Accessibility statement

Youth Activism, engagement and the development of new civic learning spaces

The relationships between youth activism, engagement and education are vitally important in the current context in which the pressures of globalization and populism are emerging from and fuelling a volatile social and political environment. Our International Networking Project (funded by the Leverhulme Trust between July 2016 and June 2019) explored ideas, issues and practices that explore this field.

There are well-established debates around the role of education. For some there is a virtuous circle between education and engagement. Well-qualified people are more likely than others to understand and play a constructive role in democratic societies and outside school, people will continue to learn. But for others, the picture is not so positive. If schools and individual teachers insist that students should become involved in particular causes for specific purposes, when do we need to draw the line? When would we suggest that indoctrination is being attempted? And what happens when those young people become actively involved in the ‘real’ world beyond school? Is it possible that education is the last thing on the minds of most activists?

In our project, we produced extensive literature reviews and held seminars, organized academic conferences and public events and published articles for academics and exemplar material for professionals. We focused on 6 countries: Australia, Canada, England, Hungary, Lebanon, and Singapore. These countries did not represent simplistic types but allowed us to explore a wide range of perspectives regarding post-colonialism, democracy, socialism and so on.

Broadly, we argue that education and engagement may be characterized through an elaboration of 2 types of relational capacities. The first is societal in that it involves capacities which are about how youth understand and relate to their communities. This is largely a vertical relationship highlighting citizen to state, and involving an understanding of context and making meaning. Knowledge is vital, but we argue for the need to go beyond teachers providing simplistic political messages, information about civics structures and arguing about ‘issues’. Instead, we argue for a conceptual framework and a situational approach. In addition to knowledge of political processes, central elements of contextual understanding include an awareness of key historical and socio-political factors, the presence of ongoing and new social injustices (including the varied means of redressing these), understanding one’s own contexts and appreciating the contexts of others. We wish to educate by developing an appreciation and appraisal of key salient features of a given situation, on the basis of which young people whether to act (or, indeed decide not to act), in which ways to act, and why. This allows for a form of education that promotes understanding and does so in action-related ways that start from where young people are, their lives, their interests and their possibilities. It allows for motivational content in which there is dynamic meaning making. We perceive the emergence of a new political subjectivity, characterized as reflexive individualism (distinct from neoliberal conceptualizations of individualism). Through our work we have identified new paradigms that offer innovative ways of thinking about how citizenship is understood outside of Western contexts.

We also emphasize the interpersonal, i.e., those (largely horizontal – citizen to citizen) capacities which are about how youth understand and relate to other people. This involves working with others (not on them, for them etc.). We do not wish to promote a form of engagement that relies excessively on moralising or on justice that is defined principally by reference to law. We wish to recognize the vital significance of caring for each other and wish to do so in ways that recognize structural inequalities as well as more and less appropriate forms of justice-related group and individual behaviours. A fundamental and recurring aspect of our activities has been the importance placed on reflexivity. Broadly speaking, reflexivity refers to the examination of one’s own feelings, motivations, actions and how these can and do influence actions and others around us. Our argument is that it makes sense to speak of reflexive individuals, groups and communities.

Visit out project outcomes webpage for an overview of our activities and outputs in more detail.


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To contact us about the project outcomes


Department of Education
University of York
York, YO10 5DD

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