What Can Be Done to Encourage Civic Engagement in Youth?


Carole L. Hahn


What can be done to encourage civic engagement in youth? The observations here draw on a ten-year study of citizenship education that I conducted in five countries: Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States.1 Each country has had universal suffrage and public education since at least early in the 20th century. Their populations, while unique, share many civic beliefs and values, including the importance of citizen participation and respect for individual rights.2

Beginning in 1985, I sampled secondary schools from among the different types of schools prevalent in each country and within its different regions. I collected data in approximately 50 schools across the five nations, administering questionnaires to almost 4000 adolescents ages 14-19. The questionnaires contained scales to measure student political attitudes concerning interest, trust, and efficacy (the belief that citizens can influence decisions); student political behaviors, such as following the news and discussing politics; and student perceptions as to whether the classroom climate encouraged them to express their beliefs about controversial issues.

I also made visits to the participating schools to observe their equivalents of American social studies classes. I paid particular attention to the “classroom climate,” that is, the extent to which students discuss public policy issues, especially those that are controversial, and the atmosphere in which such discussions occur. Further, I conducted interviews with teachers and students. I asked about course content, methods, and purposes. I asked for teacher perceptions of student attitudes and the context that might influence them. Additionally, I asked about teacher philosophies with regard to handling controversial issues.


Issues-centered Education in Five Democracies

This study of citizenship education across five democracies indicates that when students frequently discuss controversial issues in their classes, when they perceive that several sides of issues are presented and discussed, and when they feel comfortable expressing their views, they are more likely to develop attitudes that foster later civic participation than do students without such experiences.3 Here are glimpses into the ways teachers in each nation used elements of issues-centered content and pedagogy and took steps to promote an open classroom climate.


The law governing Danish folkeskoler, which pupils attend through the 9th or 10th grade, requires that the school model democracy.4 In order to prepare citizens for democratic participation, folkeskole students are given numerous opportunities for decision making. In weekly class meetings, students from the first grade on discuss and resolve classroom and school problems, hear from and advise their representative to the student council, and, from eighth grade on, decide on topics to be studied in social studies and other subjects. Student councils have a budget, and two of their members serve along with parent and teacher representatives on the school council.

Danish students select the topics they will study in social studies/social science classes within the broad directive that twenty-five percent of their course should be spent on each of four areas: sociology, politics, economics, and international relations. Students in one 9th-grade class chose to study the war in the Balkans, racism in Europe, and the 1996 presidential election in the United States. Older students who attend a gymnasium similarly make choices about their studies; in the classes I visited, students were studying a variety of topics, from Denmark’s welfare system to political parties and elections. Moreover, social science is not the only subject in which students are involved in selecting topics. One class explained to me that they had chosen to study the French Revolution in history, football (soccer) in sports, environmental chemistry in chemistry, and particular novels in English class.

Further, national law requires Danish gymnasium students to conduct at least one group investigation during each of their three years of secondary school. At one school, students told me that in the first year, they did a group research project in their Danish class, in the second year in history, and in the third year in social science. One class did research on topics related to socialization; another class researched aspects of the then-upcoming referendum on the Maastricht Treaty and Denmark’s participation in the European Union. One teacher, Jonas, told me that in collecting and analyzing data and writing up their findings, students were expected to “give arguments for each of several positions and be able to critique them all.”

Another gymnasium teacher, Henriette, explained that the gymnasium law requires teachers to teach in a “pluralistic way,” presenting many sides to issues. She further explained,

We’re supposed to use controversial issues as a point of departure, work from the issue (in the news) to the topic, such as theories of democracy. For example, if there is a controversy in a newspaper article on welfare policies, start with that and then go to the basis of the welfare state.


Secondary students in Germany attend a Hauptschule, Realschule, Gymnasium, or Gesamtschule.5 One issues-centered pedagogical strategy that I frequently observed in German social studies/ social science classes was asking students to identify (often on the board at the front of the class) arguments for and against a particular position, and then to explain their reasons for preferring one position or another. Issues that I saw discussed in this manner included proposed changes in Germany’s asylum law, the unification of East and West Germany, prohibition of extremist groups, proposed changes in the abortion law, animal use in medical experiments and cosmetic testing, direct election of mayors, and proposals to lower the ages for voting and for driving (from 18 to 16).

During the Pro-Contra (for-against) discussions, students heard several sides of issues and were encouraged to express their views on public policies. These discussions appeared to encourage many students to speak, in contrast to many recitation lessons I observed where only a few students explained points being made in texts. There was also more student-to-student interaction during the pro-contra discussions than during the recitation lessons.

The classroom climate in the German classes I visited tended to be serious, yet relaxed. Teachers frequently asked students questions to ensure they had correctly understood ideas in texts they read, and they occasionally asked students to express their views on topics under study. Although gymnasium teachers felt pressure to cover material that might be on the university entrance exam (the Abitur), the teachers I met also thought it was important for students to develop skills and attitudes needed by citizens of a democracy.

I observed Mrs. Meyer lead a discussion of a proposal to change the voting age in Lower Saxony from 18 to 16. Acting as a moderator in the Pro-Contra discussion, she encouraged students to respond to one another with respect, bringing as many students as she could into the conversation and preventing a few from dominating. Mrs. Meyer periodically asked some students to elaborate on a point to explain their reasoning further, to comment on whether they agreed or disagreed with what had previously been said, and to consider points not previously mentioned. While maintaining a supportive atmosphere, Mrs. Meyer was careful to press students to ground their views in careful logic, solid evidence, and relevant values.

United States

Social studies teachers in the United States appeared to use a greater variety of activities than did teachers in the other countries I visited, and to give tests more frequently. I observed simulations, games, videos, small group tasks, and guest speakers. The varied activities did not necessarily deal with issues, but sometimes they did. I observed more frequent discussions of current events and the assignment of research papers in the United States than in the four European countries. Both techniques often stimulated students to inquire into or discuss controversial issues.

Topics for research papers in government, economics, and law classes included capital punishment, gay rights, affirmative action, gun control, and immigration policies. Sometimes topics were stated as questions: Should executions be televised? Should there be term limits? Should publicly-funded art be censored? In some classes, students did research and wrote reports on propositions and candidates who would be voted upon in an upcoming election. In contrast to the tradition in Denmark of a group of students using the community library and conducting surveys, students in schools I visited in the United States were more likely to work as individuals and conduct their research in the school media center.

Mr. Stanton began his United States history classes, which contained many recent immigrants, with a “conversation.” Sitting on a high stool in a relaxed manner at the front of the room, he would pose a question to students to solicit their opinions. After several minutes of listening to various student opinions and justifications, Mr. Stanton would make a transition to the topic of the day in the history course. Each day, he also gave students a brief writing task that typically required them to express their opinion on a historic or contemporary issue—for example, a state proposition to restrict welfare and other social services to legal residents.

Many teachers and students in the American social studies classes I visited reported discussing current events. I was particularly struck by the frequency with which students reported that formerly they had not been interested in current events. However, as a consequence of the current events discussions which their teacher led, they told me, “Now I watch the news,” “Now I understand what is happening,” and “Now I am interested.”

The Netherlands and England

In contrast to the first three countries, England and the Netherlands have historically not emphasized citizenship education. Still, I did meet a few teachers who used aspects of issues-centered teaching. Mrs. de Vries, a Dutch maatschappijleer (similar to social studies) teacher, began each new topic by asking students to express their views on a related contemporary issue. She also concluded units by encouraging students to take action on issues they cared about. Consequently, after a unit on human rights, some of her students wrote letters to officials in the United States expressing their views on capital punishment and others wrote to leaders in Turkey about treatment of its Kurdish minority. After a unit on the multicultural society, students signed pledges not to be racist. Another Dutch teacher, Mr. de Witt, took his students to visit Parliament. While there, they met with leaders of several political parties and expressed their views on issues that they had studied in maatschappijleer.

In England, Mrs. Judd’s Sixth Form (16-to 18-year-olds) General Studies students heard guest speakers on two consecutive weeks present conflicting views on nuclear energy. Students in the religious education classes I visited in England discussed their personal religious beliefs, abortion, animal rights, and racism. Many had studied about various religious groups’ views on social issues. In personal and social education, students discussed health issues and societal prejudice. In geography classes, students studied environmental issues, foreign aid, and third world economic development. Regardless of the subject, most classes on most days concluded with students writing a short essay in their exercise books on the topic of the day. Additionally, in the English schools I visited, student councils often conducted charity drives.



The schools in this research study were not nationally representative samples, and its findings cannot be generalized to the wider population of students within these countries. My purpose instead was to illuminate the complex process of youth political development in differing contexts and to provide insights to social studies educators hoping to improve their own practice. My research across these five countries generally supports earlier studies.6

My answer to the question with which this brief article began is this: to encourage civic engagement, the school curriculum should give students ample opportunity to discuss controversial issues in the classroom and to consider multiple positions and viewpoints on these issues—and all this within an “open” classroom climate that helps students feel comfortable expressing themselves.



1. Carole L. Hahn, Becoming Political: Comparative Perspectives on Citizenship Education (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998).

2. Denmark, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands are constitutional monarchies; Germany and the United States are federal systems with the prime responsibility for education being at the state level; the four European countries are parliamentary democracies. Denmark and the Netherlands have more than ten political parties and use proportional representation at all levels of government. The United States and the United Kingdom have “majority take al#148; systems with two dominant parties. Germany has a mixed system. For other similarities and differences, see Hahn.

3. An open classroom climate alone is not sufficient to develop positive political attitudes. For example, school environment, family orientations, the media, and the wider political culture mediate the effects of classroom climate.

4. Danish students attend a folkeskole from grade 1 through 9 or 10. They begin taking history and geography lessons (separate subjects) in the primary years, and add another social studies subject in the 7th grade. Secondary students may attend a 3-year gymnasium, in which they might take a course in social science in addition to one in history.

5. Hauptschulen, Realschulen, and Gymnasien end with grades 9, 10, and 11, respectively, and are progressively more academic. Gesamtschulen, or comprehensive secondary schools, exist in only a few states. Courses like social studies or social science have varied titles in different states.

6. See the review in my article, “Research on Issues-centered Social Studies,” in R. W. Evans and D. W. Saxe, eds., Handbook on Teaching Social Issues (Washington, DC: NCSS, 1996); for twenty-four national case studies of civic education, see J. Torney-Purta, J. Schwille, and J.A. Amadeo, Civic Education Across Countries: Twenty-four National Case Studies from the IEA Civic Education Project (Amsterdam: International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, 1999).


Dr. Carole Hahn is professor of educational studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and a past president of National Council for the Social Studies.