Diversity and Democracy

Public Sphere Pedagogy: Engaging Students as Participants in Democracy

In Democracy and Education, John Dewey describes the role of a “spectator” as distinct from that of a “participant” (1916, 146). While a spectator is “like a man (sic) in a prison cell watching the rain out of the window” (146), a participant is like a man who has planned a picnic and must consider how, since he cannot influence the weather, he will adapt his plans in light of the rain. While the participant engages in “life activities,” the spectator is unnaturally sequestered from those activities, which depend for meaning and form on the fact that “self and world are engaged with each other in a developing situation” (148). At California State University–Chico (CSU–Chico), faculty and staff are working to engage students as participants in democratic practice. In the first-year general education curriculum, we do this through an approach we call public sphere pedagogy.

Theoretical Frameworks

Public sphere pedagogy (PSP) is a teaching approach that moves students’ usual work of research and writing into public arenas for dialogue and action planning. Building on the work of John Dewey, PSP draws additional insights from learning theorists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, who argue that learning takes place not through teaching but through situated participation in communities of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991; Wenger 1998). A key feature of such communities is mutual engagement, which occurs when members work together on shared endeavors using, negotiating, or creating practices that all agree are valuable in achieving the community’s purposes and maintaining its effectiveness (Wenger 1998, 73; Wenger 2000, 227). In PSP, research and writing are fundamental to community engagement and democratic participation.

While Lave and Wenger do not directly explore the potential relationships between participatory learning in a community of practice and participation in a democracy, Dewey explicitly links his similar understanding of learning to “the Democratic Ideal.” As Dewey points out, “[a] democratic community [is] more interested than other communities have cause to be in deliberation and systematic education…. A democracy … is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience” (1916, 101). Worthwhile “educational aims” for Dewey include attention to the “democratic criterion of every growing experience” as opposed to “external aims” imposed by teachers and others in positions of authority (126–27).

Dewey’s and Lave and Wenger’s theories call into question traditional methods of education that cast individuals as observers—not agents or participants—in their own learning processes. In classrooms where teachers and books are the only authoritative sources of information, they suggest, neither learning nor democracy is helped. Recognizing that college students, particularly first-year college students, frequently occupy the role of observers in their survey classes or large lecture courses, faculty engaged in PSP work seek to provide students with arenas, means, and reasons for public participation. Through this approach, faculty support students’ learning and encourage their informed and effective participation in a democracy.

Far-Reaching Practice

CSU–Chico’s First-Year Experience (FYE) Program supports faculty in developing public experiences relevant to their course aims and coordinates logistics for public sphere events. As of 2011, virtually all of CSU–Chico’s 2,500 entering students participate in at least one FYE-supported PSP experience during the first academic year. Through simple but meaningful shifts in classroom practice, PSP creates avenues for heightened interest, direct participation, and deliberative discussion. Faculty who decide to use the PSP model agree to do four things: (1) connect a sequence of assignments requiring inquiry, research, and writing to current issues of public concern; (2) embed in class meetings some focus on a “public sphere event” occurring near the end of the semester; (3) require all students to participate in a public sphere created for a specific course or courses; and (4) participate in assessments to determine the impact of the public sphere work on students. Most first-year students encounter PSP through general education courses connected to two specific public sphere events, the CSU–Chico Town Hall Meeting and the Chico Great Debate, although faculty have developed many smaller PSP events on topics like sustainability, economics, and philosophy.

Sponsored in its early years by the Bringing Theory to Practice Project, the Town Hall Meeting began in 2006 as an experiment in several sections of the required first-year academic writing course. To prepare for participation in this new public forum, students in these sections worked on individual research projects, engaging with peers in discussions about a variety of global, national, and regional issues that they selected based on personal interest. About 120 students and sixty other participants (most from the CSU–Chico campus) participated in the first Town Hall Meeting, surprising event organizers with their fervent response. Faculty who had not embedded a Town Hall experience in their writing classes but who had attended the first event wanted their classes included in the next iteration. In 2009, the event moved from the Department of English to the Department of Political Science, where it now engages 1,200 to 1,400 students each year.

By design, the Town Hall Meeting appeals to and involves students in multiple ways. An opening plenary session featuring both the university president and a student keynote speaker makes the important point to participants that we are many—and together, we can do meaningful work. The rest of the event is entirely participatory. Students move to breakout sessions of about twenty-five participants, including expert consultants (typically community members from local government offices, nonprofit organizations, or K–12 schools) and a moderator (often a graduate student or faculty member). After these breakout sessions, participants move to smaller roundtables, where they work with expert consultants to develop action plans that some students may implement in subsequent semesters through internships offered through the Office of Civic Engagement.

In written reflections completed after the Town Hall Meeting, students often highlight the importance of engaging in dialogue with others about shared concerns over public issues. As a forum for “deliberative learning”—a paradigm developed by Michael McDevitt and Spiro Kiousis—the Town Hall Meeting provides needed opportunities for “dialogic participation in which citizens engage in the interpersonal construction of knowledge and the sharing of diverse perspectives through reciprocal exchanges” (McDevitt and Kiousis 2006, 248). Students comment that the Town Hall Meeting helps them understand why issues-focused discussions can be interesting and can help them connect with others who can “help make a difference.”

The Chico Great Debate provides similar opportunities for deliberative learning by inverting the approach of the Town Hall Meeting. Where the Town Hall Meeting brings community members to campus for dialogue, the Chico Great Debate situates two thousand students from our campus and Butte Community College in spaces associated with our local government: City Hall, the Old Municipal Building, the City Council Chambers, and the Chico City Plaza. Since spring 2010, the Great Debate has opened at nine in the morning and concluded by nine at night. Campus and community members join students for speeches, panel presentations, debates, an interactive “civic expo” of student-created displays and activities, and a series of discussion groups focused on an umbrella topic selected for its potentially divisive nature by a group of faculty, students, and city government members. Within the broad topic—which has focused on issues like diversity and discrimination, water and agriculture policy, government spending and taxation, freedom of speech, education reform, immigration reform, and legalization of marijuana—students develop research projects tailored to their interests. Students in CSU–Chico’s required first-year oral communication courses must spend a total of two hours at the Great Debate—but many never leave once they arrive.

All presentations during the Great Debate include question and answer sessions, frequently featuring pointed exchanges where students learn to hold firm to or revise their views based on evidence. For example, at the most recent Great Debate, an audience member asked a student who had presented on police uses of racial profiling if white people were not racially profiled by the police. The student speaker, a first-generation, first-year Latino student, paused for a moment before answering that his research indicated that police disproportionately stop and frisk, detain, or arrest black and Hispanic individuals. The student offered to meet with the questioner to share his research. Appearing surprised and then pleased, the questioner thanked the speaker. As every moderator and facilitator reminds participants at the start of each session, the day’s goal is for participants to engage each other with civility across strongly held differences of opinion and experience. The students frequently demonstrate greater capacities for civility than faculty or community members, who sometimes have to be reminded that it is possible to express differing views forcefully, yet respectfully.

Adaptable Approaches

Faculty from as far away as Cleveland, Ohio, and as close as Shasta, California, have visited CSU–Chico to see the Town Hall Meeting or Great Debate and talk with our students and faculty about their PSP experiences. Our advice to these visitors hoping to launch their own PSP programs is always to “start small” by finding a few partners in the faculty and community with whom to collaborate. The public sphere that these partners construct need not be large; in fact, FYE has supported faculty working with as few as forty students at a time. What matters most is that the spaces allow for dialogue that includes people with diverse views and that positions students as full participants in conversation and action planning. We also encourage others to include post-event debriefing sessions where students and teachers can clarify what they learned, what challenged them, and what was exciting about taking their coursework into a dialogic public space.

Assessment of CSU–Chico’s PSP programs conducted over many years indicates positive outcomes. Students are more likely to persist in college when they have had a Town Hall experience (see fig. 1), an effect that has reduced—and sometimes flattened or inverted—the so-called “achievement gap” between white students and students of color on our campus. Because all students participate in the Great Debate, we have no comparison group for this event, but post-event survey data show that students experience improvements in areas related to civic engagement, such as motivation to “become a community leader,” interest in “participating in a community action program,” and belief that they have the capacity to “influence political structures.”


As one student who had participated in both events said, “Now we know why you teachers want us to do research. Why didn’t you tell us sooner?” This comment suggests that participation in PSP events not only causes learning, but also motivates it. Following PSP work, students often describe a new interest in research and an improved belief in their capacity to contribute to the communities where they live. They see these elements as connected: a contributing community member is an informed community member.

Thus at CSU–Chico, PSP has helped remove students from the “spectator” role that Dewey bemoaned and provided them with opportunities to use their course-based research. The shift from observers to participants is an important one for students. As one faculty member said after a Town Hall Meeting, “This is a clear example of student-centered learning at its best…. In [learning from each other, students] make the study of politics come alive and become something real in their lives.”


Dewey, John. 1916. Democracy and Education. Norwood, MA: Macmillan Company.

Lave, Jeanne, and Etienne Wenger. 1991. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

McDevitt, Michael, and Spiro Kiousis. 2006. “Deliberative Learning: An Evaluative Approach to Interactive Civic Education.” Communication Education 55 (3): 247–64.

Wenger, Etienne. 1998. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2000. “Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems.” Organization 7 (2): 225–46.

Thia Wolf is professor of English and director of the First-Year Experience Program at California State University–Chico.

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