Reflections on Learning Political Science from Five Decades of Studies focused on Civic Teaching and Learning

Political Science Educator: volume 25, issue 1

Featured Essays

Judith Torney-Purta, Professor Emerita of Human Development, University of Maryland, College Park

Only once in my career did I teach in a political science department – a course on political socialization. However, as a social scientist I have been responsible for collecting, analyzing and presenting large-scale empirical data on young people’s political attitudes and civic engagement for the last half century.  I was a doctoral assistant at the University of Chicago when David Easton and Robert Hess mounted an interdisciplinary collaboration in the first wave political socialization studies.  I designed interviews with second to eighth graders to determine what survey questions they could answer about politics and developed graphic presentations of survey results from 12,000 US second through eighth graders.   The resulting book was The Development of Political Attitudes in Children (Hess & Torney, 1967).

This was followed by an invitation to work with the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), a European organization best known for cross national mathematics and science studies.  In the 1970s, I participated in the design of their large-scale IEA international civic education study in ten countries (Torney, Oppenheim & Farnen, 1975). In about 1993, during the early post-Communist period IEA asked me to lead a collaborative process to design another cross-national study of civic education including questions on knowledge, attitudes and civic engagement (similar to political socialization).  The IEA organization mounted the CIVED data collection in 1999 in 28 countries (about a third from Eastern Europe).  The organization repeated the study in 2009 and 2016 — renamed the International Civic and Citizenship Study (ICCS).   The full data sets (containing cognitive, attitudinal and participatory data from representative samples of 15-year-olds from more than 40 countries) are available free for secondary analysis at, University of Michigan.  [Note: This is a data archive especially helpful to early-career scholars in these times of limited access to survey respondents.]

About three years ago the IEA organization, now headquartered in Amsterdam and Hamburg, invited me to co-edit a volume examining the findings and influences of the 1999, the 2009 and the 2016 studies.  Chapters were submitted by fourteen researchers who had led the civic studies in their countries and also broader chapters about civic and political learning by social scientists:  Influences of the IEA Civic and Citizenship Studies: Practice, Policy and Research across Countries and Regions (Malak-Minkiewicz & Torney-Purta, 2021).  Co-editing this volume, especially the fourteen country chapters in the first section of the book from Eastern and Western Europe and Latin America, gave me tremendous respect for those engaged in civic education and in political socialization research in challenging circumstances. Insights about the post-Communist countries came from the book’s senior editor, Barbara Malak-Minkiewicz, a social psychologist originally from Warsaw University.  The second part of the Influences book contains, for example, chapters by a Swedish political scientist, a Chilean social theorist, a Mexican testing specialist, and two early-career scholars who pioneered the studies’ secondary data analysis (in Europe and in the United States).  These authors discuss what has been learned from empirical data on issues related to political socialization and how it has been enhanced by reflections from a variety of perspectives (including but not limited to political science).  An inter-disciplinary community of practice among early career researchers, including several who are undertaking further empirical studies in Europe and Latin America, is being developed.

The chapter authors indicated that educators, political scientists and researchers from many national settings and with diverse interests have benefited from their independent explorations of data from the IEA CIVED and ICCS studies.  Individuals who hope to influence policy or to argue for more engaging civic and political topics at all levels of education are among them. The book chapter authors reported that a cross-curricular approach to civic education is favored in many countries. This often means that teachers who have never studied political or civic topics are responsible. Few instructional resources are available for instruction about political structures/processes or to motivate civic/political participation.  In a more optimal situation teachers would receive preparation to adapt instruction in history, social studies, mother tongue, and science to meet the needs of their students. They would have materials that engaged students with national and local issues.  To enlist policy makers and teacher educators in this agenda, however, we need to understand what research reveals about encouraging political learning and socialization in specific contexts.

A second point made in the chapters was that the content of formal curriculum is often specified with so much detail about the formal structure of political systems that it would be impossible to cover in the time allotted.  This was especially true in countries where there was no designated civics class.  This can result in the rote transmission of detailed factual knowledge about idealized political structures rather than educational activities that motivate political understanding and participation.  Analyses of the IEA civic studies data suggest the value of fostering an open classroom climate that welcomes students’ participation in discussing issues and a school context where students’ actions matter. This can enhance students’ interest in seeking civic knowledge and willingness to become politically engaged. The value of open classroom climate was a focus in several of the book chapters.  Barber, Clark & Torney-Purta (2021) present a more complete review of research on how political learning is fostered by open class and school climates.

Third, the thousands of students who were tested and surveyed are now eligible to vote. Their attitudes shape their political actions.  Two book chapters identify nascent populist tendencies in about fifteen percent of adolescents; they held negative attitudes toward immigrants and did not support equal rights for women in the political sphere.

In summary, the IEA’s civic education studies since the 1970s have included high quality measures of a range of political attitudes and of civic engagement.  These data are freely available and have attracted the attention of researchers interested in secondary analysis. When IEA reports survey results in other subject areas, researchers and the public focus on students’ knowledge test scores.  The Influences book on the studies of civic and political engagement, in contrast, provides information on the outcomes relevant to political learning including students’ interest in discussing political issues and motivation for political participation.


Barber, C., Clark, C. & Torney-Purta, J. (2021).  Learning environments and school/classroom climates as supports for civic reasoning, discourse and engagement.  In C. Lee, G. White and D. Dong (Eds.). Educating for civic reasoning and discourse.  Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Education.

Malak-Minkiewicz, B. & Torney-Purta, J. (Eds.).  (2021). Influences of the IEA civic and citizenship education studies: Practice, policy and research across countries and regions.  Amsterdam, Netherlands: IEA and Springer.

Published since 2005, The Political Science Educator is the newsletter of the Political Science Education Section of the American Political Science Association. Dr. Bobbi Gentry (Bridgewater College) was the Editor for the Fall 2021 edition. Since 2020, APSA Educate has co-published the Political Science Educator. You can see last years publication here. A curated list of select essays can be viewed here. The entire archived collection can be viewed here.


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