Ask before you teach

11th February 2005 at 00:00
If schools are serious about citizenship education, children should have a say in how and what they learn, says Henry Maitles

Education for citizenship has to have a strong democratic component, if for no other reason than because children's rights are at its core. The UN charter on children's rights, now incorporated into European, British and Scottish legislation holds in article 12 that a young person has "the right to freely express an opinion in all matters affecting himher and to have that opinion taken into account".

Indeed, citizenship education is unlikely to mean much to pupils unless they are simultaneously engaged in participation in school decision-making and discussion procedures. The Learning and Teaching Scotland review group document on Education for Citizenship, which is the guiding policy document in schools, interprets this by recommending the use of pupil councils as a vehicle for the expression of active citizenship and democratic participation in schools.

However, much of the evidence relating to pupil councils suggests that, while there are some good examples, far too many are tokenistic. Where they function well, they can make a real difference in terms of contributing to the development of pupils' social and moral responsibility, community involvement and political literacy, thereby in one strategy addressing the three main strands of citizenship education.

Yet, where they do not function well, school staff pay lip-service to pupil views and suggestions. Serious issues are sidestepped and the school hierarchy remains unmoved. The reason for this is likely to be because the structures and pattern of relationships in schools have probably changed less than they should have in order to grant this type of autonomy to pupils and to convince them that their right to have a say is genuinely respected.

Even where pupil councils function well, this is necessary but not sufficient for fulfilling the requirements of the children's rights charter. Young people should have a say in what affects them most - learning and teaching. When consulted, pupils want a say in this and usually ask for forms of active learning. The evidence beginning to emanate from the Teaching and Learning research project in England, as well as research in Scotland, is that this type of consultation should be a central theme in school effectiveness; pupils themselves mention this as being central to their understanding of school improvement.

Michael Fullan in 1981 asked the question why schools in democratic countries are so undemocratic. He returned to this a decade later. And, indeed, the question remains unanswered 14 years on.

Yet a participatory, democratic atmosphere and practice in the classroom makes a difference to pupil attitudes and dispositions; there is a link between this practice and citizenship values. Giving pupils a genuine say in what affects them most - the methodology and content of how and what they learn - is important for education for citizenship and democracy, because democracy is best learnt in a democratic setting. We don't just learn democracy, we live it and we need to be teaching democracy democratically.

Where increased democracy is introduced, research suggests there are substantial benefits for both teacher and pupil, and a profound impact on the learning experience in the classroom. One study in England investigated the impact of a more participatory level of learning on a particularly "difficult" and disruptive year 9 class (the equivalent of S3), where the teacher had had sleepless nights and decided to consult them on their learning.

The pupils had a distinct preference for "doing and watching rather than speaking and listening" and for working in groups. Teaching methodology was altered, the pupils responded with enthusiasm and achieved well in the assessments and the teacher recorded in her log that she was much less stressed - and, indeed, positively looked forward to the class.

There is further evidence that schools which have better-developed participation and consultation also do particularly well in attainment. It must be stressed that the democratic approach is not an easy option.

Prerequisite to its success are mutual respect and trust. And there is no doubt that smaller class sizes would be a major factor to encourage teachers to look towards this.

Trying to meet pupil expectations involves a great deal of unseen work, so the introduction of change, where considered appropriate, should be at a manageable pace. It would be damaging to pupils' perception of democracy if teachers embarked on it half-heartedly and empowerment was not delivered.

If pupils dismiss citizenship education as a sham, it may simply add to the cynicism about politics and participation in public life.

Henry Maitles is head of curricular studies at Strathclyde University's faculty of education.

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