Lately, I’ve been grappling with how scholars, teachers, and policymakers define “citizenship” and, consequently, “citizenship education.” One thing I found was the prevalence of individualized notions of citizenship in curriculum – meaning when students think about acting as a democratic citizen, it is often in terms of the individual’s rights, freedoms, and actions, rather than in terms of group participation. We shouldn’t be dismissive of the power individuals can have in bringing positive change — students should be emboldened in this way. However, limiting citizenship to individual actions does not consider their potential collective role.

As many scholars suggest, the school should be seen as a staging ground for students’ emergence into the formal political sphere. Thus, teachers should consider how to provide students practice acting democratically. Inquiry-based instruction tasks students with considering and assessing varied perspectives in order to come to their own conclusions – an important skill for engaging with others. In particular, the inquiry culminates in the IDM’s Taking Informed Action piece, which directly connects the inquiry’s topic to students’ civic lives. Though the suggested actions vary across the C3 inquiries, this is a place where teachers should consider how to help students engage in conversations with fellow members of their community, even those who may hold different views.

Learning to talk with one another across difference is not an easy task, particularly when you consider contested political issues, turning the partisan divide into a language barrier.  I recently read an article from Walter Parker (2010), which I admit, was after seeing another piece cite Parker as advocating for students to talk to strangers. Strangers, in this context, refer to schoolmates that are not the student’s friend. Parker is considering how the schools’ community can become a public sphere, practicing the skills needed for democracy to function. He is not expecting to create a community wherein everyone likes one another. Indeed, he says, “were liking one another necessary, democracy would be impossible” (p. 2824). Instead, this process is about creating a “political friend”, where there is trust that all parties are working to address a common problem.

Parker does not solely write about having students talk with strangers. Arguably more importantly, he spends time providing practices for listening to strangers. Listening, in this approach, is not a passive act. Drawing on Allen (2004), Parker identified listening practices meant to create habits of political friendship built on equity and trust.

  • “Ask whether the speaker has spoken as a political friend.
  • Separate a speaker’s claims about facts from the principles on which her conclusions are based; assess both.
  • Ask who is sacrificing for whom, whether the sacrifices are voluntary and honored; whether they can and will be reciprocated.” (p. 158; cited in Parker, 2010, p. 2829)

Drawing on this list, Parker adds three strategies to foster equity and validate the involved parties. These are based on: reciprocity, humility, and caution.

  • Reciprocity: when listening with reciprocity, the listener privileges the speaker’s view, so as to better understand the issue through the speaker’s social position, life experiences, etc.
  • Humility: when listening with humility, the listener recognizes that their point of view, and thus their understanding, is incomplete.
  • Caution: when listening with caution, the listener does not say everything that comes to mind. The listener thinks and filters their comments so as to not invalidate what the speaker is saying.

Whether concerning ancient history, economics, or a current political issue, the skill set of talking and listening with others has powerful implications. Students may prefer working alone, but as I often remind them when they complain about group assignments: “life is group work.” It’s hard work, but it’s important work for their current and future civic lives.

Parker, W. (2010). Listening to Strangers: Classroom Discussion in Democratic Education. Teachers College Record, 112(11), 2815-2832.