Once, high school students had to pass a U.S. Constitution test before they could graduate. Today, civics has practically vanished from the curriculum, with not so surprising results. Fully one-third of American kids cannot tell someone what the Declaration of Independence is about, even though “It’s in the title!” as former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor told the audience at the 2011 Educating for Democracy in a Digital Age conference in Washington, D.C.

Civics has not gotten the same boost that literacy and STEM learning have received in recent years from policymakers and the broader education community. Fortunately, afterschool programs are stepping in to help kids learn about civics and show what civic engagement looks like in the 21st century—actions that stress leadership, collaboration, and commitment.

We talk with Tom Akiva, an assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s Psychology in Education Department, about effective afterschool programs. Akiva’s research focuses on organized activities after school, what these voluntary environments can teach us about learning, what motivates teens to engage, and what authentic youth leadership looks like in a variety of settings.

Tom AkivaRemake Learning: Teens often are thought of as disconnected and out of touch with civic life. How can afterschool programs connect young people to their communities and civic life?

Tom Akiva: One of the issues is defining what civic participation is. When researchers talk about civic participation for kids, they often divide it into two categories. One involves traditional learning—like kids do in civics classes in school—and the other involves action. There is a lot of work on youth voting. For younger kids, you can think about practicing civics and other activities that put them in touch with civics—doing anything in learning settings that relates to democracy, such as taking leadership roles or making decisions that affect others.

Youth can also be directly exposed to how local government works, getting children connected with decision makers. Service learning helps them with empathy, beliefs about the importance of contributing to society. This can happen in formal ways: for example, kids do a project and then do a paper on the experience. But it could happen in little ways too.

Remake Learning: My mother sent me and my brother out to trick or treat for UNICEF. Is that what you mean?

TA: Yes! It could happen that way, too. Some other important ways within schools involve participating in student government or decisions in the classroom, being in charge of the classroom library, doing something that contributes to the group.

Some scholars have argued that “civic” as once defined (reading newspapers, voting, signing petitions, volunteering on campaigns, etc.) is an outdated definition and that’s why participation looks so low. We instead should be looking at new forms of civic participation, such as online “likes” and joining in productive discussions in blog posts and other forums.

Remake Learning: But in that case, are we just redefining civic participation to make us feel better?

TA: I think some of that is going on, but it is important to think about it at multiple levels. Not every child is going to be a senator, but it is good to have a vision for the world where children contribute to their local groups as a good citizen. Being a good citizen online is a good thing, but at a different level.

Remake Learning: How is the internet as a public space or sphere different from the more traditional public space? What do afterschool programs need to do to adjust to this new world?

TA: I’m not an expert on the research on this topic, but my own experience is that internet participation is often meaner. People feel free to be a lot more brutal and cyberbully. I think all of us as adults have to figure out how to help kids navigate this world, especially afterschool programs. The important adults in these kids’ lives have the right level of influence to help them navigate the online world.

Remake Learning: Are there different ways of thinking about civic participation for different ages?

TA: I teach adolescent development. One of the things we talk about is that in the tween and teen years, kids can do more abstract (hypothetical) thinking. To a 7 or 8 year old, civic participation should be pretty concrete and practical. Connecting to concepts like justice, what it means to vote, does my vote matter, may be more appropriate for older kids; or at least older youth may be able to wrestle with these ideas at a higher level than younger youth. A theory of developmental relationships talks about how adult-youth relationships should develop and change as youth get older. At the beginning of such a relationship, the adult has most of the power, but the relationship should gradually shift as the child gets older and is less dependent. Civic development makes a lot of sense in these later years as a child is developing autonomy.

Remake Learning: How is learning in general different in afterschool settings than in school?

TA: I think probably one of the most important differences is that kids are not required to be there in most cases. Afterschool learning is more voluntary the older kids get, especially high school. In my own research, I asked 1,200 kids “did an adult require you to be here?” Only 25 percent of kids in high school say yes, whereas it was 75 percent in elementary school. That changes the nature of the learning experience.

Kids will show up to school, even if they are bored sometimes; after that, they vote with their feet. The challenge is to make these programs interesting and engaging enough to promote learning.

Remake Learning: Youth tend to drop out of afterschool programs when they hit their teen years. Why? What can afterschool providers do to better reach them?

TA: Older kids have more choices. They get jobs, take care of younger kids. There’s more competition for their time. The YouthPlaces afterschool program has more than a dozen sites, with an average participant age of 16. They have been very effective in keeping teens engaged. Some of the Boys and Girls Clubs recruit when the kids are young, and they stay with the clubs until graduation.  A lot of research points to successful programs having strong adult participation, where kids connect with a particular staff member or adult.

Remake Learning: What has been the most surprising finding in your recent work?

TA: On the very first day of interviews for a local project, we asked a handful of kids who had been coming to a program for a long time why they kept coming. Half of them said “because things have changed and grown since I started coming here. Now I’m at the top, other kids look up to me.” Support for their growth and maturation was really important to the kids.

I think there are a lot of programs for high-school-aged youth that are doing civic engagement in a new way that is really promising.Some have adult-youth partnerships where kids help make decisions that adults normally make, asking kids what activities they should offer, how they should spend our money, never hiring someone without the youth team interviewing and approving them. Involving youth in such decisions will give kids these powerful opportunities to learn about civic engagement and implications of decisions.

The Heinz Endowments has a summer youth philanthropy program. Participants work 35 hours a week for a month learning about philanthropy and doing their own grant making. They focus on issues like water quality in Pittsburgh, learn about the issue, issue an RFP, and have money they can grant.

Right now we really segregate kids by age and don’t give kids to a chance to participate in the adult world. Education is everybody’s business. If we move toward a connected learning model where kids are more integrated into the adult world, greater civic engagement could be one of the outcomes.