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Grant allows professor to explore adolescents’ political thinking and learning

Grant allows professor to explore adolescents’ political thinking and learning

Civic education is essential for a participatory democracy to flourish. And it’s critical to young people’s understanding of how they can use democratic institutions and practices to effect positive change. But little is known about how adolescents actually think through political positions on public policy problems, or how they draw from that thinking to discuss politics and act politically with others.

As civic educators face scarce educational resources amidst increasing public concerns about political polarization and complacency, Kevin Meuwissen, an associate professor at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education, hopes to help inform how politics is represented, taught, and learned in schools in the coming two years, with support from a Spencer Foundation small research grant.

The project, titled “Ethical and Cultural Commitments in Adolescents’ Political Thinking: A Design Study” will generate new insights into the ways in which young people’s cultural norms and political motivations interact with their civic learning opportunities. Ultimately, the aim of this research is to explore new ways of learning and teaching politics focused on strengthening adolescents’ strategies for informed political reflection, discourse, and decision making.

“While formal civic education tends to emphasize rather uncontroversial structures and functions of government,” says Meuwissen, “we know that young people will enter political contexts that are highly contentious, and deeply partisan; and that partisanship rests, in part, on people’s ethical and cultural commitments and their efforts to defend them. How, then, might adolescents’ political interactions change when they’re compelled to understand and consider how those commitments play into the ways we do politics together? This study addresses that question and represents an opportunity to provide new directions for incorporating political thinking into civic education.” 

The primary focus of Meuwissen’s research will be to investigate how adolescents draw upon their knowledge, social experiences, and ethical and cultural commitments to shape political positions and participate in political discourse. This study will utilize interviews and small-group discussions to gather qualitative data about adolescents’ thinking and modes of political discourse, relative to current public policy issues. Drawing from these findings, Meuwissen will work with civic educators to develop, implement, and study the results of a secondary-level curricular and instructional model designed to promote political discourse that links students’ policy positions with their ethical and cultural foundations.

The Spencer Foundation’s support is part of its New Civics initiative, which was launched in 2008 to fund research that asks important questions about how education can support civic and political thinking among students. The New Civics initiative contributes to educational improvement by supporting high-quality research studies that can lead to better-designed, more effective programs, policies, practices, and settings that prepare young people to act and to do so in informed and reasoned ways.

Meuwissen joined the Warner School in 2009. His research focuses on social studies educators’ curricular and pedagogical decision-making under the influence of competing school-institutional policy influences, with a new line of scholarship that explores adolescents’ political thinking. He serves as the director of the social studies teacher education program and director of teacher education. In 2017, he received the Exemplary Research Award from the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS).