Good citizens vs responsible robots

14th January 2011 at 00:00

"Responsible citizens": a term plastered over the walls of every classroom in the country like a mantra; satisfying inspectors and ticking the boxes. Anyone with the slightest interest in Scottish education in recent years will have heard of the term but, in the ever-changing society in which we live, what does it mean to be responsible citizens?

Are they good neighbours, charitable organisers, challengers of the society's social fabric or responsible robots? How do teachers perceive responsible citizenship and promote it? And, most of all, what implications does the interpretation of Curriculum for Excellence have upon the future of citizenship education in Scotland? My undergraduate research (p6) has tried to contribute in some way to addressing these issues.

The research, carried out through an analysis of interviews and case studies, looked at three main ideas: how teachers defined "responsible citizenship", teachers' ideas on how it can be promoted in the classroom and whether or not its implementation is at all possible within the traditional, hierarchical school system.

Although defining the concept of citizenship is nothing new, and trying to promote it has been well researched, the lack of research critiquing Scotland's attempts at Education for Citizenship inspired me to investigate how it is perceived and delivered, within the climate of CfE, and whether young people are being viewed as "citizens now", as suggested by Learning and Teaching Scotland, or "citizens-in-waiting".

The results of my research showed that, worryingly, teachers too often adopt minimal approaches for developing citizenship in the classroom. This is for several reasons: firstly, the research showed that teachers do not necessarily view young people as "citizens now" but rather as "citizens- in-waiting"; secondly, there is little guidance from above on how to teach for effective citizenship because of the contradictions in the definitions of citizenship found in Scottish policy documents; thirdly, the values- based ideas behind "responsible citizenship" are easy to implement because they already meet with current practice.

In my study, four of the six teachers interviewed encouraged citizenship development within their classrooms through this minimal, tokenistic, values-based perspective, where teachers would encourage young people to be like "good neighbours" (law-abiding and polite people who vote and pick up litter) through prescriptive, self-limiting, written tasks rather than rich, cross-curricular, experiential learning activities.

This approach to citizenship is problematic, because it views young people as having to adopt certain values in order to be "proper citizens" - a far cry from the notion of young people as "citizens now".

Disturbingly, as a result of this minimal interpretation of citizenship by teachers, and the lack of clarity and support from above, many young people will only become "good neighbours", with few teachers and schools trying to promote young people to become involved in bettering society and questioning its flaws.

Only one teacher in the study wanted young people to become involved in organised charity work and helping those less fortunate within their communities. Although this teacher had good ideas, he did not involve his students in organising the events, because he saw them as "citizens-in- waiting" rather than "citizens now". This meant that, although the young people were actively involved in the charity work, they were more like passive recipients of the learning experience, because they developed little understanding of the event's impact or how they could organise ways to make a difference to others.

Another teacher - also the only one - attempted to promote active citizenship within the school by challenging the school's undemocratic principles. His approach was more successful in embodying the notions of active citizenship, as he wanted to help young people become politically, socially and economically aware and able to explain, question and make a stand against issues they felt strongly about.

He tried to promote this way of thinking by actively getting students to seek solutions to real-life problems in his subject - history. He did feel, however, that implementing citizenship in schools was very difficult because of their authoritarian and undemocratic nature, and their limitations on active learning time outwith the classroom.

So what then are the implications of these findings? Unless Scotland wants to create a nation of unthinking, unquestioning and compliant young people, it needs to improve drastically the implementation of Education for Citizenship. Arguably, policies from those such as LTS and the Scottish Government rely too heavily on the individualistic and tokenistic values of the "good citizen", rather than focusing on the skills we want our young people to learn - like how to debate, form reasoned opinions and question the causes of society's problems.

In essence, the type of citizenship which Scottish policies encourage schools to embrace is minimal, reluctant and unremarkable - a worrying finding, given that it is one of Scotland's five priorities for education. To rectify this, there must be further dialogue and discussion on the aims of Education for Citizenship, and more support from above, before we create a nation of young people who are not just responsible robots.

Stephanie Farquhar is a probationer teacher of modern studies in Dundee.

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