Shields, Sara Scott, Rachel Fendler, and Danielle Henn. “A Vision of Civically Engaged Art Education: Teens as Arts-Based Researchers.” Studies in Art Education 61(2) (2020): 123-141: DOI: 10.1080/00393541.2020.1740146.


Civic engagement includes a focus on identifying societal and political structures and encompasses how young people understand themselves as civic agents capable of starting and sustaining change. Literature exploring the goals of art education in K–12 schools can support the civically-engaged goal of recognizing students as change makers. Working in collaboration with local teenagers, researchers engaged in a weeklong art camp that facilitated teens’ inquiry into the legacy of foot soldiers in the civil rights movement in Tallahassee, Fla. Participants explored the people, places and events that mobilized the community as they made connections with current events and created a collective portrait of change makers. Researchers explored the question: How might positioning teenagers as arts-based researchers create an opening for young people to be civically-minded critical thinkers and makers?

Key Findings:

  • Researchers found three recurring ways that students functioned as arts-based researchers: material reflection, embodied practice and historical relevance.

Significance of the Findings:

Researchers suggest that fostering multimodal artistic practices might contribute to civically-engaged practices among young people. This occurs by creating curricular opportunities that guide young people to act as arts-based researchers. The work of the students in the summer camp met the tenets of asset-based curricula, and these practices may contribute to more equitable learning environments. These methods can provide an asset-based approach to civically engaged art curricula to help engender individual agency and can support students in identifying and utilizing their strengths to guide their learning experiences. These three approaches of material reflection, embodied practice and historical relevance emerged as recurring values that hold potential for designing curricula focused on civic skills.


This project worked by positioning students as researchers (SAR). SAR projects support civic engagement, as they aim to advance research and school practice while also supporting student agency. In SAR projects, the researcher provides opportunities for student voice, especially for those whose voices have been underrepresented. The project was centered around a group of civil rights activists known as the Tallahassee Foot Soldiers. The intent of the program was to connect a group of students to this history by exploring local historic sites. Researchers designed the camp around firsthand experiences and primary sources: walking the city, visiting the state archives and interviewing community members. Data included observations, artifacts, project outcomes and student interviews from the camp experience. The written data were initially analyzed using structural coding. As the researchers were interested in curriculum development, they coded the data as having intellectual, participatory or dispositional civic skill outcomes. While the written data were coded, the visual data from the field guides and the final artworks were analyzed using analytic memoing. The research team looked at the process thinking from the field guides alongside the final pieces. The analytic memos focused on the connections between the civic skill outcomes and the participants’ artistic decision making.

Limitations of the Research:

This study was small in scale, scope and sample size. Additionally, the study looked at an informal learning environment, and researchers made recommendations for formal learning environments. While these two educational environments share some commonalities, researchers realize that the kinds of experiences made possible in informal spaces are not always possible in formal spaces, like K-12 schools.

Questions to Guide New Research:

  • How might a civics education curriculum use art to become responsive to and inclusive of the communities it serves?