Youth will need digital media literacy skills to critically engage with all the information (and misinformation) they can now find online, to seek out a range of perspectives, and to be thoughtful about the content they circulate and create.
That’s among the big-picture takeaways from a groundbreaking new study, “All Together Now: Collaboration and Innovation for Youth Engagement,” just released by Tufts University as the product of the nation’s leading scholars in civic education.
The Oct. 9 report of the Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge draws a straight line between informed participation in government and mastery of the foundational skills of journalism. Its recommendations to the nation’s schools include:
Emphasize youth conducting community research and producing local journalism, with the twin goals of enhancing students’ communications skills and and making a contribution to the community in light of the severe gap in professional reporting.
In other words: It’s not enough just to lecture to kids about how government works. They learn best by gathering and sharing information about the governmental decisions that affect their lives. And their news reporting can help replace the coverage no longer provided by the estimated 14,600 full-time newsroom professionals who have lost their jobs since 2007.
The commission was made up of 13 experts from leading universities and staffed by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts’ Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service.
An entire section of the commission’s report is devoted to the importance of free-expression protection — for students and teachers alike — in providing a safe space to discuss social and political issues without fear: “Young people need the space and encouragement to form and refine their own positions on political issues, even if their views happen to be controversial.”
Coincidentally, the Chicago-based McCormick Foundation (a major funder of the SPLC’s work) almost simultaneously released its own set of recommendations for best practices in civic learning — the Illinois Civic Blueprint — that also emphasizes the essential role of meaningful student input into school decisionmaking.
The Oct. 8 blueprint features success stories from students and educators across Illinois who’ve achieved breakthroughs in making schools welcoming places for genuine civic participation, including one in which students created a “service learning” project to mobilize their community behind a campaign for immigration reform.
In another school, a “Student Voice Committee” brought small quality-of-life annoyances — broken water fountains, malfunctioning metal detectors — to the attention of administrators and made sure the problems got fixed: “None of these issues, all of which were important to students, were being addressed until student voice was engaged by the principal in a collaborative fashion.”
The McCormick blueprint concludes that students learn most effectively in schools that respect their input: “[I]n order for students to learn about democracy, they must attend a school which practices it in all facets and maintains a positive overall climate.”
The right of students to express themselves in the student media without fear and intimidation has been the concern of civil-liberties advocates and journalism educators, but those communities cannot change the authoritarian mindset of schools by themselves. Progress will come — and it will come — with the recognition that valuing student voices is an education reform without which other reforms are incomplete.
With preparation for standardized math and science tests squeezing time in the school day, and the career outlook for traditional journalism employment looking grim, the survival case for scholastic journalism must rest on its unique and irreplaceable role in developing the tools of informed civic participation. Fortunately, the civics education community now fully recognizes that journalism education is civic education, and that journalistic skills, values and ethics must be a foundational part of the K-12 curriculum for every future voter.