Brett Levy ‘96
is an assistant professor of educational theory and practice at the University of Albany. His research explores how educational programs can support civic and political engagement among youth and how such engagement can in turn foster academic and life skills. He teaches courses on youth civic engagement, social studies education, research methods and environmental education. He studied history at Princeton University and earned a Ph.D. in education studies from the University of Michigan. Before attending graduate school, he taught middle school social studies, history and English at public and private schools in California.
What are your proudest accomplishments from working in education?
I’d say that my proudest accomplishments are when I can see that my work has made a difference and affected people’s lives. When working with middle school students, I saw that pretty directly—through watching young people get interested in something or develop a commitment to their own education. One of my eighth-graders, after a few serious conversations, went from being an F student—literally not doing his work at all—to being a consistent B student and someone who could finish high school and much more. Then there were the many moments during class when attentive students asked fundamental questions about our political challenges, showing me that they really understood the dilemmas on certain tough issues, such as gun control or the federal budget. Laying the foundation to help young people become more thoughtful, questioning civic participants was always my goal, so seeing the seeds of that made me feel great as a teacher.
Tell me about your research. How can educational programs support civic and political engagement among youth? How can this engagement foster academic and life skills?
Schools and other educational programs can do a lot to support civic and political engagement among youth—and my research explores these activities and experiences. We all know that it’s important for students to develop some basic knowledge about how institutions function at the local, state, federal and international levels. This is vital for informed participation. Psychology research tells us that people will learn more about any issue, including civic and political issues, when they are interested in those issues. Political interest is also a great predictor of various forms of political participation. Building on this prior work, one big aspect of my own research is how to generate that interest.
Some classroom activities that could support political interest are open discussions of controversial issues, political simulations and role plays, and students expressing their political perspectives in diverse ways (posters, videos, writing, etc.). In the current political environment, teachers sometimes shy away from these activities, but there are ways to wade into this territory and maintain a calm classroom environment, especially if there are explicit discussions with students about how to engage in civil discourse. My current project is to develop (with teachers) a curriculum that helps educators create safe, open environments for exploring diverse political perspectives through inquiry, discussion and writing. This type of learning experience can also help students develop important writing skills, including the use of evidence to support a claim—a vital academic and life skill. Exploring civic and political issues can also involve math (polling data, state budgets, etc.), science (genetic engineering, climate change, etc.), and other subjects—and engaging with meaningful public issues can motivate students to use and develop skills in various areas.
What aspects of education are timeless?
Everyone learns differently. There are some great research-based findings about how people learn, and these trends are very important to consider. However, they may not apply to everyone. Great educators understand this and use their skills to reach their individual students. We need to support these teachers as they attempt to address these continual challenges.
Also, we should keep in mind that school—as important as it is—is just one venue for learning. For much of human history, we had no schools, and much of our most important learning today still takes place beyond the schoolhouse walls.