Civics and citizenship education being left to chance - academic

3:27 pm on 26 May 2021

A civics and citizenship curriculum should be cemented in New Zealand schools because knowledge students are entitled to is being left to chance, says a leading academic.

Wellington Climate Strike 190524

Climate change march in Wellington in May 2019: Young people are best able to learn about civics and citizenship by becoming actively involved in issues that matter to them, according to experts. Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

It follows the Ministry of Education's publication last July of a Civics and Citizenship Education Teaching and Learning Guide, as part of the School Leavers' Toolkit.

The guide is optional, which means schools do not have to teach it.

Victoria University of Wellington senior lecturer Dr Bronwyn Wood said she had no idea whether schools had taken up the guide, which was released a year after other components of the toolkit, that included financial literacy and how to apply for a job.

According to the guide, civics education develops students' knowledge of their rights and duties as New Zealand citizens, and of civic processes, such as how laws are made, how voting works and how to deal with government agencies.

Citizenship education develops "active citizens", including how to listen respectfully to the views of others and how to effect change.

The guide says Aotearoa has a robust democracy but its resilience should not be taken for granted.

In 2019 a digital survey by Seed Waikato, a charity for young Waikato people, found two in five respondents aged between 15 and 34 did not know how to cast a vote in the 2019 local body elections, and eight out of 10 felt disconnected from their council.

Wood said while it did not need to be compulsory, civics and citizenship education was a necessary part of schooling.

"What it does is encourage development of critical thinking skills about society, how we form governments, human rights, and how young people can participate themselves as citizens.

"They have a role to play and a responsibility for the social issues they encounter."

Wood, who was consulted in the development of the guide, said it was "buried", came out later than planned with little fanfare and even now was hard to find. Where the resource now fitted within the curriculum was confusing, she said.

Bronwyn Wood is a Senior Lecturer in Education at Victoria University

Dr Bronwyn Wood wants civics and citizenship education cemented in New Zealand schools. Photo: RNZ/John Gerritsen

The Ministry of Education said the $5.2 million budgeted for the School Leavers' Toolkit across 2018 and 2019 enabled the design of two websites, one for school leavers and one for teachers, which included the civics and citizenship guide.

Deputy secretary Ellen MacGregor-Reid said the student website had 69,000 users accessing it since it was launched in 2019.

The guide had 2000 users access it since being launched last June, and MacGregor-Reid said they were likely social studies teachers and those figures were expected.

"The social sciences area of the New Zealand curriculum allows schools to develop their students' knowledge and skills to participate in, and contribute to, political processes," she said.

"These can include student councils or providing practical opportunities to help familiarise students with civic processes including voting."

Schools had the flexibility to design their own curriculum, under the guidance of the national framework, including decisions about teaching civics and citizenship.

The social sciences curriculum is currently undergoing a refresh, prompted by a new history curriculum with a stronger focus on mātauranga Māori, with the first draft due in October.

"This includes processes to consider whether important learning, like civics and citizenship, can be better supported."

Secondary Principals' Association president and Onehunga High School principal Deidre Shea said she was not sure how many of the country's 350 secondary schools were using the civics and citizenship guide.

She said schools offered education in a variety of ways and the School Leavers' Toolkit overall was well known among teachers.

Massey University senior lecturer Andy Asquith wants compulsory civics and citizenships education in schools.

He said students learning the topic would talk about it at home with whānau.

"A lot of kids come from families that are disengaged. The hope is if they start to question what's going on that it will get people thinking differently."

Not all advocates of civics and citizenship education want it to be compulsory.

Aotearoa Social Studies Educators Network national facilitator and former teacher Dr Maria Perreau said there was a misconception that it was not being taught because it was not compulsory. The guide highlighted the fact it was being done through social studies, she said.

"This just makes it a little more robust. I wouldn't like to see it become something that's dry and disengaging for young people."

Longitudinal research showed the only type of education that had a long-term impact was when students gained active experience in working on issues - and particularly on issues that mattered to them such as climate strike action.

The New Zealand Political Studies Association (NZPSA) also did not want students learning about civics and citizenship without authentic experience of what it meant to be actively involved in the process.

Bronwyn Hayward

Associate professor Bronwyn Hayward is among those against rote learning, saying it may in fact discourage political engagement. Photo: Supplied

NZPSA chairperson and University of Canterbury associate professor Bronwyn Hayward said rote learning did not mean students would understand how to live respectfully across different political and ethnic divides, "the kind of things you need as a citizen".

"Classroom analysis shows that when you just teach people rote facts you actually make what we call the 'participation gap' bigger, because it makes politics a big thing you have to learn rather than something that's part of everyday life," Hayward said.

"So it has a countereffect. It actually suppresses Māori, Pacific and youth engagement in politics. What you really want to do is get people engaged actively in politics."

The NZPSA previously presented a discussion paper to Parliament on ways to support and strengthen democracy.

The report said all advanced democracies faced challenges including declining electoral participation, growing inequality, eroding trust in the media, the legacy of colonisation, environmental degradation and fears about international political interference.

It made three recommendations including to review the implementation of the national curriculum specifically around citizenship to identify civic empowerment gaps and implement strategies to address these, including professional development for teachers.

It said strategic planning and investment in active citizenship learning could enhance democratic resilience.

Minister for Local Government Nanaia Mahuta said she was pleased to see last year's roll out of the new civics education resources to help Year 7 to 13 students "build citizenship skills and to encourage a lifelong habit of democratic participation".

"I am optimistic that we will see the fruits of this mahi in years to come."

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