CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement)
conducts research on the civic and political engagement of young Americans.
The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement

Guest Post: Classroom Observation Tool to Measure Civic Opportunities

November 23rd, 2015
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In June, CIRCLE launched a new initiative to connect research and practice by hosting conversations fueled by views from the field. We were thrilled by the response to our first call for interest on guest posts about impact measures, which encourages perspectives from researchers and practitioners. Below is the third post in this series, which provides and explains an instrument for high school classroom observations. Please also see the first and second posts. Join us on Twitter and Facebook to discuss the content and implications, and keep an eye out for future posts and a culminating event for this series.

Classroom Observation Tool to Measure Civic Opportunities

Sigal Ben-Porath and Rand Quinn
with Gideon Dishon, Nimet Eren and Tom Szczesny

Schools are key contexts for providing future citizens with opportunities to develop their civic capacities. As public institutions, they are the main context in which the vast majority of the nation’s youth learn to interact with authority and with peers, to pursue ideas and projects respectfully with others, and to develop their opinions, their voices, and their ability to act publicly. Analyzing the practical aspects of these opportunities in classrooms and schools is an important research endeavor if we are to offer schools a set of tools for creating equal access to civic opportunities—the opportunity to develop the skills and dispositions necessary for becoming effective citizens.

The questions that guide our study are: How does school context shape civic engagement? Are some academic structures more conducive to shaping particular forms of civic participation? and, How do behavioral norms and disciplinary practices shape how students become civically minded? We are interested in measuring the impact of all of these elements—context, structure, and discipline—on the civic capacity of high school students. In our mixed methods study we examine pedagogical style, disciplinary practices, and extracurricular culture across two high schools—a public neighborhood school and a ‘no excuses’ charter school—serving the same community.[1] Beyond focus groups, surveys, and interviews, we needed a tool that would allow us to measure pedagogic and disciplinary practices in the classroom, specifically those related to best civic practices such as classroom discussion of current and controversial issues.[2]

With a team of five doctoral students, we devoted the 2014-2015 school year to developing, testing, and refining a tool for classroom observers. The tool is meant to allow observers to record teachers’ and students’ actions, focusing on those that contribute to the development of civic efficacy and capacity. Based on the research noted above, we assume that certain interactions represent opportunities realized or missed for micro-civic lessons. Disciplinary practices and enacted codes of conduct can create opportunities to respond to given rules and boundaries in an atmosphere of respectful order, and to experiment with breaking rules and bearing the consequences. Disciplinary practices can also create a stifling context where student voice is hardly heard, or on the other end, a lack of order that provides little opportunity to learn to abide by rules or interact properly with peers and authority. This one-page tool allows us to compare the availability of civic opportunities across classrooms and schools which, along with our field notes from classrooms, extracurricular activities and shared spaces—lunchroom, hallways, detention room, et cetera—helps us portray the civic landscape of the school.

The Observation Tool is divided into three sections. The first section underscores best practices for classroom deliberation.[3] The second section focuses on classroom interactions, including those that promote or inhibit the development of civic capacities.[4] The third section is based on a debriefing with the teacher, meant to invite her to situate the lesson within her overall plan. The tool also provides space for the observer to make general notes about the class.

The combination of quantitative and qualitative measures in our observation tool allowed us to compare the civic capacities nurtured in two very distinct school cultures and pedagogical approaches. To generate shared understanding and inter-rater reliability, the team developed definitions for each component of the tool. We devote a portion of our biweekly team meetings to discussing any coding dilemmas. We also conduct some observations in pairs to compare results and strengthen our shared understanding of the definitions. Researchers using this tool may need to consult the Civic Tool Definitions to support consistency of scoring. While some measure of subjectivity remains (for instance, the extent to which teacher responses to infractions are seen as supportive or redirective depends on the observer’s reading of the relations in the classroom), the definitions and scoring rubrics provide a rather coherent framework for conducting this research.

Although the tool was initially intended to measure classroom interaction, it can be used to observe interactions outside of the classroom as well. Participation in extracurricular activities has been consistently shown to increase civic engagement.[5] Developing the tool has enabled us to think more critically about opportunities for civic engagement in the lunchroom, hallway, detention, and extracurricular spaces.

While it may still evolve with use, this observation tool provides an important starting point for helping researchers consider methodically the practical ways in which teachers cultivate civic capacities in classrooms and schools, and about the contributions of school culture and disciplinary practices in shaping students as future citizens. Beyond its research use, our observation tool can be used to provide feedback to teachers and school leaders about the civic environment in their classrooms and buildings.

Observation Tool |  Tool Definitions

1. Goodman, J. F. (2013). Charter management organizations and the regulated environment. Is it worth the price? Educational Researcher, 42(2), 89-96; Thernstrom, A., & Thernstrom, S. (2004). No excuses: Closing the racial gap in learning. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

2. Hess, D. E., & McAvoy, P. (2014). The political classroom: Evidence and ethics in democratic education. New York, NY: Routledge; Gingold, J. (2013) Building an Evidence-Based Practice of Action Civics: The current state of assessments and recommendation for the future (CIRCLE Working Paper No. 78). Retrieved from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) website:; Gould, J. (2011). Guardian of democracy: The civic mission of schools. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, Annenberg Public Policy Center; Kahne, J., & Westheimer, J. (2014). Teaching democracy. In E. W. Ross (Ed.), Social studies curriculum: Purposes, Problems, and possibilities (pp. 353-374). Albany, NY: SUNY Press; Torney-Purta, J., Lehmann, R., Oswald, H., & Schulz, W. (2001). Citizenship and education in twenty-eight countries: Civic knowledge and engagement at age fourteen. Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

3. Hess, D. E., & McAvoy, P. (2014). The political classroom: Evidence and ethics in democratic education. New York, NY: Routledge.

4. Ben-Porath, S. (2013). Deferring virtue: The new management of students and the civic role of schools. Theory and Research in Education, 11(2), 111-128.

5. Youniss, J. (2011). Civic education: What schools can do to encourage civic identity and action. Applied Developmental Science, 15(2), 98-103.

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