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The great curriculum debate: how should we teach civics?

Young people and politics aren’t mixing – how can teachers help change that? Hands image from

How much do students know about politics? Or perhaps a better question is: how much do they care?

Recent polling and studies have caused great consternation amongst commentators about an apparent declining interest in political debate amongst the young. To many young people, politics has become a dirty word.

The draft of the Australian Curriculum: Civics and Citizenship, available for public consultation until last week, has already come under strident attack. The Institute of Public Affairs’ Chris Berg has suggested that there is a “blatant bias in the national curriculum [that] could damage our democracy” and that schools might as well tell students who to vote for.

But while some fret about what is being taught and others whether students are interested, there could be a vital area that most are ignoring in this debate.

What young people think about democracy

A recent study in Australia has revealed that teenagers couldn’t care less about politics. The latest National Assessment Program - Civics and Citizenship, suggests that politics has little or no interest for young people and they are not developing to be informed or active citizens.

The sample of Year 6 and Year 10 students from across Australia was tested on civic knowledge and an understanding of the skills and values of active citizenship. But worryingly only one-third in both year levels said they were interested in Australian politics, with more interested in overseas political systems.

Reporting on a Lowy Institute national poll, the Age editorialised that “When people cease to participate, democratic values - and eventually respect for human rights - begin to erode”.

The poll showed that fewer than 40% of Australians aged 18-29 agreed with the statement “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government”.

A Senate inquiry into citizenship, democracy and education even suggested there was a “crisis of civic engagement” in Australia.

What do teachers think about democracy?

So what is political engagement? And what role can education play to cultivate it?

While many have focused on what young people think or what’s being taught through curriculum, there is little research on what teachers themselves think about democracy.

In a ground breaking study, researchers globally are trying to find out exactly what teachers understand by democracy and how they might implement these understandings in their classrooms. This research is not confined to the social studies classrooms but across the entire school curriculum.

The Global Doing Democracy Research Project (GDDRP), led by myself at Monash University and Dr Paul R. Carr of Lakehead University, Canada is investigating how democracy is understood and demonstrated by educators and whether education supports or cultivates democracy.

A better understanding

The traditional approach in civics education focuses on knowledge and understanding of formal political structures and is usually isolated to a single unit of study in both primary and secondary education. The GDDRP aims to look more broadly outside of the civics and citizenship classes associated with social studies.

The results so far have told us that most Australian educators still have only a superficial conceptualisation of democracy.

This is despite some important contributions in Australia, like the Civics and Citizenship Education Project 2004–2007 and the Discovering Democracy 1997–2004 project.

The Discovering Democracy program was a failure not just because of its content but because 70 per cent of teachers did not use its materials. The rhetoric of active participation found in these programs usually is not achieved in the activities that are provided for school students.

The problem with the Civics Curriculum

The problem with the Civics and Citizenship Curriculum is that the scope, depth and quality of educational materials available is limited, and can lead to a relatively apolitical, non-critical understanding and assessment of what democracy is, and what it should be.

Critical analysis and resources offering a broader range of understanding of the complex realities of democracy beyond just an understanding of how a bill becomes law or the electoral process is needed now more than ever.

The draft Civics and Citizenship Curriculum like its predecessors, emphasises an understanding of how government works as well as commitments to core democratic values – such as freedom of speech or liberty in general.

The chair of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) responsible for the new curriculum, Professor Barry McGaw states that the curriculum emphasises the value and benefits of Australia’s liberal democratic traditions:

“It will be an understanding of our traditions and heritage — our parliamentary system, the separation of powers between the judiciary and the legislature — and why we embrace these things,” he said.

There is, however, an inner tension in these documents as they try to place a greater emphasis on civic participation in its numerous forms.

These discourses over democracy have been characterised in terms of representative versus participatory democracy, with the former highlighting thin electoral processes, and the latter focusing on thick critical engagement and social justice.

In practice, thin democracy is exemplified in activities such as students contributing to a food drive. Thick democracy would explore why people are hungry in the first place and attempt to solve the problem.

Engaging students

As The Age’s editorial concludes, if teachers are not confident with teaching democracy (in its thick and thin forms), it is “small wonder that a generation of students has emerged who have little understanding of democratic process and are increasingly disinclined to participate in it.”

But, as has been noted by Kahne and Westheimer, bolstering efforts to teach through the academic disciplines — whether pursued through high-stakes exams or well-crafted curriculum frameworks — is insufficient to further the goals of teaching democracy.

Ricken Patel, the chair of a global online civic organisation which promotes activism on pressing global, regional and national issues, wrote:

“Something big is happening. From Tahrir Square to Wall St, from staggeringly brave citizen journalists in Syria to millions of citizens winning campaign after campaign online, democracy is stirring. Not the media-circus, corrupt, vote-every-4-years democracy of the past. Something much, much deeper. We are realising our own power to build the world we all dream of.”

Teachers not only need to be able to understand and feel confident with teaching the narrow issues in civics education, but also help students engage with this political reality, to let them know they do have a voice and they can help build a better world.

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