Democratizing Citizenship Education

One of the goals of the OveHum International is to find organizations that follow the philosophy of supporting Children and Adolescents. The International Convention on the Rights of the Child reminds us that all persons under the age of 18 are full citizens. We recall the articles on UNESCO’s Global Citizenship, as well as Global Citizenship: An Online Classroom Proposal that we published earlier on the subject of Education for Citizenship, since it seems important to us that in schools we teach, not only to be a “good” Citizen, but another series of values according to this social function. This time we would like to welcome Farzana S. Islam & Kate Morrison, Directors at Active Citizen Europe, that aims to foster the integration of children within society, through innovative and participatory programs, and present a post written specifically on Democratizing Citizenship Education.


What is the purpose of Citizenship Education?

Martha Nussbaum, Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, has argued that the key ingredients for citizenship in a democracy are found in access to a liberal education which emphasises the development of critical thought and creativity and does not limit education to providing “technical machines” for the global market.1

This type of education is at its best, the educator John Dewey espoused, when it provides a means to teach democratic values in the broadest sense, not merely as a form of government, but as a way of being within one’s society. A democratic citizenship education should encompass the learning of critical thinking skills, exploring the principles of universal rights and democracy and the rights conferred and obligations imposed by being part of organised society, and finally of developing a sense of responsibility towards this society, and belonging within it.

It can be argued that there is no conflict between a discourse that recognizes pluralism or different identities and one that emphasizes common interests. In the field of education, the interest in preserving democracy, peace and human rights can be seen as underpinning a focus on developing critical thought, an ability to consider multiple perspectives and a willingness to engage and promote action for change in defense of these principles. As UNESCO underscores, “Citizenship education should be the forum which gives rise to and nurtures a genuine culture of discussion.”2

There are many programs that directly or indirectly encourage the development of critical thought through civic education or by encouraging debate on topical global themes. A good example of the latter is the well-known and prolific (particularly in the USA) Model United Nations (MUN) which predates the actual UN, dating back to the time of the League of Nations.

Through simulation of debates on international topics and following rules of order, students are able to explore politics and perspectives perhaps outside their own. Within Europe there is also the European Youth Parliament (EYP) and the comparatively new Global Issues Network (GIN).

These provide students with opportunities to take part in respectively different models of transnational, or multicultural mock “political” processes or to engage with civil society.

Nonetheless, although programs such as the MUN are theoretically open to everyone it is evident from the existence of foundations such as LIMUN in the UK, which aims to make participation possible and affordable for all, many of the schools and universities taking part in MUN tend to be better funded schools with more economically privileged students. Indeed, in Belgium where we are based, MUN participation is more prevalent in higher education than in secondary education, which removes the possibility of this sort of civic education for a broader range of students. Crucially, from our perspective, a significant opportunity is missed for contributing to the development of ideas and ideals during the younger years when opinions are less fixed.

What should a democratized program of citizenship education include? 

At our organisation, Active Citizen Europe (ACE), we promote the need for citizenship programs that are embedded grandstand-330930_640in all local schools and communities and which start early, in the mid-primary/elementary years. These programs encourage inclusivity and give all children a voice and a means to become active members of their society. Implicit is giving children not just a forum, but the tools and confidence to be heard and understood, to listen to each other, and to develop participatory civic skills. Qualitative research about the kind of programs that reduce marginalization and even tackle radicalization show that giving children opportunities to actively engage towards the betterment of the local, regional or even national society may be better suited to the task than more traditional models of “teaching” civics.

What does this mean for Citizen Education Practitioners?

Programs must focus on providing the children with room to discuss the issues, global or local, in a safe place where their voices are heard, all opinions are safe and are discussed in a climate of mutual respect. We would advise all practitioners of citizenship education to adopt these means of approaching citizenship teaching through “active learning” methods promulgated by Active Citizen Europe:

  • Programs should be built into the curriculum of every school from primary school onwards
  • These should promote positive links between school and the wider community
  • All children should be encouraged to participate and engage
  • Teachers should receive training to be able to address sensitive issues and challenge aggressive opinions in a way that does not shut down debate
  • Children should take the lead where-ever possible in organizing projects which develop citizenship skills including:
    • Planning: Identifying and researching local/community “problems”, asking relevant questions, developing a course of action, searching for best solutions
    • Collaboration: Participating with peers in decision making processes, engaging in democratic procedures, listening to different perspectives, finding team solutions, cross-cultural engagement
    • Analysis: Gathering information, considering a variety of perspectives, identifying key problems or issues and possible solutions and determining the optimal ones for that community
    • Evaluation: Reflecting on outcomes, being able to defend actions and identifying future courses of action, identifying individual and team roles in project success, reflecting on areas of success and areas that could be improved
    • Communication: Learning different ways of communicating effectively, in different scenarios. Opportunities to apply this skill in the “real world”
    • Cognitive Empathy: Developing compassion for difference, higher level understanding of the differences that we see and a desire to understand and connect with difference, not merely tolerate it; combining intellectual understanding with concern

Democratizing Citizenship Education means that these programs should be available for all, should start young and should reflect both the local and global realities of belonging to 21st century communities. It is important that the generations of the future learn skills of debate, negotiation, speaking and listening and enhancing their sense of community belonging in order to safe-guard democracy and promote peace.

Authors: Farzana S. Islam & Kate Morrison, Directors at Active Citizen Europe logo

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