Building Kids' Citizenship Through Community Engagement

by Bob Coulter (Author)
©2018 Textbook X, 148 Pages


Building Kids’ Citizenship Through Community Engagement offers a compelling, empirically-based argument for giving young people opportunities to grow through productive involvement with their local community. Drawing on John Dewey’s pragmatic frame of experience and concepts of bildung that inform educational practice in Europe, the book speaks directly to teachers and parents who are looking for a way to support young people in their efforts to become confident, self-directed citizens. Throughout, the book offers a paradigm for growth that counters the limits of narrow visions of schooling and equally thin out-of-school learning opportunities which serve to limit young people’s potential.
In framing the argument, veteran educator Bob Coulter draws on more than 30 years of experience that includes extensive work with youth as a classroom teacher and in a variety of other community-based efforts, as well as 18 years of work as a mentor to teachers and parents. Key themes running through Building Kids’ Citizenship Through Community Engagement include a cogent argument in support of young people assuming an active, age-appropriate role as citizens, as well as a modern updating of Dewey’s concept of experience that is suitable for a technological age. These theoretical ideas are made tangible through specific recommendations for productive uses of digital technology and a critical review of several frameworks that have proven useful for designing and evaluating the quality of kids’ community-based learning experiences.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise For Building Kids’ Citizenship Through Community Engagement
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgments
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Wings That Work
  • Chapter 2. Experience and Action
  • Chapter 3. Living a Digital Childhood
  • Chapter 4. Taking an Active Stance in the World
  • Series Index

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In my last book—No More Robots: Building Kids’ Character, Competence, and Sense of Place (Coulter, 2014)—I explored an enigma that my colleagues and I found in working with teachers who were hired to run after-school and summer programs with students from their own schools. Equipped with ample material resources and with freedom from the normal curriculum accountability measures, teachers took their kids in very different directions. Some were liberated by the open context and guided their kids into a number of rich, locally based investigations. Others either remained within the traditional paradigm of carefully controlled, externally developed lesson plans, or they just floundered in building meaningful experiences when they didn’t have a predetermined script guiding the way. An example of a more successful project was a study of bird populations in the city, with a focus on identifying which habitats attracted certain species; an example of a less successful project was a 30 contact-hour science program that was supposed to be focused on investigating local weather patterns but never advanced past painting mural paper sets for a television-style weather report.

The variables that one might expect to explain such a difference in practice—including teachers’ own educational backgrounds, their years of experience, and differences in student demographics—just didn’t hold. Rather, we ← 1 | 2 → found fundamentally different conceptions at work of what it means to be a teacher, and different underlying beliefs about students’ capacities to learn and to take action. You can give No More Robots a read for more details, but as a capsule summary, the thesis I advanced there was that in order to build kids’ character, competence, and sense of place, teachers themselves need to take on a higher degree of agency—to break out of the expectation that they (and their kids) need to be “cheerful robots” (Mills, 1959/2000) following the compliance-based norms of schooling and of childhood that currently inform policy in the United States and elsewhere. With that analysis, I offered a few reflections on how overarching paradigms of childhood serve to frame the choices made by teachers and parents. In turn, kids inevitably live up (or down) to the expectations and opportunities before them.

This book builds from there by providing an argument for community engagement becoming a larger element of students’ experiences. In terms of educational values, what follows advocates for a progressive, place-based approach to learning, but with an insistence on academic and intellectual rigor that often is missing in caricatures of progressive education. We’ll see as we go along in the book that the negative stereotype of progressive education as being light on intellectual demands is undeserved. Bad implementations of an idea do not undermine the value of the approach. As I’ll discuss at some length in the pages ahead, revitalizing progressive values that favor increased student engagement in their work and shared authority between teachers and students may be the best approach to countering the pervasive deskilling of teachers’ and kids’ work we see in many settings. Corporate models of schooling which are based on curriculum decisions being made ‘somewhere else’ and locked into scripted paths for all students serve to take initiative away from kids at the time in their lives that both educational theory (Dewey, 1916/1966) and neuroscience (Wexler, 2006) show they need it most—their formative years. Working hand in hand with a progressive agenda, the place-based focus is important in that increased focus on the local is the surest way to restore meaning to kids’ work. When it is “right here” where kids live their lives and the impact of their efforts can be seen, there is greater motivation to do the work well, and to make iterative improvements both in the project at hand and in the skills brought to the task. Developing skills and knowledge for some far-off potential future need is a much less compelling proposition for most students.

My goal in this volume is to extend the scope and to buttress the foundations of progressive place-based education, with a particular focus on how that can be achieved through rich engagement with the local community. David ← 2 | 3 → Sobel (2004, 2008)—who I am honored to have as a friend and occasional colleague, and who was my masters’ advisor many years ago—provides essential grounding in the field through compelling stories of practice and inspirational goals to work toward. Having worked in the field for 40 years, David’s wisdom about providing engaging, developmentally appropriate experiences for kids is without parallel. Amy Demarest (2015) and Gerald Lieberman (2013) have also done important work in the field, providing direct support for teachers’ efforts by articulating how to plan for place-based learning. This book takes a different (but hopefully complementary) tack, approaching community engagement from an empirically informed, applied philosophical perspective. In that sense, my aim is perhaps more foundational than other works in the field. But, I promise you that even though this work is more philosophical, it is no less “real” and no less informed by the work of actual teachers and kids. To keep the book anchored in the life of real teachers and kids, numerous examples of successful (and less successful) practice are provided.

You might be asking why community engagement should be given such a central role in kids’ lives. As I’ll be arguing in the pages ahead, deep local engagement gives an opportunity for young people to develop a range of academic skills at the same time as they develop their disposition and capacity for citizenship. Too often we shield kids from real responsibility by engaging them in token efforts like litter pickups or reminding them to recycle. By articulating a rationale for deeper involvement in the local community at a young age, I’m hoping to build on the exciting work being done in linking science education and environmental education. As Arjen Wals et al. (2014) argue, current practice in many countries is to separate the academic pursuit of science from a more values-based concern for the environment. To clarify the distinction, they offer the following:

An example of the difference between early science education and environmental education is that, while the former might teach students how to monitor water quality, identify pollutants, and understand technologies that can reduce pollution, environmental education would involve an analysis of the circumstances and behaviors that caused the pollution, as well as identifying ways to clean up a river involving the local community, policy-makers, and industry. (p. 583)

Without question, both areas of concern are needed for effective citizenship—hence, the need for convergence. Unfortunately, this goal won’t be realized if we prioritize learning facts and processes out of context, and don’t give young people a variety of age-appropriate venues for meaningful involvement. One ← 3 | 4 → facet of ensuring age-appropriateness is to maintain local grounding, and I’ll be sharing a number of ways to link local environmental concerns to regional, national, and international concerns in the pages ahead. When this convergent form of environmental education takes root, we’ll be moving toward “empowering citizens to engage in ongoing debates about local and global sustainability issues and what needs to be done to address them” (Wals et al., 2014, p. 584). Clearly, it’s worthy work for us to be doing.

As a mechanism toward convergence, I’ll be arguing for a broad form of citizen science projects as a staple of students’ lives in and out of school. Janis Dickinson and Rick Bonney (2014) define citizen science as “public participation in organized research efforts” (p. 1). Later they frame the effort more specifically and colloquially as a process that “draws people into the outdoors to collect data on enchanting organisms, and engages their scientific interest close to home” (p. 10). Projects encompassed by this latter definition are a perfect venue for developing the “improved knowledge, understanding, and engagement in local and global conservation issues” needed for effective citizenship (Dillon et al., 2016, p. 450). Where I’ll be diverging at times from traditional understandings of citizen science is in my reluctance to be bound by an expectation that a successful citizen science project produces data that is useful for scientists (Dickinson & Bonney, 2014). In some cases, this will happen and that is good, but my primary concern here will be on the educational growth kids realize through their participation. There are many great projects I’ll be sharing that involve data that are only used locally, or only shared among classrooms. Especially for young kids, how far their data go is less important than how it supports their development. To be sure, I’m not going too far afield in this favoring of educational outcomes over scientific utility. Rather, I believe this approach is consistent with the framework Dillon et al. (2016) advance in their diagram organizing citizen science programs (see Figure 1). There they offer a vertical axis with endpoints describing projects as having closed, prescribed goals on one end, and open, emergent goals on the other. The horizontal axis describes authoritative, predetermined projects on one end, and participatory, co-created projects on the other. While I may be stretching the frame’s original intention a bit, I believe that if we view citizen science through an educational lens, we can envision a range of project designs from the authoritative to the co-creative, all of which serve open, emergent educational goals. The scientific value of the projects will vary, but our focus with young kids needs to be in fostering growth where they are on their life trajectory. ← 4 | 5 →


Figure 1: Design criteria for citizen science projects, after Dillon et al, 2016.

In that sense, my framing can be seen as consistent with the distinction Dillon et al. (2016) make between “science-driven citizen science” where data usable by practicing scientists is key, and “policy-driven citizen science” where engagement and public participation come to the fore. Throughout the book, I will argue that without sufficient focus on engagement and participation along with the development of scientific skills, young people won’t be equipped for the larger (and more important) move toward civic science. If we want people to develop the perspectives and capacities needed to address the truly complex issues before us, we need more than scientific and technical competence. As Dillon et al. (2016) note:

To deal with these wicked issues, one needs to realize that citizens have or need to have agency; scientific knowledge includes other types of knowledge, for instance, indigenous knowledge and local knowledge; and actions to improve a situation require social learning between multiple stakeholders affected by an issue. With these realizations, citizen science becomes civic science in that the questions being addressed, the ways data are collected and knowledge and meaning are constructed, ← 5 | 6 → and the course of action to be taken are co-created and therefore not driven by science or policy making but rather supported by science and new forms of governance. Civic science tends to focus on involving scientists as one group of stakeholders among many in a joint learning process around so-called wicked problems. (p. 451)

By fusing these science and policy strands together in a move toward civic science, we can fledge young people on the path toward effective citizenship. My work in the pages ahead is to show how we can do this in a way that supports a continuous process of growth, beginning with age-appropriate childhood experiences.


X, 148
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2018. X, 148 pp.

Biographical notes

Bob Coulter (Author)

Bob Coulter, Ed. D., is currently the director of the Litzsinger Road Ecology Center, a field site managed by the Missouri Botanical Garden. Previously, he was an award-winning elementary grade teacher.


Title: Building Kids' Citizenship Through Community Engagement