Civic Agency and Executive Function: An Emerging Conversation

A conversation is just beginning between practitioners and theorists of civic agency and scholars and educators promoting educational experiences which develop Executive Function. It may have large potential.
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A conversation is just beginning between practitioners and theorists of civic agency and scholars and educators promoting educational experiences which develop Executive function. It may have large potential.

Civic Agency

Today, most people feel powerless to do much of anything other than complain or protest about public problems from the local traffic sign to racial profiling, from school bullying to global warming. Young people in low income and minority communities especially feel powerless. The work of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, which I founded more than 20 years ago at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, has sought from the outset to develop theory and practice of effective self-organizing civic action -- what can be called civic agency, or the public work framework of citizenship -- to help overcome the gap between concern and capacity to act.

We began Public Achievement (PA) in 1991 to teach young people the self-organizing approaches to change and the larger view of democracy which I learned as a college student in the civil rights movement. In Public Achievement, teams of young people work on issues of their choice in real world settings, schools or communities. They meet through the year, coached by adults, often college students, who help them develop achievable goals, learn to navigate their local environment, and learn everyday political skills and political concepts. Public Achievement is an example of what is called "civic studies," an interdisciplinary action-oriented field focused on agency and citizens as co-creators.

St. Bernard's Elementary School, a Catholic school in a low-income and working class neighborhood in St. Paul, was the early incubator. There, PA became the centerpiece of the school's culture in the early and mid-1990s through the leadership of then principal Dennis Donovan. He wanted young people to learn everyday skills of making change and he saw all forms of work in the school, including teaching, as having potentially public, empowering dimensions. Public Achievement has since spread to several hundred communities and schools in the United States and more than two dozen countries.

At Augsburg College where the Center for Democracy and Citizenship is now merged into the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship, the Special Education pre-service program adapted Public Achievement as a response to the challenge to Special Education emerging within the field, as well from outside critics including parents. Special Education students are often segregated from mainstream students because they are identified with a disability deemed to interfere with educational achievements.

Those placed in Special Education, which include disproportionate numbers of poor and minority children, often suffer lifetimes of trouble with mental illness, unemployment and incarceration.

A growing number of scholars and educators argue that the problem is school culture rather than individual young people. As Susan O'Connor, head of Special Education program at Augsburg puts it, "Special Education still uses a medical model where teachers try to 'fix' kids." The Special Education pre-service program adapted Public Achievement because it wanted to shift to an empowerment model instead.

Three years of testing Public Achievement in Fridley Middle School near Minneapolis produced dramatic results. "Problem" students, mostly low-income and minority, became public leaders on issues like reduction of school bullying, promoting healthy lifestyles, and preventing animal cruelty. They developed working relationships with school administrators, community leaders, elected officials, and gained attention of media like Minnesota Public Radio.

Executive Function

We have begun to think about ways in which civic agency in PA fosters skills of "Executive Function." Executive Function, akin to "self-regulation" or "self-control," is a concept emerging from thousands of studies in brain development. It has been shown to be highly relevant to what makes for young people's academic and social success. Phil Zelazo, a scientist with the Institute for Child Development (ICD) at the University of Minnesota and a pioneer in the field, defines it as "brain processes involved in goal-directed modulation of attention, thought, emotion, motivation and action."

Though connections between Executive Function, civic agency, and democratic society have been rarely made explicit, they are beginning to appear. Zelazo and Stephanie Carlson, another scientist at the ICD, contributed to a White Paper for the launch of a movement called "Civic Science" at the National Science Foundation in October, 2014, based on a view of science as a set of practices and values essential for democratic society like cooperation, free inquiry, and the testing of ideas in practice. At the ICD symposium described in my last blog, Carlson argued that Executive Function is "about democracy," based on choice. It brings back the view of children as agents of their learning. Programs which increase Executive Function "engage students' passionate interests," "cultivate joy, pride, and self-confidence," and "foster social bonding."

Deepening the Connections

Skills of Executive Function clearly overlap with capacities developed through Public Achievement. According to observers, at Fridley PA impacted students' self-image, confidence, sense of agency, pride, and relationships. "They believed that they were more capable than they had ever thought they were in the past," said Alyssa Blood, who wrote her Master's thesis on Public Achievement. "The students believe that they can be positive citizens and that the people who believed differently about them are wrong." Many students express pride and confidence. "I feel more mature and happy," said one. Blood observes that participants "began to express feelings of power beyond the realm of Public Achievement." Another described his feeling that "we can change a lot of things in the world [like] Martin Luther King did."

Students developed civic identities and new habits and skills such as relationship-building, negotiation, compromise, planning, organizing, and public speaking. Public Achievement also developed agency of the teachers, including new relationships with families. Since the success of PA in Fridley Middle School, the Special Education program at Augsburg changed its curriculum so that all pre-service students coach in more than a dozen Public Achievement sites.

Both civic agency and Executive Function educators and scholars are focused on developing the agency of young people and their capacities to shape the world around them.

And both raise basic questions about the pedagogies and purposes of today's education.

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