Fueling the Fire: A Phenomenological Exploration of Student Experiences in Democratic Civic Education

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This study explores the lived experience of civic education for middle school students. It is grounded in the tradition of hermeneutic phenomenology as guided by Heidegger (1962), Gadamer (1960/2003), Casey (1993), and Levinas (1961/2004), among others. I use van Manen's (2003) framework for conducting research for action sensitive pedagogy in which I follow six tenets including turning to the nature of lived experience, investigating experience as we live it, hermeneutic phenomenological reflection and writing, maintaining a strong and oriented relation and balancing the research context by considering parts to whole. By calling forth the philosophical and methodological tenets of hermeneutic phenomenology, I endeavor to uncover the lived experience of civic education as well as what it means to be a teacher as civic education.

A class of twenty-nine students are taped as they engage in discussions, debates, a Simulated Congressional Hearing, and other lessons related to civic education in a social studies class. Their reflective writing about their learning is used as well. Twelve students self-select to engage in conversations about their experiences. These conversations along with the taped class sessions are transcribed and used to uncover themes essential to their experience of civic education in the social studies classroom.

Two central existential themes of lived body and lived relation emerge from this inquiry. The importance of embodying one's learning, as well as connecting to one's society, are apparent. When they are face-to-face with the Other in group activities, debates, games, and simulations, students are afforded the opportunity to experience what is fundamental in a democracy, including their ethical and moral obligation to the Other. The students' learning through their corporeal and relational experience create the civil body politic of the classroom and inform their behavior outside in society.

These insights from this study may inform curriculum theorists and developers, policy-makers, and social studies teachers. Recommendations are made to reconceptualize social studies in order for students to capitalize on their bodily and relational experiences within the classroom so that they may grow in their role as citizen. Students may then embody the ideals essential in civic education and democratic societies.