, professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, presented a study that considered how different teaching styles used by high school social studies teachers could influence political participation rates among students after graduation.

Controversial topics reap rewards

The four-year project found that teachers who came prepared to spark classroom discussions on controversial topics were rewarded with high levels of classroom participation and a sustained level of political engagement among students.

"Evidence can only get us so far," Hess noted. "There are really important ethical questions that deeply impact what teachers do." 

A school's social environment informs students as they set out to construct their own civic identities, says conference attendee and panelist Kathy Bickmore, an education professor at the University of Toronto.

 "The only way to give everyone a chance to be an empowered citizen is through education," she says.

Other panels explored how students' religious backgrounds relate to public life in pluralist democracies; Asian perspectives on citizenship; and political participation rates among those who may feel marginalized, including immigrants, the socioeconomically disadvantaged and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.

"We inherit different civic cultures, depending on where we live, but we can also learn from one another," explains Hahn. "It's not a one-size-fits-all approach."

"The U.S. has a long tradition of teaching for citizenship," she continues. "What we realize now is that providing content alone is not enough. It's encouraging students to investigate on their own to become engaged public citizens."

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