“Our education systems and schools need to prepare young people to become active, participative and responsible individuals: the complex, multicultural and rapidly evolving societies we live in cannot do with less.”
Few would disagree that preparation for life as active citizens in democratic societies is one of the major purposes of education. As observed in the opening quote schools are expected to drive “activation”, the process(es) of becoming an active, participative and responsible individual. Yet, the expression “active citizenship” is taken for granted. What does it really mean?
By way of scene-setting, we can locate the different flavours or conceptions of active citizenship along a continuum.
- “personally responsible’ citizens… ‘public spirited’ citizens who obey the law and pay their taxes
- ‘participatory’ citizens …. active community members who volunteer and take on leadership and initiative within established systems and structures
- ‘justice-oriented’ citizens…. concerned for social justice, a desire to improve society and question structural factors that perpetuate injustices
You may have noticed the three categories are not mutually exclusive, but each of them may require different pedagogical strategies. Woods, Taylor, Atkins and Johnston (2018) took the “justice-oriented” route “where the aim is to equip students with the ability to critically analyse society and address social issues and injustices” and tried to understand how this particular learning journey is best planned and supported in an educational setting.
By observing and talking to secondary school teachers and students involved in a citizenship curriculum initiative in New Zealand, the authors sought to identify pedagogies with potential for critical and transformative citizenship learning. New Zealand teachers employed a combination of strategies to deepen affective and cognitive engagement in order to win the hearts and minds of students:
Pedagogical Strategies to deepen affective engagement
Teachers encouraged students to:
- Step into other people’s shoes
- Access digital media which connected directly with people associated with the social issue (eg. personal blogs of refugees or homeless people, videos of inspirational actions of others)
- Connect with inspiring community members who themselves were already making a difference
- Select their own social issue to study
Pedagogical Strategies to deepen cognitive engagement
Teachers encouraged students to:
- deepen the level of critical thinking.
- work on the root causes of a problem.
- explore the controversial and contested nature of social issues by considering alternative perspectives
Two tensions came to the fore in conversations with teachers and students:
- The first tension had to do with the “heart vs mind” conflict or to put it in slightly more technical terms, balancing the right dose of affective and cognitive engagement. “Feeling inspired or moved to take social action alone did not lead to critical or transformative acts of citizenship, deep knowledge was also essential.” Lack of knowledge, low levels of confidence or little prior experience in taking social action may result in poorly conceived social actions. More structured and teacher-led approaches are needed here. Drawbacks? Lower levels of student engagement or even resentment
- A second tension had to do with immediate or delayed gratification. “Unless teachers took a strong and intentional focus on critical and transformative forms of social action, there was a tendency toward apolitical and ‘quick-fix’ forms of social action.” So this is not action for the sake of action, but action that goes hand in hand with a critique of institutional injustices and attempts to leverage policy change.
And while I was reading this I recalled a third tension, the one between” civic-mindedness (construed as solidarity with and loyalty towards other people) and moral responsibility.” (Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture Vol 1, p 44). Should we go with the flow or swim against the tide? Should we always take action, or refusing to act is the best option to confront social injustice?
Dealing with all these tensions confirms the need for highly skilled specialist teachers who are “agile and creative in mastering a wide variety of topics and issues as well as figuring out curricular connections, often on the fly”. Teachers are adept at managing a delicate juggle that entails “letting go” and “jumping in”, keeping students’ spirits high through action while creating time and space for reflection, identifying short-term milestones while not losing focus on long-term and structural change.
Finally, authors stress it is unrealistic to think a single experience, no matter how positive, could churn out active citizens as if by magic. So, don´t be harsh on yourself if projects fall short of achieving the critical and transformative level you aimed for. Students will get better at if they are given more than one opportunity to practice social action. As experiences accumulate, they will be able to take on more difficult and systemic social issues.
So, what’s in it for NEMESIS?
1. It helps to clarify what we mean by socio/political activation in our definition of Social Innovation. “Social Innovation Education is a collaborative and collective learning process for the empowerment and socio/political activation of students to drive social change […]
2. This is more of an open question for teachers in NEMESIS pilot schools. Do the pedagogical strategies and tensions identified in New Zealand resonate with your experiences in the piloting phase?
Wood, B. E., Taylor, R., Atkins, R., & Johnston, M. (2018). Pedagogies for active citizenship: Learning through affective and cognitive domains for deeper democratic engagement. Teaching and Teacher Education, 75, 259-267.