Critical Civic Inquiry: Empowering Students to Transform Their Communities

In 2008, Shelley Zion, Ben Kirshner and Carlos Hipolito-Delgado started the Critical Civic Inquiry Research Group. They create and study the conditions that lead to the sociopolitical development of young people, so that student voices are central in school and community reform efforts. With their partners in Denver, South Jersey and Philadelphia, the research team examines very specific questions within the larger justice-focused mission that guides their work.

The Critical Civic Inquiry research group’s project creates a context for looking at systems design in which individuals are empowered to take charge of their futures by directly contributing to the design of the systems that impact them. This process of collective design empowers individuals to exercise truly participatory democracy. It also creates spaces in which empowered, developed people reimagine educational systems to ensure those systems sufficiently address issues of equity, power or social reproduction.

Partnerships: The team engages in intentional, long-term and mutually beneficial research-practice partnerships with university, district and community organizations to create capacity for youth leadership in school and community reform.

Adults: The team trains, mentors and coaches educators to implement Critical Civic Inquiry, Youth Participatory Action Research and a rubric called the Measure of Youth Policy, funded by the Spencer Foundation. The objective is to build the critical consciousness of adults so that they can facilitate authentic youth and adult partnerships and incorporate sociopolitical development when working with youth.

Youth: The team supports their school and community partners’ work with youth by creating the tools that support youth sociopolitical development, action research and policy advocacy.

Outcomes: Schools and organizations commit to centering student voice; adults develop skills to share power, and youth become critically conscious actors who participate in the transformation of their schools and community. All the while, youth increase their academic and civic engagement as well as their efficacy and belonging.

The study investigated two areas of student-centered learning:
  1. How students can be supported to take ownership of their learning?
  2. How learning can occur anytime, anywhere?
In classrooms in the Denver Public Schools and the chapters of the Philadelphia Student Union, the team studied an approach to student-centered learning called Critical Civic Inquiry (CCI). CCI draws on the inquiry cycle in participatory action research (PAR), in which students identify a compelling problem or challenge related to equity, study that problem through original research and then advance their ideas by sharing their work with school leaders, policymakers or other public audiences. The goal of Critical Civic Inquiry is to support student agency and ownership by inviting them to participate in creating more equitable structures in their schools and communities. The key practices found in schools where Critical Civic Inquiry is prioritized are:
  • Sharing Power with Students: Educators make an effort to learn about young people’s lives and the kinds of knowledge they develop outside of school. Students experience some choice, within parameters set by the educator, related to curriculum and classroom activity. Students gain practice in how to make collaborative decisions. Sharing power is fundamentally a relational approach to teaching. This means that educators also share something of themselves: they locate themselves for their students and aim to be an ally for their students’ development
  • Exploring Critical Questions: Educators invite students to discuss topics related to race, ethnicity, power and privilege. For example: Why are AP classes in my school racially segregated? Why is this school in a food desert? How can ethnic studies classes be a vehicle for student learning and engagement? Critical conversations recognize that current conditions are not natural or inevitable. Such conversations open up the possibilities for what kinds of issues youth select to work on and feel comfortable discussing in a classroom setting.
  • Participatory Research: The centerpiece of Critical Civic Inquiry is an action research project where students study about an educational barrier at their school and then develop solutions to it. Students learn how to conduct and document interviews, administer surveys and perform archival research. They analyze data to identify patterns and themes. This process emphasizes student-centered learning, including initiative and planning, teamwork and collaboration, reasoning about data and communication.
  • Structured Presentations to the Public: Students formulate an evidence-based policy argument that they share with external audiences, including guests from outside the school walls. This is both an opportunity for institutional change and leadership development for students.
  • Authentic Youth-Adult Partnerships: Students work to create and strengthen partnerships with adults who will work with them to carry out proposed changes.

What are the effects of Critical Civic Inquiry on academic achievement, preparation for postsecondary education, and/or career and civic readiness of one or more marginalized populations?

In this section, researchers explain how they collected and analyzed data to determine whether there were measurable effects from Critical Civic Inquiry practices.

The research team carried out a mixed-methods study that utilized survey and qualitative data in the form of interviews, artifacts and observations at two different sites. Those sites, participants, survey instruments and qualitative data collection processes are described below.


At Denver Public Schools (DPS), the research team partnered with a group called Student Voice Leadership. Student Voice Leadership seeks to increase student voice and leadership opportunities for high school students in DPS through Challenge 5280, the Student Board of Education and the Young African American and Latinx Leaders programs. Approximately 300 students at 25 high schools take part annually in Student Voice Leadership programming.

In Philadelphia, researchers worked with the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU). PSU is an independent community organization that partners with Philadelphia public schools by leading school-based student chapters that meet after school to discuss and implement ways to improve their schools. Unlike the DPS site, there is no clear structure for the activities that will emerge in any given year from the chapters. Each campaign evolves as issues present, so that students may be working on presentations to school boards, challenges to policy, or organizing marches, protests and walkouts.

Student surveys

  • Demographic questionnaire: This was used to obtain information about participants so that various experiences in the program could be traced to different groups.
  • Sociopolitical self-efficacy: This was assessed using the Research and Action Self-Efficacy scale.
  • Leadership and responsibility experience: This was assessed using a modified version of the Leadership and Responsibility subscale of the Youth Experience Survey 2.0
  • Critical consciousness scale: This was measured by both the Critical Reflection: Perceived Inequality subscale and the Critical Action: Sociopolitical Participation subscale of the Critical Consciousness Scale.
  • Multigroup ethnic identity: This was assessed using the revised version of the multigroup ethnic identity measure.


To reveal how the Critical Civic Inquiry process was experienced by various participants and how context impacted the implementation and uptake of CCI, students, educators and stakeholders were interviewed twice per year. In Denver, 53 student and educator interviews were conducted; in Philadelphia, researchers completed 18 interviews.

Student artifacts

Researchers periodically collected student artifacts to assess student engagement and learning. These student artifacts included classroom-based assignments, student-developed research products, and student team meeting notes.


Researchers utilized path analysis for the question around the impact of Critical Civic Inquiry on student outcomes. This method of analysis allows researchers the ability to examine causal relationships among data at multiple levels.

The effects of critical civic inquiry: key finding and implications

Key Finding: Fostering youth leadership is essential to developing civically minded young people.
Researchers found that participation in Student Voice Leadership predicted both sociopolitical efficacy and sociopolitical action. Students who learned the skills of sociopolitical efficacy and critical reflection were more likely to take sociopolitical action. Based on the results of this study, it is important to provide classroom-based leadership opportunities if we seek to foster youth’s engagement in sociopolitical action.

Implications for educators

Participants who were given the opportunity to be leaders in the classroom or who felt that other students counted on them during activities reported greater sociopolitical efficacy. This finding is significant in that it points to the impact of a relatively simple instructional practice—such as allowing students to be leaders in small groups—on students’ sociopolitical efficacy.

For educators, this means transforming curriculum and structuring classrooms so that students can practice leadership skills in which they can voice their opinions, make active decisions in their learning and pursue avenues to impact changes to their school community.

Designed for educators to promote action civics in their classroom, the website also includes an assessment rubric and video examples that can be used to support students’ development of high-quality policy arguments.

What contextual factors contribute to these outcomes?

Data collection was the same for the second research question as stated above, but the purpose of collecting research shifted due to COVID-19. Researchers utilized survey data, interview responses, student artifacts and observational data to determine which contextual influences affected student agency and learning.

Data analysis and purpose shifts due to COVID-19

When schools closed, researchers also began collecting data on students’ experiences with distance learning. For the purposes of this study, researchers focused on data collected in the last two months of the 2019–2020 academic year (during the COVID-19 school shutdown) and focused solely on the student experience of distance learning. Specifically, researchers sought to understand the barriers encountered and support desired by students during distance learning.

  • Phase one: Three researchers reviewed all field notes, town halls, and student interviews to identify quotes or descriptions of student experiences related to the topic of distance learning and then identified key themes and codes.
  • Phase two: Researchers consolidated similar codes and themes. A fourth researcher served as an external reviewer for this process and suggested a reorganization of codes and a reinterpretation of the primary themes to better capture the experiences of students.
  • Phase three: All researchers collectively reviewed the data to ensure consistency of codes. Data were disaggregated (by school, student race and gender and data type) to assure that it accurately represented all student participants.

Contextual influences on student agency and learning: key findings and implications

A wholesale shift to distance learning is unprecedented in U.S. educational history and research on the barriers experienced by and needs of students is limited. Research that does exist on the shift to distance learning has largely focused on academic declines. This research study is one of the few studies to describe the experience of distance learning during COVID-19 from the lens of students.

  • Challenges: Students identified two major challenges during distance learning: issues related to online learning and issues outside of school. Students described difficulty in adjusting to online learning, a lack of rigor and relevance of schoolwork and technological inequities. Outside of school, students’ challenges related to health, finances and familial responsibilities.
  • Communication: Students frequently shared examples of poor communication between students and educators that led to missed classes, students not feeling understood and a sense of confusion. Generally, students described gaps in communication that made distance learning harder and more stressful.
  • Community: Students as a whole lamented a loss of community. In classroom observations, students routinely expressed concern for their classmates, many of whom they hadn’t seen or heard from in weeks.
  • Cultivating Principals as Allies: Students reported appreciation for school leaders who engaged with their ideas and took them seriously as leaders. Principals were key to seeing policy ideas adopted and sustained.
  • Online Learning: Students described several challenges related to distance learning, including adjusting to a new learning modality, confronting a lack of rigor and relevance in their work, and overcoming issues with access to technology.
  • Outside of School: The challenges with online learning, however, seemed to be superficial when compared to the issues that students faced outside of school. Students described challenges related to health, finances and familial responsibilities that negatively impacted their learning.
  • Student Needs: With the challenges they shared, participants also expressed their needs during online learning. Specifically, students described a need for community and a voice in district decision-making.
  • Student Voice: Once the shift to distance learning occurred, the students felt alienated from the decision-making process, both with day-to-day school decisions and rituals like prom, senior day and graduation.

Navigating pushback

Student teams reported a range of examples where they ran into conflict with adult leaders at their schools. Examples include principals being slow to respond to meeting requests, criticizing certain students for being too outspoken, or limiting student voice opportunities to apolitical actions such as school dances or spirit days.

In response to various types of resistance by adults, students tried a range of strategies, which are described below:

  • Seeking assistance: Researchers observed several examples where student leaders sought out just-in-time guidance from trusted mentors, including the director of the Student Voice Leadership program. Students asked activists advice on how to approach a school leader in a way that is professional and respectful without groveling or apologizing.
  • Perseverance and ownership: Students talked about the importance of perseverance and developing their confidence and agency to work through or around obstruction.
  • Speaking truth to power: Students described cases where they either wanted to speak honestly about their experiences with adults or they recounted moments when they had done so.
  • Peer leadership and mentoring: Although there was variation across sites, with student representatives having more or less leadership responsibility depending on the approach taken by the site, all took on some explicit responsibilities with regard to recruiting, orienting, mentoring and supporting new team members. This approach of prioritizing peer mentoring and peer leadership in cross-age teams, is central to Student Voice Leadership’s grassroots organizing strategy and its emphasis on student-powered change.

Implications for counselors who seek to support student agency, voice and power

  • Take an ecological perspective to understand context: Given their training in leadership and advocacy, school counselors are ideally placed to impact systemic change that might better allow students to reach their full potential. School counselors who are using an ecological perspective should learn and understand the context of distance learning and the barriers to learning it creates. They should take action at multiple systems levels to promote success for students.
  • Become the advocate students need and deserve​: Counselors should partner with youth to uncover educational barriers and advocate for changes in school policy and institutional practices. This type of youth-adult partnership will empower students to make positive changes in their school environments.

    In the role of advocate, the school counselor might also be a broker of communication between students and school staff. The school counselor can be a mediator to aid in conveying to educators students’ external responsibilities and their needs for support. The school counselor might also be proactive in educating school staff about the various responsibilities students have outside of school and the need for school personnel to be more understanding during school shutdowns.

Implications for educators and school leaders who seek to support student agency, voice and power

  • Build community: The first step is building a classroom community conducive to this work. If students don’t trust that the space will be safe, inviting and affirming, they likely will not share in discussions or connect with classroom activities.
  • Center youth lived experience​: A strong way to get students participating is to shift the academic spotlight to students’ lived experiences, providing a space for their precious knowledge. Focus not only on “academic material” but also on what students already know. Consider engaging members from the surrounding community or neighborhood in discussions that center and stretch pre-existing knowledge.
  • Create opportunities for student leadership in learning environments: Students get engaged when teachers share power by allowing youth to plan and facilitate activities, including discussions. In other words, teachers get out of their own way! If teachers want students engaged, they should allow youth the agency to develop and control the way that learning activities are designed and implemented
  • Denaturalize everyday forms of oppression and microaggresions: Both the Philadelphia Student Union and Denver’s Student Voice Leadership offered structured opportunities for young people to reflect critically on their everyday lives and the ways that institutions normalized oppressive practices. PSU, for example, did this by bringing young people together from different schools, creating opportunities for students to ask why there were metal detectors in some schools and not others, and developing critical analyses of the impact of police in schools.
  • Model and invite political action​: Adult organizers in the Philadelphia Student Union demonstrated radical forms of direct action and political speech and invited young people to speak their truths in the public square. They modeled an approach to civic engagement that eschewed respectability politics for more expressive and urgent demands for change.Similarly, several of the Student Voice Leadership coaches embraced an experiential approach to activism that encouraged students to take risks and claim power in interactions with adults. In our view, the most effective SVL coaches did not shield youth from challenging encounters with adults, but instead coached them behind the scenes and then offered spaces for reflection and analysis after.

What are the implications of this approach for the field, and for marginalized students in particular?

Critical Civic Inquiry offers an approach to student-centered learning that positions young people as agents of their own learning and, just as important, key players in making their schools and communities more equitable, culturally responsive and just. Supporting this work calls for engagement, self-awareness and learning by adults at all levels of our systems – classroom teachers, school leaders, community program leaders and civic decision-makers. CCI is an educational approach, yes, but it is not an intervention done to students; instead, it’s a coherent set of practices that calls for partnerships between youth and adults in the service of meaningful learning and systems change.

Funding for this study provided by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, Oak Foundation and Overdeck Family Foundation.

Photos courtesy of Celia Herrera / URBN Brands and University of Colorado – Denver School of Education and Human Development

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