Ben Kirshner
Professor • Faculty Director
LSHD: Learning Sciences & Human Development • CU Engage

School of Education, Room 312
University of Colorado Boulder
249 UCB
Boulder, CO 80309

BEN KIRSHNER, PhD is Professor of Educational Psychology & Learning Sciences in the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder and Faculty Director of CU Engage: Community-Based Learning and Research.

Ben's research examines how young people from marginalized communities interpret their sociopolitical context and learn to exercise collective political agency. Ben is co-PI for a international study, led by Roderick Watts and funded by Atlantic Philanthropies, examining community-based youth organizing as a vehicle for civic engagement in South Africa, Ireland, and the United States. In a study supported by the Spencer Foundation, Ben works with secondary school teachers to provide opportunities for their students to discuss, investigate, and take action to dismantle educational barriers, such as unsafe school climates or inadequate facilities. He is also a a “network advisor” for the MacArthur Foundation’s Connected Learning Research Network. His publications discuss youth civic engagement and activism, participatory action research, and urban education policy.


PhD Psychological Studies in Education, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, 2004
MTS Theological Studies, Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, MA, 1999
BA History and Religious Studies, Brown University, Providence, RI, 1993

In my research I have studied learning and development in organized activities outside-of-school, ranging from tutoring programs to voluntary youth groups.  By analyzing the social practices of these distinct intermediary spaces (e.g., informal relationships between youth and adults, collaborative work, project-based activities), I hope to better understand how learning can be organized in ways that lead to meaningful intellectual and social outcomes for students.

I am especially interested in settings where urban youth work together with adults to change systemic inequalities through school reform, action research, and community change projects.  Programs like these seek to empower students who have traditionally been marginalized from political participation.  The way that young people are positioned socially in these groups contrasts sharply with typical public schools, in which these youth are rarely engaged in decision-making or their voices heard in policy discourse.  Participants are expected to think critically, develop a sense of themselves as agents of change, and learn how to act competently in the public arena.  As one student remarked to me after working on an environmental justice campaign, “I’m looking at the world from a completely different angle now.”  Ultimately, these are settings where youth are encouraged to imagine what kind of world they want to live in and at the same time develop the intellectual tools and social resources to realize that vision.

My interest in studying learning processes stems in part from my experiences as an educator with the San Francisco Conservation Corps.  I observed students perform poorly in school but solve complex intellectual tasks when engaged in community work projects restoring green spaces or producing video documentaries.  I became interested in learning how schools could better engage students in intellectually challenging tasks that were relevant to their everyday lives.

My publications have discussed youth-adult research partnerships, youth civic engagement, and the cultural influences on identity development.  Selections include:

Kirshner, B., O’Donoghue, J., & McLaughlin, M.W. (in press). Youth-adult research collaborations: Bringing youth voice to the research process. In Mahoney, J. L., Larson, R. W., & Eccles, J. S. (Eds.) Organized activities as contexts of development: Extracurricular activities, after-school and community programs. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Kirshner, B., Strobel, K., & Fernandez, M. (2003).  Critical civic engagement among urban youth.  Penn GSE Perspectives on Urban Education, 2(1).

Kirshner, B. (2003). Reflecting on moral development and education [Review of the book, Education in the Moral Domain (2001), L. Nucci, New York: Cambridge University Press].  Mind, Culture, and Activity, 10(3), 260-265.

Nasir, N. & Kirshner, B. (2003).  The cultural construction of moral and civic identities. Applied Developmental Science, 7, 138-147.  

Kirshner, B., O’Donoghue, J., & McLaughlin, M.W., Eds. (2002). Youth participation: Improving institutions and communities.  New Directions for Youth Development: Theory, Practice and Research, no. 96, Winter 2003.  San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

O’Donoghue, J., Kirshner, B., & McLaughlin, M.W. (2002).  Moving youth participation forward.  New Directions for Youth Development: Theory, Practice and Research, no. 96, Winter 2003.  San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Teaching is an integral part of my scholarly career.  My enthusiasm for teaching began when I spent two summers in college teaching literature and writing to middle school students in Summerbridge (now The Breakthrough Collaborative), a national network of academically rigorous programs for children from low-income families.  This was where I first learned to design engaging, student-centered lessons by thinking from the perspective of a student—what question would be gripping here? What activities would make me want to speak up or get out of my seat?  After college I worked for four years as an educator with the San Francisco Conservation Corps, which hired young adults to mentor, teach, and supervise middle school students from underserved neighborhoods.  In addition to developing curricula for our summer program, I trained young adult AmeriCorps members in teaching strategies.  I enjoyed the challenge of designing lessons that were responsive to people’s work experiences and that helped them develop instructional tools.

Many of the characteristics of good teaching that I learned in non-traditional settings apply to my university teaching: intellectually challenging questions; discussions that ask students to construct their understanding; activities that embody central concepts; timely mini-lectures that communicate necessary information, and a personal style that is approachable and concerned with student understanding.  As a teacher, it is important to me that students master the subject matter, while also finding ways to draw relevant applications to policy and classroom problems.  I value rigorous, critical thinking, in a climate that allows disagreement and the exchange of ideas.  I enjoy advising students in one-on-one meetings as much as I enjoy leading discussion sections. 

Courses taught:

EDUC 4112: Educational Psychology and Adolescent Development

This course introduces undergraduate and post-baccalaureate teacher candidates to the foundations of adolescent development and educational psychology.  We focus on topics such as: identity development, adolescent resilience, cognitive development, social and cultural approaches to learning, diversity, out-of-school contexts, assessment, and motivation.  For each topic students learn about foundational, canonical theories as well as contemporary research from the standpoint of race, culture, and gender diversity. 

EDUC 6328: Advanced Child Growth and Educational Development

This course addresses similar topics to EDUC 4112, including central aspects of learning and development in adolescence.  Because it is geared towards graduate students, its seminar format will permit more in-depth understanding of child and adolescent development.  There also will be a greater focus on theories of development.

EDUC 8348: Youth Development in Schools and Communities

This course is for graduate students who are interested in adolescent development and/or who are planning to conduct research with adolescents.  The course begins by reviewing the central developmental tasks of adolescence, including: identity, forming a worldview, forming relationships, exercising agency, and overcoming adversity.  We then examine different contexts of development, such as schools, youth organizations, and work, and how they support (or don’t support) the accomplishment of developmental tasks.  The major assignment for the course is a research project developed in partnership with a local youth-serving agency.  The purpose will be for students to practice a “scholarship of engagement,” characterized by projects that help students learn more about a topic while also meeting the needs of research participants.

Professional Service

  • Reviewer, Educational Researcher, Human Development, Journal of Research on Adolescence,Member, American Educational Research Association
  • Member, Society for Research on Adolescence

University of Colorado

  • Planning Committee member, Urban Research Based Action Network (URBAN)
  • Contributing Civic Engagement Editor, Journal of College and Career
  • Faculty Director, CU Engage: Center for Community-Based Learning and Research, University of Colorado Boulder

Local Community Involvement

  • Board member, SAGE Community Partnerships

(For complete list of publications, please see the faculty member's curriculum vitae.)

Edited Volumes 

Kirshner, B. (Ed.). (2007). Special issue: Youth activism as a context for learning and developmentAmerican Behavioral Scientist, 51(3).


Kirshner, B. & Jefferson, A. (2015). Participatory Democracy and Struggling Schools: Making Space for Youth in School Turnarounds. Teachers College Record, 117(6).

Kirshner, B. & Ginwright, S. (2012). Youth Organizing as a Developmental Context for African American and Latino AdolescentsChild Development Perspectives, 6(3), 288-294.

Kirshner, B. & Pozzoboni, K. M. (2011). Student Interpretations of a School Closure: Implications for Student Voice in equity-Based School Reform. Teachers College Record, 113(8), 1633-1667.

Kirshner, B., Possoboni, K., & Jones, H. (2011). Learning How to Manage Bias: A Case Study of Youth Participatory Action Research. Applied Developmental Science, 15(3), 140-155.

Kirshner, B., Salvdivar, M. G., & Tracy, R. (2011). How first-generation students learn to navigate education systems: A case study of First Graduate. New Directions for Youth Development, 2011, 107-122. 

Kirshner, B. (2010). Productive Tensions in Youth Participatory Action ResearchYearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, 109(1), 238-251.

Strobel, K., Kirshner, B., McLaughlin, M.W., & O’Donoghue, J. (2008). Qualities that attract urban youth to after-school settings and promote continued participationTeachers College Record, 110(8), 1677-1705.

Kirshner, B. (2008). Guided participation in three youth activism organizations: Facilitation, apprenticeship, and joint workJournal of the Learning Sciences, 17(1), 60-101.

Kirshner, B. (2007). Supporting youth participation in school reform: Preliminary notes from a university-community partnership. Special issue of Children, Youth and Environments: Pushing the Boundaries: Critical International Perspectives on Child and Youth Participation, 17(2).

Kirshner, B., Strobel, K., & Fernandez, M. (2003). Critical civic engagement among urban youthPenn GSE Perspectives on Urban Education, 2(1).

Nasir, N. & Kirshner, B. (2003). The cultural construction of moral and civic identitiesApplied Developmental Science, 7, 138-147. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Kirshner, B. (2003). Reflecting on moral development and education [Review of the book, Education in the Moral Domain (2001), L. Nucci, New York: Cambridge University Press.] Mind, Culture, and Activity, 10(3), 260-265. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Book Chapters 

Kirshner, B. (2006). Moral voices of politically engaged urban youth. In New directions for youth development: Shaping the ethical understandings of youth, No. 108. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass (Wiley Periodicals, Inc.).

Kirshner, B., O'Donoghue, J., & McLaughlin, M. W. (2005). Youth-adult research collaborations: Bringing youth voice to the research process. In J. Mahoney, R. Larson, & J. Eccles (Eds.), Organized activities as contexts of development: extracurricular activities, after-school and community programs. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

O' Donoghue, J., Kirshner, B., & McLaughlin, M. W. (2003). Moving youth participation forward. In New Directions for Youth Development: Theory, Practice and Research, No. 96. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass (Wiley Periodicals, Inc.).