Theoretical Framework:

Over seven years, we implemented a creative and collaborative process that used democratic thinking, employed our point of view of community-based work, and used the concept of “difference” as a way of forming dialogue for the public good. Years before the saga of the Trump Election and the Populist wave across nations, we had identified the politics of difference as the largest threat to democratic values along with the American Association of Colleges and Universities (The Crucible Moment).

As part of her work at the City University of New York Graduate Center Helen examined the structural elements and politics of identity that led to the revolution in Egypt (2011). After reviewing the academic literature in Political Science (Huntigton, 1968; Stone, 1966; Kurzman, 2004; Alla Al Aswany, 2011; Dreyfuss, 2011; Hussein, 1975; Iyad El-Baghdadi, 2011, 2013; Parsa, 1989; Mona El Ghobashy, 2011) Helen identified three critically important elements in the power shift from a ruling elite to mass participation: technology of communication, a focusing event (Tunisia), and tribulation (a shared narrative of struggle).

Jason had been studying Law and Idenity (see Medcalf, 1978 and Scheingold,2004) first from the field of political communication and then as a student at the University of Washington and in law school at Seattle University, a school with a mision of social justice.

We presented our early ideas at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (Presentation Title: “Democratic Discourse and Action in Courses: How Do You Actually Do It?”Annual Meeting, Association for Colleges & Universities, A Voice and a Force for Liberal Education in the 21st Century, Washington D.C., 2014.)

In 2012, I had utilized an educational framework for culturally responsive teaching (Wlodkowsi & Ginsberg, 2009) to assess whether the integration of digital tools (pre-OER) had an effect on critical participatory action research (Leggett, 2016). Through that research, I learned: 1) creative uses of technology allow for individuals to see the world in a new way; 2) digital tools move the burden of teaching and learning from me to the collective as a joint project; and 3) technology must be integrated into critical course work in the humanities so that students can engage with social, political, and legal institutions and behavior (Lane, 2016). This framework can also be used alongside transformative learning theory to develop a participatory methodology that emphasizes the process of learning as an interpretive event, not an isolated variable, in order to show causation of a particular set of learning outcomes related to content competencies. The problem is that linear, instrumental conceptions of causality are inadequate tools for explaining the dynamic, indeterminate, contingent, interactive processes of judgment, choice, and reasoned intentionality of people in action (McCann, 1996).

Specifically, I wanted to examine with my community partners and my learners exactly how we think about co-creating knowledge using digital tools. Digital + Critical Participatory Action Research provides a way to collect empirical data that can be analyzed to improve teaching. I wanted to facilitate an environment for radical or revolutionary education whereby students confronted political-legal institutions as co-researchers of injustice with the goals of individual and group action. I think it is important that educators who try to engage with emancipation through open education focus more on the constitutive relationship formed in the classroom using norms that promote participation and dialogue than on proving causal relationships between content and information processing. At the root this kind of open pedagogy is the objective to co-create knowledge, including what to dialogue about and research.
Like Maxine Greene, I agreed that “I wanted to release students to be personally present to what they see and hear and read” and to remind students and educators of the need to “develop a sense of agency and participation” (Greene, 1995, p. 104). In response, I moved away from the information delivery method — to students from educator — to a situation in which I had created an environment where institutional educator, community partners, and students could engage in dialogue to bring out our separate realities and understanding of our world around us through the video game design sequence. In a final note about methodology and the fusion of OER and D+CPAR, I quote Dr. Michelle Fine at length:

“Classic social science is measured, in part, by the extent to which “experts” consider the design and constructs to be valid. PAR stands on the epistemological grounds that persons who have been historically marginalized or silenced carry substantial knowledge about the architecture of injustice… in PAR collectives, these rugged deliberations are fundamental to method; a crucial element of question generating, data gathering, analysis, and conversations about products and actions” (Fine, 2007).

In reflection, I want to push the discussion about OERs and Open Pedagogy further toward the co-construction of knowledge. I believe D+CPAR allows this to happen, inside and outside of the classroom, on two levels: 1) the ability to co-create structured learning opportunities with students and community partners is built-in to the framework itself, which engenders transformational learning as a necessary process learning outcome; and 2) the digital aspect allows for a more objective measure of what is actually going on in the classroom and can be designed in such a way as to measure particular outcomes like civic engagement, better understanding of content, or specific interventions.

Constitutional Law for the 21st Century: a democratic dialogue approach.

By Helen Margaret-Nasser and Jason Leggett.

Images by Jay Wen and Sayfur R


Introduction to the collection.


Freedom of thought, essential to democracy, can be best evidenced in education through the practice of it in dialogue with others. We have designed this anthology as an extension of that dialogue about how civic change is possible and what challenges need to be overcome for everyone to be included in these changes.  We began the process of curriculum redesign in the fall of 2012 as relative outsiders to higher education. Although both of us had been active in civic learning and democratic engagement in a variety of informal educational settings we had not yet encountered the many challenges that confront formal educators in assessing both civic outcomes and understanding of course content. This anthology represents the culmination of our efforts as it relates to civic teaching and learning. What we found over this four year intensive study was that motivation matters, particularly when confronting big questions in democracy and modern challenges throughout the world. This text approaches motivation through a culturally responsive selection of readings and provides a framework to guide learners through the process.  We choose to categorize these generative themes as civic identity, agency, and advocacy.


We hope the learner may move more fluidly through this reader than traditional texts, both discovering and reflecting upon a variety of civic identities, but we also believe each section and reading may also be isolated and understood within this framework of civic motivation no matter where the learner finds themselves within the larger collection at any given time.   We begin with a mini-chapter which introduces the workflow of the text and models what we consider to be democratic dialogue. This was a key finding in our research and is supported by social movement research (Polletta, 1998); learners are better able to engage when their identity is seen through a prism of changing social structures and attitudes not a fixed ideal. In viewing the long arc of historical processes students are able to better make meaning of the world around them, both existing and emerging. Civic identity then contains what the learner believes of herself in relation to the readings and the larger processes they will see in reflection all around them.


Agency is often reflected in the political cartoon below: although everyone supports some change very few are engaged with change in their own lives and environments, particularly in thick social settings. Our experience informed us that this particular form of resistance is best overcome when learners can identify the challenge they wish to confront, are able to refer to others who have successfully overcome their own challenges, and are presented the tools and resources necessary to locate allies, begin the process of naming their actions, and provide space for reflection leading to action.


Advocacy is, for us, that moment of flow when the learner is able to apply their learning outside of the classroom, in the real world. We do not take this challenge lightly. While we know motivating learners outside of the classroom to engage with democratic issues is difficult we believe it is a pre-requisite for democratic teaching and learning in the 21st century. Democracy is not a spectator sport. Whether you believe the major global problems we face may be solved politically or socially, or whether you believe they cannot, each individual deserves the opportunity to decide for herself. To this end, we have provided a series of structured learning opportunities designed to elicit this transformative moment in your classroom or online setting through dialogue questions, short mini-research assignments, and a reflection within each section.


Throughout the text, we maintain two foundational research methods: 1) empirical political science (or social science broadly) research; and 2) critical participatory action research. It is our goal that teachers and learners engage with this research together. We have seen a wealth of knowledge that is co-created when learners are engaged with one another.  We have also seen a product, so to speak, that can emerge when learners take their knowledge out into their communities and the world at large. We believe that given the tools and context learners are best able to interrogate their roles as civic researchers, learning both responsibilities and rights, as well as the problem of choice within democratic structures. In the mini-chapter below we present the general research method as it applies to the content provided. Each subsequent chapter follows the same methodology and presentation. The text is designed to flow through a 12 week course but can also be broken down into sections using the framework provided. Thank you for considering this anthology for your course.  We invite you to engage with critical civic learning to confront and explore solutions for our most pressing global challenges and we ask that you each consider: what happens if we don’t change?


Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport


We believe civic education means first accepting a democratic community for what it is, not coercing or entrapping learners to embrace ideals held by others. Many students, particularly those who are the first in their family to go to college, are often uncommitted to a prescribed life plan. We do not believe these learners are less civically involved or aware, because another experience of civic life other than our own is more common than not. Yet some of these students have yet to fully form a civic identity necessary to grow and thrive in education and society. We believe this is a problem of the civic commons and not solely a challenge for the classroom. If a learner is unaware of the effects of a governmental-social system or a majority view of these governmental systems after leaving college, this becomes a larger problem for social relations and arguably an ethical problem for the profession of teaching.


Not all learners are unaware; some have ill-formed or partially formed civic identities, meaning they can identify so-called politics around them but misunderstand the motives of individuals and groups, as well as the dynamics of the system. While learners are not to be fixed, there should exist meaningful choice, which includes respect and shared learning outcomes for civic learning and growth. In this section, we want to elicit “captures” of action for civic learning and democratic engagement.


When we consider what civic identity means in a democratic, living environment, we accept as a given the natural conditions under which we must live, including access to food and water, shelter from seasonal change, security for ourselves and loved ones, and hopefully good health. Many modern communities now take these natural conditions for granted, despite the historical fact that humans have developed complicated legal and social moral decision-making institutions to safeguard these conditions. Managing this web of bureaucracy could be a nightmare for any nonprofessional. In fact, it is a large component of what professional legal researchers, judges, lawyers, clerks, paralegals, professors, and social science writers, to name a few socio-legal occupations, do daily.


Those professionals who have a global understanding of the world are more acquainted with the decision-making processes of the elites in government and private industry. Our relation to private property as an object worth protecting is discussed in much of constitutional law, but it also serves as a starting point for legal history in Western civilization as a basis for the rule of law. However, property also further differentiates our relative position to the reasonably prudent or rational citizen as each pursues his or her own concept of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The value of a human life was a commodity on which the social-economic environment was built and maintained. Slavery was an economic and social-cultural fact of life, and the law, as a rule for behavior, had no influence on those who refused to believe in human equality. Customs and habits have long been known to outlive legal codes and moral dictates. Legal ordained behavior necessarily follows action of political-social groups within a jurisdiction, often called community. Who participates is a measurement of political science and legal studies, if not a number of disciplinary and interdisciplinary studies, that can help improve public policy and our public understanding of these processes.


We all know different identities in a small space can create conflict. There are countless examples in the news or popular culture outlets that show the hate, anger, and confusion that difference provokes. But within democratic communities, much like living ecosystems with natural biodiversity, difference promotes innovation and the sharing of cultural experiences, which creates a stronger social system. One way we approached the question of difference and identity in our work was to use critical participatory action research (CPAR) to frame these questions more inclusively.

CPAR includes codesigned research projects undertaken as critical scholarship by multigenerational collectives to interrogate conditions of social injustice through social theory with a dedicated commitment to social action. As Anisur Bahman (1985) has written, the distinctive viewpoint of PAR recognizes that the domination of masses by elites is rooted in the polarization of control not only over the means of material production but also over the means of knowledge production, including the social power to determine what is valid or useful knowledge. We believe this framework is one practical example of democratic teaching and learning.



Critical participatory action research now includes a vast collection of powerful digital tools that can be integrated into social science and humanities research. Thus, D+CPAR is an emerging field that can provide insightful and practical academic study and can develop highly demanded skill sets in the marketplace and in public service.


Civic Agency Must Be Realized through a Confrontation of Identity with a Moving Law and Society


Once we fully realize our civic identity, we must become aware of how others perceive our civic agency. What we are able to change depends on how well we are able to work with other like-minded and different civic identities. We showed in the first section how resistance to difference can be overcome by naming problems, discussing the relevance of the co-designed learning program, and authentically embracing a dialogue around difference and civic change. However, progress for some groups is often attained at a higher cost than for others. In this section, we present six critical theories that examine how groups can bring civic identity and civic agency together for change.


We examine the role of civic identity and agency for social change by looking at individual interpretations of constitutional self-government and at critical theory that provides a framework to evaluate the prospect of civic change as an individual in a complex system. We now want to consider the Constitution, law, and society from the viewpoint of exclusion. Specifically, we want to better understand how those who are excluded from legal processes regain power and engage with the civic.


Civic development from identity to advocacy through agency is democratic education for a diverse 21st century. 


While every group of learners is unique and learn in their own way we imagine a civic commons where we each can participate equally with the full confidence of our own identity and the agency to see through our goals and aspirations. As advocates we invite you to join our conversation and look forward to welcoming you into our shared civic space. Congratulations on the last step of the process, evidencing your new knowledge through your own creative expression of civic identity, agency, and advocacy!




Structured Learning Opportunities:



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