'Tokenistic' view of citizenship lessons

14th January 2011 at 00:00
Call for transformation of subject, moving it on from teaching `nice manners' and how to be `good neighbours'

Teachers tend to take a "very superficial and tokenistic" view of citizenship education, claims new research.

Attitudes towards the creation of "responsible citizens" - one of the bedrocks of Curriculum for Excellence - will have to be transformed if the reform is to be effective, it warns.

In the main, teachers see citizenship education as about teaching youngsters to be "law-abiding", to have "nice manners" and to be "good neighbours", said Stephanie Farquhar, author of the research and currently a probationer teacher of modern studies in Dundee.

It was much less common to find teachers who sought to make pupils "participatory" citizens, who organise collective or community activities, or "justice-orientated" citizens who challenge the social and political structure, she found.

Scotland is in danger of creating "socially-compliant citizens who don't think", commented Mark Priestley, of Stirling University's Institute of Education, who oversaw Miss Farquhar's research.

"We should be developing people who are not only socially responsible but who are active in society and able to ask the awkward questions," he said.

Although Miss Farquhar's dissertation - Responsible Citizens: Teachers' Perceptions of Citizenship in the Modern Studies Classroom - focused on the attitudes of only six history and modern studies teachers in an Aberdeenshire school, it was nevertheless valuable, said Dr Priestley. The teachers' views were "if not typical", then "widely supported" in Scotland, he said.

"If the attitudes Stephanie encountered are more widely typical of what's happening in Scottish secondary schools, it's difficult to imagine how Curriculum for Excellence can be fully implemented. If teachers have truncated views of citizenship, they will have truncated views of teaching methodology and the content they are willing to engage with," added Dr Priestley.

Miss Farquhar called for a clearer definition of citizenship education, pointing out that even Learning and Teaching Scotland, the Scottish Government and HMIE did not appear to have a shared understanding of what it should be.

The undemocratic nature of schools should also be challenged, she said. Pupils had to ask permission to go to the toilet and if they tried to argue a point - something which citizenship education was supposed to encourage - they were punished.

One teacher who took part in the study commented that his pupils did "not know how to conduct themselves and behave without adult help"; they had to be "trained like puppies".

The teacher, who had joined the profession just three years ago, did not try and develop citizenship education in his classroom because he did not believe young people were, or could be, responsible citizens.

Another, who had 30 years' experience, insisted that "democratic values" were being taught but was unwilling for pupils to be involved in decision- making in school through pupil councils, for instance. He described citizenship as something he had "always tried to avoid".

Curriculum for Excellence was "a festering pile of poo", commented another teacher, although he did commend "its emphasis on citizenship" which could be taught by focusing on topics such as "suffragettes, female emancipation and slavery" in history. Realistically, however, citizenship could not be taught in schools because they were "bureaucratic and undemocratic", he argued.

Another, with 29 years' experience defined a responsible citizen as someone who "takes part collectively in their community, contacts their representatives and is law-abiding".

This could be done by "forming groups to paint murals over graffiti, meeting with town planners and councillors, organising sponsored walks and picking up litter". But he did not see pupils as citizens and believed they needed to be trained to be citizens by teachers who were always in charge.

The only female teacher in the study saw her pupils as citizens and identified "many different activities to promote citizenship", such as teaching about elections, voting and working in groups. She also emphasised the importance of pupils making decisions within pupil councils.

Half of the teachers interviewed had views that were "troubling for the introduction of CfE", Miss Farquhar said. "(They) either do not believe that citizenship can be taught within schools or do not believe that young people can be viewed as citizens in the first instance."

  • Stephanie Farquhar's dissertation can be read by clicking on the link to the right of this story, under the heading "Attached files"
    • emma.seith@tes.co.uk

      Original headline: `Tokenistic' view of citizenship lessons uncovered by research

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