Monday, August 20, 2012

The Great Curriculum Debate: How Should We Teach Civics?

The Economist Intelligence Unit's 2010 Democra...
The Economist Intelligence Unit's 2010 Democracy Index map: lighter colours represent more democracy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Dr David Zyngier, Senior Lecturer Faculty of Education at Monash University, The Conversation:

How much do students know about politics? Or perhaps a better question is: how much do they care?

Recent polling and studies have caused great consternation amongst commentators about an apparent declining interest in political debate amongst the young. To many young people, politics has become a dirty word.

The draft of the Australian Curriculum: Civics and Citizenship, available for public consultation until last week, has already come under strident attack. The Institute of Public Affairs' Chris Berg has suggested that there is a “blatant bias in the national curriculum [that] could damage our democracy” and that schools might as well tell students who to vote for.

But while some fret about what is being taught and others whether students are interested, there could be a vital area that most are ignoring in this debate.

What young people think about democracy

A recent study in Australia has revealed that teenagers couldn’t care less about politics. The latest National Assessment Program – Civics and Citizenship, suggests that politics has little or no interest for young people and they are not developing to be informed or active citizens.

The sample of Year 6 and Year 10 students from across Australia was tested on civic knowledge and an understanding of the skills and values of active citizenship. But worryingly only one-third in both year levels said they were interested in Australian politics, with more interested in overseas political systems.

Reporting on a Lowy Institute national poll, the Age editorialised that “When people cease to participate, democratic values - and eventually respect for human rights - begin to erode”. The poll showed that fewer than 40% of Australians aged 18-29 agreed with the statement “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government”.

A Senate inquiry into citizenship, democracy and education even suggested there was a “crisis of civic engagement” in Australia.

What do teachers think about democracy?

So what is political engagement? And what role can education play to cultivate it? While many have focused on what young people think or what’s being taught through curriculum, there is little research on what teachers themselves think about democracy.

In a ground breaking study, researchers globally are trying to find out exactly what teachers understand by democracy and how they might implement these understandings in their classrooms.

This research is not confined to the social studies classrooms but across the entire school curriculum. The Global Doing Democracy Research Project (GDDRP), led by myself at Monash University and Dr Paul R. Carr of Lakehead University, Canada is investigating how democracy is understood and demonstrated by educators and whether education supports or cultivates democracy.

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