Slovenia, 5/8/2022

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO TEACH ACTIVE CITIZENSHIP IN SCHOOLS?

Current times are imbued with change. We keep hearing about climate change, local and global changes looking at us from every corner possible, the adaptation to big changes that have yet to come due to the unknown future hanging above our heads… And yet, the change is ever present, not more now than it ever was. It might be that with the greater diversification of lifestyles in the times of short attention spans and variety of information we are perceiving it as being more constant and intense, so naturally, we are facing the adaptation to such an all-embracing process.

It so follows that a question of our being and doing in the society arises. Is change something that is happening or is it something that we do? And how much are we actively participating in it? In this blog we are dedicating our attention to the active citizenship being taught at school, its content and our thoughts on the way of teaching it.

Is the topic relevant for all the teachers? Absolutely. Not only for social studies ones, but for maths and science, etc., as well…. We are explaining why below.

What is the current situation?

The education system is the most organised and represented space for learning throughout Europe. Most children are enrolled in schools where they gradually develop and acquire knowledge. If we want to develop children into fully empowered citizens, we need to teach and encourage active citizenship at school, i.e. at the system level.

When working with teachers we see that the topic is of great importance to them, but sometimes under-represented, especially in terms of quality. In some countries, “citizenship education” is a compulsory subject, but we wonder what the content of this subject is. Is it sufficiently critically formulated? Is it more about raising awareness of the political systems and the duties of the
citizens, or does it encourage critical thinking about society as well?

Can we claim that students are at least «a little more active citizens» after passing a subject than they were before? Yes? With what certainty?

What are our concerns?

Let us talk a little bit about the concerns that we see here. School curricula are often more rigid in practice than it seems in theory. Subjects are regularly planned long in advance, with little change in content over the years. And this raises the main question: Can we really teach active citizenship in the same way every year? Yes, the basic content remains the same over time. But if we want to foster critical thinking in our students, it is crucial that we also include current social issues into the subject. Something that happens at the level of the local and broader society at the present time.

It is difficult to plan such topics at the beginning of the school year when the curriculum is being developed, however, we are finding such education of great importance. It shows that there is such a thing as lifelong learning and that the education doesn’t stop at the classroom doors. Instead, they can use the knowledge gained in school for a societal change that they believe is
necessary.

Therefore it is up to the teacher how insightful and flexible he or she is, and also how actively he or she changes the content of his or her subject. We can take teaching about active citizenship as an opportunity for fruitful collaboration in between the generations. Students sure have their values and an opinion and insights on how

the society should be organised. On the other hand, teachers might be more experienced and can help with the obstacles the students may reach and just a different point of view. They can open questions about the consequences of their acts and the common good and spark an interest in students to make them realise that what we perceive as a society is not to be taken for granted. It is a product of the people, of their engagement, their values and their will to shape the everyday life they live in.

On the other hand, if the subject is presented in a complex way, students may become reluctant. So, instead of engaging them, citizenship is presented as something «boring». This has the opposite effect and may have long-lasting consequences.

Are students old and mature enough for such topics? We think they are. It just needs to be adapted to their level of knowledge. After all, they are part of the society they live in. At least at the local level, they can make a difference. In most European countries, in a few years’ time, these students will have the right to vote, which means that they will also be able to make an
active contribution to society at the national and European levels.

How to do it?

  1. Start with yourself. Do you consider yourself an active citizen? Why yes? Why not? Is there anything you could change about yourself? What motivates you to be an active citizen?
  2. Use a participatory approach. Involve students in the problem from the start. Try to avoid a you-them attitude. Ask them what issues are important to them, what they would change in society. Start working on topics that are close to their interests.
  3. Encourage collaboration and discussion among students. When you see students disagreeing, don’t try to stop them. Instead, encourage constructive discussion among them. Pay attention to whether some students have more knowledge on a particular topic than others. You can challenge them to prepare part of the lesson. The more actively involved the learners are, the more they will take away from the lesson.
  4. Set smaller goals. Students will not become active citizens overnight and organise a petition or protest in a month. But they might reflect a little more on their role as citizens. And that’s a great start. Set small but concrete goals that you want to achieve through activities in the classroom.
  5. Use an interdisciplinary approach. Teaching active citizenship is not only relevant for social subjects, but also for other subjects such as math and science. Create materials that combine e.g. mathematics and active citizenship. A STEM approach is very useful here. You can also read one good practice example in this study.
  6. Don’t be afraid of negative reactions. Surely not all activities will suit everyone. Ask students what they liked/disliked and why. Let the mistakes be your guide for learning and development.
  7. Don’t forget about reflection. Whether or not you are already evaluating the content with your students, it is a good idea to have a reflection after each unit. This should be both in terms of the subject and their own reflection. Encourage them to think about where they see their role in society and whether they are satisfied with it.

It is difficult to change an entire school system overnight. But you can change and improve yourself and the way you teach. As we mentioned at the beginning, the quality of teaching depends largely on the teacher. It is up to you to educate yourself and actively develop professionally. In doing so, you will also be a role model for your students, who in the future will be able to make an active difference in the world.

We also recommend watching the TEDx talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CnIk-ciTHBU

In the following articles there are some examples of good practices:
– Lee Jerome (2006) Critical citizenship experiences? Working with trainee teachers to facilitate active citizenship in schools, Teacher Development, 10:3, 313-329, DOI: 10.1080/13664530600921858
– Rahima C. Wade (1995) Developing Active Citizens: Community Service Learning in Social Studies Teacher Education, The Social Studies, 86:3, 122-128, DOI: 10.1080/00377996.1995.9958383

Author: Tina Skočaj Skok, Maja Jotić

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