Critical Civic Inquiry: Student-Centered Learning

By University of Colorado and Rowan University

The study has concluded. Read about their data collection, findings and implications for educators and counselors in the field.

Led by Rowan University and University of Colorado, this study investigated two areas of student-centered learning: “How students can be supported to take “ownership” of their learning” and “How learning can occur anytime, anywhere.” The research studied an approach to student-centered learning that we call Critical Civic Inquiry (CCI).

CCI draws on the inquiry cycle in participatory action research (PAR), which includes students identifying a compelling problem or challenge related to equity, studying that problem through original research, and then advancing their ideas by sharing their work with school leaders, policymakers or other public audiences. The goal of CCI is to support student agency and ownership by inviting them to participate in creating more equitable structures in their schools and communities.

What is Critical Civic Inquiry?

CCI is based on a combination of equity-centered commitments and evidence showing that students from historically marginalized groups engage in school when they see academic work as relevant to their everyday lives, have opportunities for agency and voice in their classrooms, and participate with adults in making their schools better (Sawyer, 2015; Thiessen & Cook-Sather, 2007). This approach to student-centered learning is designed to address marginalization by centering the life experiences, funds of knowledge, and aspirations of youth of color from low-income communities, while also creating opportunities that expand their knowledge and skills as leaders and agents of change (Paris & Alim, 2014). The four core practices of CCI are:

  • Sharing power with students
  • Exploring critical questions
  • Participatory research
  • Structured presentations to the public


These connect to the student-centered learning arena “how students can be supported to take ownership of their learning.” Specifically, practices associated with sharing power are designed to foster student ownership of and accountability for their learning by fostering a deeper sense of belonging and connections with their teachers and peers.

Critical conversations support agency by ensuring that course topics are relevant to students’ lives. Participatory Action Research offers an inquiry cycle that youth pursue in teams, leading to increases in sense of agency, teamwork, and self-regulation. Lastly, through the CCI cycle students are empowered to produce school-level policy changes that make their learning environments more inclusive not only for themselves but also for future generations of students.

These four practices of CCI also address “learning anytime, anywhere”  by examining CCI processes and outcomes in two distinct institutional contexts: Denver Public Schools (DPS)  and Philly Student Union (PSU). The research team’s partner in DPS, Student Voice and Leadership, offers a CCI model in which students take elective classes during the school day taught by school teachers complemented by bi-weekly evening meetings that bring students from across the district together with community leaders and community-based instructors.

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. Each of these groups shares a focus on engaging young people in equity-oriented school improvement that builds on youths’ assets and knowledge. They differ, however, in terms of their institutional home and timing during the school day. These differences will enable the researchers to study strengths associated with each context that can inform future iterations of student-centered learning initiatives.

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