Youth Civic Education in Ukraine: Q&A with Gio Kobakhidze
George (Gio) Kobakhidze, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems’ (IFES) deputy country director for Ukraine, has eight years of technical experience in the democracy and governance field. Previously, Kobakhidze designed and managed IFES’ civic and voter education programming in Georgia, which included the introduction of an interactive, university-level civic education course that is currently offered at accredited universities throughout the country. As part of an effort to strengthen the knowledge and skills associated with students’ effective democratic citizenship, Kobakhidze is currently spearheading an initiative to implement a university-level civic education course in Ukraine’s institutions of higher education.
What is the level of civic engagement and participation among Ukrainian youth?
A 2017 United States Agency for International Development (USAID)/ENGAGE civic engagement poll, implemented in Ukraine by Pact, found that citizen engagement in public life is highest among middle-age and senior citizens and lowest among youth. The poll went on to demonstrate that, generally, Ukrainians are dissatisfied with the progress of reforms and eager to learn more ways to defend their human rights and improve their financial literacy and economic knowledge.
What motivated you to implement a university-level civic education course in Ukraine?
A robust, diverse, active and informed electorate is a linchpin of any democratic society, and is of particular importance for post-Euromaidan Ukraine as its citizens continue to seek ways to realize their expectations through the various means available in a democratic society. Equipping Ukraine’s young citizens with the knowledge, dispositions and skills key for democratic citizenship is fundamental for the country’s democratic headway, economic stability, and peace. Ukraine’s education system can play a pivotal role in this process by promoting active learning as a key prerequisite to active citizenship.
In Ukraine, through the support of USAID, Global Affairs Canada and United Kingdom aid, IFES has been working with Ukraine’s Ministry of Education, universities, civil society and academic experts to develop an innovative, interactive course, “Democracy: From Theory to Practice,” that will introduce fundamental concepts of democratic citizenship, good governance, civil society, civic participation and human rights. This will be done through partnership with a cadre of Ukrainian teachers and professors with whom IFES will work to introduce interactive civic education teaching methodology that is focused on active learning into the classroom, with the ultimate goal of establishing Ukrainian universities as hubs for civic innovation, scholarship, and action.
What topics are covered in this course and who is eligible to take it?
The “Democracy: From Theory to Practice” course is based on IFES’ global, university-level civic education methodology, Strengthening Engagement Through Education for Democracy (SEED). Through SEED, IFES has worked with universities and education specialists in Georgia and Ukraine to develop fully-accredited university-level curricula to introduce citizens to fundamental concepts of democratic citizenship, systems of government, civic participation, and human rights, while building capacity through hands-on, real-world learning experiences.
The course curriculum and text materials are based on theoretical, historical and practical knowledge. The course is designed to foster students’ democratic values and attitudes, while equipping them with the knowledge and skills that are essential for being mindful and effective citizens in a democratic, digital society.
The knowledge-based components of the course cover democratic governance, human rights, civil society and citizen engagement. Cross-cutting themes include:
- gender equality;
- minority rights;
- inclusion of and accessibility for persons with disabilities;
- good governance;
- rule of law;
- media literacy;
- digital participation;
- the role of money in politics;
- the role of youth; and
To strengthen students’ skills (including, but not limited to, critical thinking, active listening, consensus building, public speaking, group work and problem solving), IFES’ civic education initiative emphasizes the primacy of interactive teaching methodology (contrary to a traditional lecture-style format). Course professors, selected by the university, will receive training on interactive teaching methods through a series of IFES-led, continuous professional development sessions with national and international experts.
The capstone component of the course is a student action project. Through a step-by-step, guided process, students identify an issue in society that they recognize as problematic, which they then research and relate to course topics. Ultimately, students are challenged to devise an action plan to address the issue. Through first-hand experience, students will begin to hone the knowledge, dispositions and skills necessary for active, informed citizenship.
This semester-long course will be offered to students of various faculties at eight Ukrainian universities in five cities, with discussions for further expansion ongoing.
Why is it important to create opportunities for university students to learn about civic and voter education?
IFES’ civic and voter education programming empowers citizens to participate more effectively in their country’s electoral and political processes. When youth are not empowered to exercise and defend their or others’ democratic rights and responsibilities, the opportunity for disinformation, corruption and electoral fraud increases, thereby amplifying the potential for leaders to take undemocratic actions that threaten human rights, stability and prosperity. IFES’ work to support informed, mindful and active civic participation, expands the potential for youth to shape their democracies and to be represented in decision-making processes.
In what ways do you predict students will practically apply what they learn from the course as a civic education initiative in their communities or on campus?
IFES has found that well-designed civic education programs for youth can contribute significantly to the development and consolidation of stable democratic politics. When young people have a solid understanding of how democracy works, they are better able to fulfill their roles as citizens and leaders in their communities. A comprehensive evaluation process – including pre- and post- tests, interviews, teacher and student focus groups, among other activities – demonstrates that alumni leave the course prepared to make a positive difference in their communities and contribute to their country’s democratic headway. Through our comprehensive monitoring and evaluation of the SEED methodology, we have seen strong evidence that suggests causation and correlation between exposure to this type of curricula and informed youth engagement.
Do you have any closing observations or stories regarding IFES’ SEED methodology globally?
For some students, IFES’ SEED methodology represented their first experience of a classroom environment that isn’t organized based on a hierarchical teaching structure. By promoting active learning through a learn-by-doing philosophy, we saw profound changes in students’ self-confidence as well as in their sense of civic responsibility and engagement. As one alumna of the course noted, the most important lesson she learned throughout the course and activities was that she doesn’t have to be a public official to change something.