Engaged students make for engaged citizens

Is civic education in New Zealand really in such a parlous state? Dr Bronwyn Wood argues not. We just need to build and expand on what we already have

During the 2017 general election campaign, we saw widespread discussion about the need to increase the youth vote and tackle the perceived apathy of youth in New Zealand.

As it happens, the 69.3 percent of enrolled 18- to 24-year-olds who voted in 2017 was a 6.5 percent increase on the previous election in 2014. The overall voter turnout was 79.8 percent.

Admittedly, it wasn’t the ‘youthquake’ predicted, but it was a welcome tremor.

Despite this rise, the attention drawn to civic education in schools by most parties last year has been ongoing.

The Labour, Green and Māori parties all have policies that seek to improve civic education, and the RockEnrol movement is similarly focused, with a parallel call for lowering the voting age. Next month sees a big ‘civics summit’ in Parliament, of which I will be part.

But is there really a ‘civic deficit’ among New Zealand youth? And is civic education really in such a parlous state?

I would argue the situation is much more complex – and much better – than we are led to believe.

The International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS), published in 2010 and the largest such study ever conducted, shows young New Zealanders in a different light.

The findings in the report are based on data collected from over 140,000 Year 11-equivalent students, 62,000 teachers and 5300 school principals from 38 countries.

Among the many categories in which New Zealand students outperformed the ICCS average were in their future expectations to vote in general elections (84 percent of those surveyed) and their knowledge of civics.

They were also more likely to be involved with an organisation collecting money for a social cause (47 percent), a voluntary group doing something to help in the community (40 percent), a cultural organisation based on ethnicity (23 percent) and a youth organisation affiliated with a political party or union (albeit just 13 percent).

New Zealand students scored lower for involvement in campaigns and environmental and human rights organisations, and there was evidence of a lack of consistency of citizenship education opportunities between schools.

At the senior end of schooling, the National Certificate of Education Achievement (NCEA) has at Levels 1–3 (Years 11-13) a suite of citizenship education achievement standards in social studies, including assessment of ‘personal social action’. These were introduced in 2011 and are both world-leading in their approach and rich in potential.

Over half of New Zealand schools offer one or more of these standards and around 5000 students a year undertake personal social action assessments. At each NCEA level, students deepen their civic engagement. For example:

  • at Level 1, Year 11 students report on their personal involvement in a social justice or human rights action (often 40 Hour Famine or the like)
  • at Level 2, Year 12 students describe their personal involvement in a social action related to rights and responsibilities
  • at Level 3, Year 13 students examine their personal involvement in one or more social action that aims to influence policy change(s).

Through a two-year study of these standards, I discovered with fellow researchers at Victoria University of Wellington and Massey University that, given the right support from teachers and other adults, the assessed social action process offers students a meaningful experience of citizenship where they have agency and a voice.

Our study confirmed international research that has found effective citizenship education requires an inclusive and democratic environment and a critically orientated classroom that follows current events, discusses problems and controversial issues, promotes active dialogue, exposes students to civic role models, and provides opportunities for students to respond through civic engagement.

In particular, citizenship education that engages students with real-world issues (not just imaginary ones) that hold personal and social significance were found to be particularly powerful for learning.

However, implementing effective citizenship education had several challenges for teachers. It required both deep knowledge about societal issues and the flexibility to give students some degree of choice over their social issues and actions.

When students rushed into action (a student-led approach), they often lacked in-depth knowledge and criticality to defend their actions and understand their chosen issues.

In contrast, when teachers structured the experience heavily (a teacher-led approach), students were often resentful because it denied them agency, and they were less engaged, because it wasn’t necessarily an issue that meant anything to them.

The most effective model was a teacher-guided approach, where teachers were prepared to let go of power and control at times, to allow students to take risks and show initiative, but at other times intervened to ensure students had the levels of learning, deep knowledge and engagement they needed.

Our study showed how choices for social action were wonderfully varied. At one school alone, some students worked on school-based policies such as gender-neutral toilets or an enhanced curriculum for Māori students, while the majority focused on issues in the local community that mirrored significant national issues – for example, poverty (provision of school lunches for children who turned up to school hungry), domestic violence, supporting refugee settlement, issues relating to mental health and suicide, and the need for a living wage.

At another school, a group of five students focused on the Healthy Homes Bill, a Private Member’s Bill then before Parliament to legislate for landlords to maintain a minimum standard for rental properties.

After researching the background to the Bill, this group even presented to the parliamentary select committee for it, which they found “very nerve-wracking” but also a highly positive experience. They felt the skills and knowledge they had developed would help them confidently undertake similar actions in their adult lives.

In both schools, teachers and other adults were vital in creating connections with the community, informing students’ knowledge and guiding students on, for example, parliamentary process. Their actions enhanced student agency and deepened their citizenship experiences.

These examples show the importance of teachers and students working together as partners to develop the type of knowledge, skills and dispositions students need for a lifetime of citizen involvement.

They also show that New Zealand is well set up already to deliver citizenship education — it is just a question of building on what is there, resourcing teachers better and expanding its use.

Adults and young people listening and learning from each other is what citizenship education is all about. It is what a living democracy is all about.

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