Educating for Democracy

To encourage civic participation, getting out the vote is a crucial step — but it's just the first step on the road to lasting engagement

October 4, 2018
watercolor illustration of US flag, with paint blurring into paper

With voter registration deadlines looming, and just over a month until midterm elections, talk of democracy and civic participation is all around us. But historically, young people haven’t turned up at the polls. In the last midterm election, in 2014, fewer than one in five eligible voters aged 18–29 cast a vote. What role do high school and college educators play in facilitating a conversation about voting — and pushing for action to come out of it?

Harvard educators and faculty members explored that topic in a discussion called “Your Vote Counts: Education, Voting, and the Midterms,” moderated by Professor Paul Reville as part of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Askwith Forums series. Here, we pull some useful takeaways for educators looking to empower their students and strengthen democracy from within their school or classroom, without being a partisan advocate.

Help Students Figure Out What They Think

Productive conversations are based on facts, but it’s getting harder for students to discern what’s factual. Panelists Meira Levinson, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Setti Warren, the executive director of the Shorenstein Center of Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, both recommend that educators seek out resources from the Stanford History Education Group, which offers strategies for evaluating digital information and news sources, ensuring that students build a strong, factual foundation as they come to their own conclusions.

Levinson also points to the Right Question Institute, which helps young people hone the thinking skills to ask questions that have meaningful answers, which can help them make better decisions. “Helping them ask the right questions and not only offering them the right answers about how to make change … that is an essential part of our democratic work together that I think educators can really help young people engage in.”

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Help Students Put Their Energy and Enthusiasm to Use

Right now, many students are invigorated by political causes and organizations. But, they may need encouragement to turn that enthusiasm into meaningful follow-through. “I think that it’s exciting that students at all levels are fairly fired up in ways we have not seen in a while, and that that level of firing up is getting coverage — and that in itself can have a positive viral effect,” Levinson says. Educators can help harness that viral effect by connecting students with organizations that work on causes students are excited about, and by giving them platforms to create their own media — be it blog posts, op-eds, or letters to the editor.

Teaching the elements of news literacy can help students act as thoughtful consumers of information, but educators can also guide students in being thoughtful creators of information. Don’t just have students read about civics and civic institutions — help them practice civics. This, too, could have a ripple effect: “As young people see others actively engage, they become more actively engaged,” Levinson says. 

Educators at the high school and college levels can also encourage students to work on developing their voices in all sorts of ways, including public speaking, debate, and drama. Another panelist, Harvard Kennedy School professor Archon Fung, recalled meeting with students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and hearing them credit their teachers for their remarkable ability to speak out after the shooting at their school last February.

Practice the Hard Conversations

Talking about democracy is inherently political, but helping students develop views does not mean that you’re pushing students to conform to your views. Still, conversations about civic action can become contentious. Things that some students get excited about, like gun control, might make other students — or their parents — irate. Think about how you might address sticky situations, where civic education and participation intersect with increasingly divisive politics, before those situations unfold. Use case studies, like the ones developed for Levinson’s Justice in Schools initiative, to anticipate scenarios. 

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Even when people have some understanding of what’s true, and agree on common principles, they might come to different conclusions, especially in such a politically contentious time. Teachers might be accused of being partisan by talking about civic engagement at all, Levinson warns. “That is another challenge we are going to have to confront as educators, but we must walk into it, because we in fact would like to knit the country back together.”

Stay Engaged After the Vote

Students (and adults!) might get engaged in the democratic process, cast their vote if they’re eligible, and then lose interest. Democracy moves slowly. “There’s inevitably going to be disappointment after the election,” Levinson says, because of how slowly public policy changes. Continue to support students’ energy and enthusiasm through writing, organizing, and volunteering, and encourage them to think and act locally. Not only can it make a difference, it’s much easier to see that difference when the activism is on a smaller scale. 

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Cultivating Informed Citizens

Here are some of the key digital literacy skills students need, in order to develop informed opinions based on a foundation in fact.
1. Students need to be able to identify possible motives that an article or commentator might have.
2. Students need be able to identify tone and bias.
3. Students need to learn to be skeptical of sources and develop tools to check them.
4. Students need to understand that much of what they read online is targeted at them.

Learn more about how to help students evaluate the credibility of online information

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Civics and History College and Career K-12 Learning and Teaching