Citizenship Theory and Education: Ideals, goals and strategies

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Citizenship Theory and Education:

Ideals, goals and strategies

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The concepts of citizenship and education are intertwined. An increasing number of nations, in reaction to the forces of globalization, are requiring citizenship instruction as part of an overall educational plan. But what is citizenship?

The concept of citizenship has been discussed since ancient times. Even so, there is not a standard definition applicable to all. In general terms citizenship entails both rights and responsibilities. An individual’s definition of citizenship, however, is influenced by a great many factors. Ironically, that thought in and of itself provides a working definition. In other words, citizenship can be thought of as participation in the larger culture. The form that participation takes can only be dictated to a minor extent.

Citizenship also has contradictions that must be taught as part of the learning process.

Teaching citizenship is a tricky proposition, but well worth the effort. Careful selection of the most appropriate techniques and learning theories can help the process. In the end, citizenship is not abeyance to a certain set of standards in exchange for politically granted rights. Instead, it is a state of mind that allows the citizen to protect his or her own rights while also participating in the betterment of society. That state of mind both benefits, and is benefited by, the process of education. Citizenship is both a goal and an ongoing process. As Gerald Delanty writes; “The task of citizenship, as I see it, is to assist in enhancing the collective learning capacity of society (2003).

Citizenship defined

The concept of citizenship can be traced back at least to the ancient Greeks. Philosophers such as Aristotle formed a dual concept of rights and responsibilities that influences our notions of censorship to this day. The citizen is not just an individual who by virtue of living in a certain place enjoys certain rights. The individual is also part of a larger society. As forward-thinking as the ancient Greeks were, full citizenship was restricted to certain privileged people.

In modern times, definitions of citizenship have focused on the individual as the bearer of certain rights. These rights are inalienable. Depending on the society, those rights may be granted by God, the State or nature. The rights cannot be usurped by the State. Statements to that effect have formed the bases of most modern representative democracies. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the United States’ Bill of Rights are two of the most notable examples.

This focus on individual rights was a reaction to the tyrannical regimes of the middle ages and the Colonial era. As democratic states became more established throughout the world, the definition of citizenship has expanded once again to include elements of responsibility. A societal responsibility to protect the rights of the less fortunate has taken hold. In the words of Wendell Wilkie; “The Constitution (U.S.) does not provide for first and second class citizens” (Bruun and Getzen, 1996).

Even so, the high-minded documents of freedom did not ensure equality. Early United States history shows the stark contrast between ideals and reality. “As free, property holding, white men they [the founding fathers] were the only group to enjoy full citizenship and a political voice in the new republic” (Berkin, 2002). Clearly, citizenship is a process instead of a static concept.

In recent decades, a more complete interpretation of citizenship has gained acceptance. A strong emphasis on individual rights continues, but the need to actively participate in society is also stressed. The words spoken by John F. Kennedy at his 1960 Presidential inauguration “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” crystallized a new activist concept. As citizens, we have the responsibility to protect the citizenship rights of others. That participation, in turn, protects our own rights.

Since that time, concepts of citizenship have divided even further. Citizenship has taken on a more cultural, and less nationalistic, theme. Rather than focusing on equality of all persons, citizenship study and research is moving toward better recognition and appreciation of the differences inherent in a multicultural society. In that context, citizenship entails both individual rights and a duty to be engaged in the greater society. This engagement may take many forms.

For immigrants, citizenship is may be primarily a legal concept. They may be required to learn the language laws and customs of the country. They also may have to prove their economic worth to the country by working and paying taxes for a designated period of time. In exchange, governments grant the rights of citizenship.

For others, citizenship is synonymous with patriotism or dissent. Still others fulfill their duties of citizenship by volunteering, contributing to charities or helping others within the local community. Citizenship is defined in a legal document for these people. It is a cultural concept that shifts over time. For citizenship education to be effective it must be able to recognize, and capitalize upon, these differences. Carol Mutch provides a simple but flexible definition:

Citizenship is when you belong to a group, country, school, culture.

Citizenship education is about how you can enhance relationships. (2004)

Citizenship Education: theory and practice

If citizenship implies equality of all, then education ensures it. Education and citizenship are connected because each promotes the goals of the other. Horace Mann wrote “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men” (Bruun and Getzen, 1996).

The theory that citizenship must be taught and learned has been gaining wider acceptance. An increasing body of research is also focusing on the relationship between learning and citizenship. Gerard Delanty writes: “The connection between learning and citizenship has become a highly topical issue in the last few years…” (2003). As a result, citizenship education has become a requirement in many countries.

Teaching citizenship effectively is different than teaching most traditional subjects. Since the actions of citizenship can take many forms, there is not a single widely agreed upon model. A variety of learning theories are being used in practice. Each program must ask some fundamental questions – To what extent is the program teaching conformity? To what extent is it empowering students? How much valuable classroom time should be devoted to citizenship? To answer these questions, evaluation must be a key element of any citizenship education program.

Techniques for teaching citizenship vary among the nations. A trend is emerging toward a more holistic approach. The program used in New Zealand schools is evidence of this trend. The program does not use a great deal of formal curricula within the program. Instead it seeks to go beyond the traditional use of social studies as a citizenship education tool. The program includes several elements not traditionally seen in such programs, such as physical education and environmental education:

            The views on citizenship in this document promote individual and

            collective responsibility and global awareness and these are supported

            by an action-oriented approach to topics studied.

(Mutch, 2004)

The environmental element of the program is designed to foster an attitude of world citizenship. It uses interactive elements to promote the idea of world stewardship. The environmental element of the program is divided into three strands; education about the environment, education in the environment and education for or with the environment (Mutch, 2004). This is an example of how each individual element within the citizenship program provides a multi-level approach.

The New Zealand program reflects a theory that citizenship is not just an ideal. It is vital, in fact, to the survival of the nation of New Zealand and the world community. Citizenship includes not only individual rights but also the recognition that failure to participate in society is a risk to our existence. Citizenship concedes a fragility of the world as we know it. The program as a whole is based on research that has identified several key traits that will be necessary for future global management. Included among these traits are: taking a globally-minded approach to problem solving, the ability to collaborate and cooperate with others and the ability to understand and accept the differences that exist among others (Mutch, 2004).

The New Zealand program recognizes that most of what is learned about citizenship is learned outside the school. Accordingly, the curriculum does not emphasize books, provides options and provides real-world experiences for the students. It also takes advantage of new technologies, integrating them into the citizenship program.

The explosion of technology in recent years presents both challenges and opportunities for citizenship education. The danger is if more people are spending more time engaging with electronic devices, the opportunities for meaningful cultural interaction are decreased. People may become disengaged from political and social processes. Of course, the opposite may also be true. Technology may give opportunities for civic participation that may not have existed otherwise. Also, information is empowering for the citizen. Modern technology is enabling a free flow of information beyond anything that could have been imagined before.

Because modern technology is a part of almost everyone’s life, it can be easily integrated into a constructivist learning framework.  Author Elayne Harris notes that “social learning theory has prepared the ground for a technology of citizenship by embracing both normative utopian and analytic/conceptual dimensions of theorizing (1999).

Canada has been faced with an adult education crisis. Increases in both the number and diversity of these students have led officials to re-assess their adult education programs. The need to do more than just “give information” was apparent. A lack of citizenship education makes students less empowered to use their education as a whole. The long-term result could be the creation of a lower social class that neither enjoys full citizenship nor can offer anything to enhance the larger society. As a response, officials are implementing a system bases on social learning theory that takes advantage of the individualism of students and emerging technologies.

Programs such as those in New Zealand and Canada promote citizenship as a process. Social learning and constructivist theories are helpful tools for constructing those programs. These theories enable teachers to capitalize on the collectivist learning processes that lead to more meaningful uptake. According to Delanty, et al, the learning of citizenship “mostly takes place in the informal context of everyday life and is also heavily influenced by critical and formative events in people’s lives” (2003). Rather than being a hindrance, these learning experiences can be capitalized upon. Teachers can construct activities that have a greater relevance to the student’s lives. “Citizenship for the 21st century is collective learning in process” (Harris, 1999).

Analysis and conclusion

The question “What is citizenship?” is not likely to be resolved soon. It is different things for different people. As such, those differences should be the focus of citizenship education. Using structured learning theories can help provide citizenship education that fosters open-minded citizens. Citizenship should be empowering and should instill a sense of cultural responsibility in a positive way.

Citizenship is a legal concept. It is also an expression of our beliefs and values. It has never been perfect, and that is why it must be an active process. In a world becoming more technologically advanced and more culturally mixed a re-evaluation of citizenship education is needed. Author Gerard Delanty writes; “We need to move to a more dynamic view of citizenship as entailing developmental processes of learning, rather than the fixed rule learning model implicit in disciplinary citizenship” (2003).

Citizenship education goes beyond the traditional civics model. It is learned by experience. Therefore, educators must take an integrative across-the curriculum approach to teaching it. For citizenship education to be effective a flexible, action oriented approach is necessary. Finally, thorough evaluations must be undertaken. The opinions of students, teachers, administration and the community can help guide planners toward an effective and empowering citizenship program.


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