News & Ideas  -  How an Art-Based Discussion Can Promote Democratic Citizenship among Youth


Saya Kakim, a graduate researcher at the Kettering Foundation, recently completed her dissertation, Engaged Approaches to Deliberative Civic Learning: Case Study of a Small Urban Middle School.

When we think of art as a medium for a discussion, we might not consider that an art-based pedagogical tool can advance youth’s capacity for democratic citizenship. Interestingly, a partnership between Kansas State University, K-State Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy, K-State Research and Extension, Kansas 4-H, the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, and a midwestern public middle school aimed to provide an opportunity for middle school students to engage with learning that emphasizes deliberative values through National Issues Forums (NIF) and visual thinking strategies (VTS). VTS is a student-centered, art-based pedagogical model that incorporates facilitated discussion about diverse art objects. As a part of the project’s leadership team, I was able to connect the engaged study’s research agenda to the interests and priorities of the multiple organizations.

Engaged Study Design

The purpose of the qualitative study was to describe gifted middle school students’ learning experiences in VTS integrated with NIF. The unit of analysis was gifted eighth-grade students’ experiences and their perceptions regarding their participation in VTS integrated with NIF during their time in middle school. A multidisciplinary conceptual framework, incorporating deliberative pedagogy, the constitutive role of communication, collective leadership, and social cognitive theory, guided the study. The descriptive, interpretive single case study design included a variety of data collection methods: nonparticipant observation, interviews, questionnaires, a focus group, curriculum and artifact analysis, field notes, forum transcripts, and thematic analysis.


The young participants had an opportunity to facilitate VTS sessions as well as NIF forums through Common Ground for Action online forums. The findings suggest that the students noticed (a) deeper reflective thinking, (b) greater perceived awareness of others’ perspectives, and (c) awareness of multiplicity through participation and facilitation in VTS and NIF. Regarding the students’ engagement with VTS, the students gained (a) greater perceived awareness of different ways of thinking and (b) a better understanding of others’ thinking, which can be explained by the multilayered and ambiguous nature of diverse artwork in the structured facilitation technique of VTS.


Even though the pandemic impacted the learning experience of young people, and the study sample is limited to cognitively advanced youth, the study’s findings suggest the importance of infusing the VTS model with NIF for early adolescents. The study also showed that developing and maintaining partnerships between multiple organizations such as youth development programs, organizations focused on deliberation and dialogue, art museums, and public schools can ensure high-quality deliberative civic learning curricula and positive experiences for early adolescents. Finally, it is crucial to create sustained conditions and learning opportunities for youth to engage in teamwork as well as with a broader community through considering local issues and implementing an action plan over time.