Experiential Civic Learning for Democracy

Our guest author is Wilfred Chirinos, an associate on the Policy and Advocacy Team at Generation Citizen.

In the recent past, commentators such as David Leonhardt in his New York Times article ‘A Crisis Coming’: The Twin Threats to American Democracy," have spoken to some of the greatest threats against our democracy at this moment, including the heightened sense of partisanship with calls for a “national divorce”1; the ilk of authoritarianism on the edges of the ideological spectrum, and amplified through the coverage of our political discourse; and the rapid development of social media and AI technology in what some have labeled a “post-truth” era.2 These concerns are rightfully identified as looming threats to democracy. Taken together, they suggest that we stand at a pivotal moment in American history. While some contend that these issues are intractable, reports collected by the Center for American Progress and my experience within civics education suggest that revitalizing our democracy can begin with civic learning in our classrooms.

As said by AFT President Randi Weingarten, “Experiential learning engages students through problem-solving, critical thinking, teamwork, and learning by doing. We need to help kids engage with the world, with ideas, and with each other….”3 Through experiential learning, we can encourage students to engage creatively in their education to develop life-long skills. Experiential learning catalyzes their journey of becoming engaged citizens with the tools to interact meaningfully with the world around them.

At Generation Citizen, students are provided with an experiential learning opportunity through our action civics programs. Students are taught to engage with their community by identifying relevant problems,  researching issues that they select, and presenting evidence-based policy solutions to stakeholders and decision-makers. The goal of this process is to instill a spirit of civic duty and engagement while enhancing their practical civic knowledge. Students learn about the history and structure of their local governments while connecting with these institutions, which often feel far removed. As they engage these institutions, they themselves are changed in the process and can influence the public policy process in significant ways, that reverberate far beyond the classroom.

Generation Citizen’s Civics Days provide a great example of this. Hosted in different cities and states across the country, students, after a semester-long research process guided by their teachers, showcase their, community-based civics project to a team of community advisors — an audience that consists of their peers, and individuals members such as educators, business leaders, community organizers, and government officials. Topics for these projects range from healthier and more accessible school lunches, LBTQ+ student safety, teen vaping & substance abuse, gun violence, expanded after-school opportunities, student homelessness, and many other topics that offer a sense of hope that our leaders of tomorrow are, in fact, leaders today. Through elevating student voices and decision-making, students are empowered to embrace their civic duty and participate actively in their democracy. The research from the field reflects this.

In a report produced by CivXNow and Tufts University, a cross-partisan civics education coalition, Peter Levine and Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg assert that “Effective civic education is known to raise the rate of informed voting once students reach voting age. Voting is also known to be habitual: once people vote, they are more likely to vote again.”4 This is true, especially for young voters where youth voter turnout saw a 79 percent increase between the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections. From 13 percent of eligible voters between the ages of 18-29 voting in the 2014 midterm elections to 28 percent of them voting in the 2018 midterm elections more or less maintained at 23 percent through the 2022 midterm elections.5 While voting doesn’t exhaust what participatory democracy means, it certainly is a cornerstone. The data illustrates how experiential learning opportunities such as action civics are crucial in instilling lifelong civic habits such as voting as well as developing the inter- and intra-personal skills such as self-reflection and critical thinking that are essential to lifelong democratic engagement.

President Weingarten’s speech captured this spirit when she noted: “..in a pluralistic society such as the United States, people with different beliefs and backgrounds must learn to bridge differences. And that, as the founders believed, an educated citizenry is essential to protect our democracy from demagogues.”6 In my own experience as a student who advocated for comprehensive ethnic studies in the Providence Public School Department, I was energized by the process of not only building out my identity as a student but also by the process of strengthening my civic identity as well as an active stakeholder within my community with the opportunity to advocate for meaningful change, inching our state closer to the vision of e Pluribus Unum.

By creating engaged students in K-12 civic learning, we can create an engaged citizenry equipped to work across differences, build consensus, and make well-informed decisions. Equipping students with valuable life-long skills that are important at the professional and personal levels. Simply put, experiential civic learning is an eloquent phrase to describe the lifelong process of; “learning by doing,” a skill that is valuable both in the aptitudes gained through practical experience and in the connections made within our communities.;


1 https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/marjorie-taylor-greene-calls-national-divorce-liberal-conservative-sta-rcna71464

2 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/24/opinion/campaign-stops/the-age-of-post-truth-politics.html

3 https://www.aft.org/press/speeches/defense-public-education

4 https://civxnow.org/static/media/SummitWhitePaper.fc2a3bb5.pdf

5 https://circle.tufts.edu/2022-election center#:~:text=Final%20Estimates%20of%20Youth%20Turnout%20in%202022&text=National%20Youth%20Turnout%3A%2023%25%20%2D,only%2013%25%20of%20youth%20voted.

6 https://www.aft.org/press/speeches/defense-public-education