Reimagining civics education in Australia: participation in practice
We're not doing nearly enough to realise the Australian Curriculum's objective of creating "active and informed citizens". What could be a more important role for education in a democracy?
TLDR: We should be teaching civic participation in practice
All but the most minimalist conceptions of a true democracy envisage citizens voting and participating between elections on an informed and collectively considered basis. The Australian Curriculum adopts this vision insofar as it aspires to develop “active and informed citizens”. Under this model, citizens’ votes are cast on the strength of party policies, on which they have developed an informed and considered judgment, and they don’t rely mostly on heuristics like voting behaviour of family and peers, or simply their own historical voting behaviour. They also participate actively and on an informed basis between elections.
That’s not what Australian democracy looks like right now. While participation in some forms is increasing, we still vote and engage very much on the basis of heuristics and soundbites. The point here is absolutely not that people, especially young people, don’t want to engage more meaningfully; it’s that we’re not creating the right conditions and opportunities for engagement.
Part of the solution is to reimagine and better resource civics education in Australia. We should give the CCE curriculum more time. We should teach students to coherently evaluate and deliberate with their fellow citizens on current policies; evaluate parties and candidates; and perhaps most significantly, participate beyond elections, both formally and informally. We should do this by giving students opportunities to apply these capabilities in practice, talking and doing something about current local, state and national issues that affect them; preaching at students won’t work.
Shying away from this kind of education is burying our heads in the sand and tacitly reinforcing the notion that policy isn’t something you can approach rightly or wrongly (with logic and empathy), even if there isn’t a right or wrong answer. And of course teachers should reinforce this idea: right approach, but no right or wrong answer. Just like they do when they coach student debating teams, teach in English, Studies of Religion and life skills course classrooms and teach any other issue that isn’t entirely objective.
There are some important caveats here and I’ll mention three upfront: we shouldn’t invite relitigation of rights, we need to ensure teachers feel equipped with the right resources and capabilities to teach a reimagined curriculum, and critically, we need to provide citizens with more meaningful opportunities for participation.
Why does civics education matter?
Citizen participation in an ideal democracy
The notion of “ideal democracy” is contested; but only the most minimalist of democrats would argue that the best we can and should hope for is a competitive election in which people are given a chance to elect a different candidate or party. Such a minimalist would emphasise the capacity of electorates to turn politicians out of office, rather than their capacity to achieve an expression of their views in public policy.
But most conceptions of democracy would suggest that policies should represent in some sense the considered views of the electorate about policy.
If we take this as our starting point, at least these two things should be true about citizen engagement.
Informed voting: Citizens are informed and make considered judgments about the policies of parties and candidates in the lead-up to elections and cast their vote on this basis. The degree to which citizens should inform themselves is, like the notion of ideal democracy, contested. “However, democratic theory does require that citizens be informed about the issues of the day, what they mean and the consequences of differing decisions. Indeed, this is a precondition nearly every writer and thinker on politics sets down as a requirement for ‘enlightened public opinion’”.
Informed participation beyond voting: Between elections, citizens also inform themselves about policies and make their views known to government through various mechanisms. These might include more formal mechanisms like contacting representatives, making submissions to inquiries, or joining a political party or a range of more informal “everyday, local and culturally meaningful forms of participation”, like “youth-led networks, community and interest-based groups and settings”.
The Australian Curriculum adopts this normative starting point. It aspires to “support students to relate well to others and foster an understanding of Australian society, citizenship and national values including through the study of civics and citizenship”.
Goal 2 of the Melbourne Declaration proclaims the commitment of “Australian governments…to working in collaboration with all schools sectors to support all young Australians to become…active and informed citizens”.
The current state of citizen participation
Informed and considered voting
It’s hard to say that Australians typically vote on the basis of a considered evaluation of parties’ key policies. Instead, our votes are very strongly shaped by partisan affiliation, which in turn often flows from the influence of family and our social environment, and other heuristics.
It has been said that “Australians…maintain a rather tepid interest in politics with a firm commitment to party”, and this is a commitment that is largely held for life. Australian voters systematically perceive their preferred party to be closer to their own position than their policy platform would suggest. Forty percent of Australians in the most recent election had always voted for the same party, although this represents a decline on historical figures.
Family and socioeconomic background
What determines party affiliation? Young respondents have in recent history identified “the family” as the most important source of information about voting in elections and in terms of “finding out about politics and voting”. “Studies…have consistently found that family is the single most influential factor in determining a person’s lifelong voting preference, and political socialisation within the home at a young age is somewhat inescapable.” Cleavages like economic, class, religious and sociological groups dominate broad party alignments.
More generally, we rely overwhelmingly on other heuristics, or “rapidly executed rules for decision-making that specify a narrow relationship and the preferred decision”. Citizens use heuristics to form political positions and make voting choice decisions despite a deep lack of political knowledge or information. We’ve mentioned party identity as one. Others that have been found to be significant include “valence voting, wherein non-policy factor assessments are made about competence and performance” and “deservingness” (on welfare issues).
Soundbites and symbolism
Thirty-four percent of voters did not report “policy issues” as important considerations in the voting decision, although this represents a continued historical downward trend. Even where we are voting on the basis of issues, of course these other heuristics often play the most important role in informing our assessment. While social media tends to promote issue-based engagement through storytelling and personalisation (critical but by no means the only valuable sources of “information), it is less commonly associated with discussing issues using logic and evidence (equally invaluable forms of information), and various “collective issues” that lend themselves less to personalisation (like infrastructure reform).
Informed participation beyond voting
Students at or above the “Year 10 proficient standard” in civics and citizenship “are able to demonstrate knowledge of core aspects of Australian democracy. They can demonstrate awareness of the connection between fundamental principles and their manifestation in rules and laws. They demonstrate awareness that citizenship rights and responsibilities are collective as well as individual and are able to make simple evaluations of given mechanisms of civic action.”
At the national level in 2019, 38 percent of Year 10 students attained the proficient standard.”
Participation beyond voting is hard to measure. In some respects, it appears to be declining. To cite one striking measure, the share of adults involved in civic and political groups – a broad category that includes political parties, unions, consumer bodies, environmental groups and animal rights campaigns – fell from 19 percent in 2006 to 14 percent in 2014. We also see a decline in political party membership. Less than 0.5% of the population is now signed up to the mainstream political parties, representing a significant historical decline.
In others, we see indicators of strong or increasing participation. While people display “increasing levels of disaffection with political institutions and traditional advocacy groups”, we are also witnessing “people’s changed preferences to participate in politics on the basis of issues and on an ad hoc basis”. New online forms of activism and protest have proliferated, especially among younger generations. As historian Paul Bongiorno writes, “the internet and social media are unquestionably important spaces for modern social protest but their much-criticised echo-chamber effect can produce the very opposite mobilising effect of collective action associated with older forms of protest”. While activism on its face can be an extremely vital sign of participation, that activism should be informed.
It's critical to note that just because citizens might not be participating in historically traditional ways in politics, this doesn’t mean that they don’t want to participate; usually, the better interpretation is that we haven’t been equipped with the right experience, capabilities and concrete opportunities to participate. To the contrary, students often display an “awareness regarding justice, equality and democratic action,” and a deep engagement in issues that affect their lives and communities.
What’s the role of secondary school education?
An important one
The stickiness of partisan identification and the currently significant influence of family on the voting behaviour of young people is particularly clear cause for teaching the independent exercise of political judgment at school age.
At least in earlier studies, secondary education emerges as more important than tertiary education in determining political knowledge (although for reasons set out below, political knowledge is at best a poor proxy for meaningful participation).
Perhaps most simply, school is the government’s greatest opportunity to shape the way in which citizens engage throughout their lifetime. It’s hard to imagine more fundamentally important roles for education in a democracy.
The nature of the school’s role
Substantively, given the two objectives of informed voting and informed participation set out above, schools should be equipping citizens with “the appropriate political skills with which to evaluate competing leaders, parties and policies at election time.” They should also be teaching students how to participate beyond voting, in line with the Australian Curriculum’s commitment to developing active citizens.
Pedagogically, it is claimed time and again that imparting knowledge is not enough. “In order to become active and informed citizens, it is necessary to develop both the cognitive domain and the affective behavioural domain. This dual emphasis requires an understanding, by the child, of what he or she is learning.” Further, this requires at a minimum that young people must “experience participation in relevant action”.
What’s wrong with the way we’re doing it now, and what in theory could we do better?
The school curriculum in Australia is developed nationally and implemented at the state level. Teachers in three states and two territories use the Australian Curriculum as written by the national curriculum authority, while Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia use an intermediary document or syllabus in place of the Australian Curriculum, which effectively repackages it, and may contain more or less content.
The “Australian Curriculum: Civics and Citizenship” introduced initially during the Gillard Government and soon to be at Version 9, provides students with opportunities to investigate political and legal systems, and explore the nature of citizenship, diversity and identity in contemporary society”.
It represents the latest development in “something of a renaissance in civic education” over the last two decades. Its immediate predecessor was the Discovering Democracy program, implemented in 1998, which took up many of the themes identified by a Civics Expert Group Report commissioned by the Keating Government, including teaching young people the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, as well as how the Australian system of politics and government was structured. The Australian Curriculum explicitly incorporates the notion of active and informed citizens.
First up, it’s critical to note that “the CCE curriculum has only been conceived of as occupying 20 hours of teaching time at each year level,” tasking teachers with covering “a great deal of ground…within a limited space.” In practice, it is often squeezed out by mandatory history and geography work.
In my humble opinion, at least four kinds of capabilities and knowledge are missing from the Australian CCE:
Evaluation of current local, state or national policies. As I read it, the current curriculum falls short of encouraging, let alone requiring, actual evaluation of current policy proposals. It certainly encourages some very worthy capabilities that you might call “adjacent” to the actual evaluation of current policy; but they remain adjacent. For example, it calls students to “use democratic processes to reach consensus on a course of action relating to a civics or citizenship issue and plan for that action,” “compare and contrast the varying policies of different political groups on an issue,” “critically analyse published material relevant to civics and citizenship topics and issues to assess reliability and purpose,” and “take on roles for a discussion to explore various points of view about a contemporary political or social issue”. But at least in my reading, I couldn’t find any requirement for tying everything together and coherently evaluating policies on current issues, coming to and justifying a decision on what the student thinks is the best option either individually or as a group. There are two elements to this requirement. First, we should be teaching students the basic dimensions of evaluating concrete policies (efficiency, social welfare, equity, budgetary cost, social cost and technical feasibility, to name some considerations) and acknowledging the often complex trade-offs between these dimensions. Second, we shouldn’t shy away from applying this kind of evaluation to current issues, with the exception of relitigating fundamental rights. To shy away is to reinforce the idea that talking about policy is simply a matter of your intuition or ideological opinion, rather than something that can be approached in a reasoned, logical way, even if components of it are unavoidably normative. Shying away is far more political than striving to encourage the right approach, even if there’s no right and wrong answer.
Deliberation on current local, state or national policies. Again, while students are encouraged to “use skills associated with the negotiation process,” there’s no requirement to apply these skills to current issues.
Understanding of parties and independent representatives. The curriculum requires students to explore “the role of political parties and independent representatives in Australia’s system of government, including the formation of governments” and examine “a range of strategies used to persuade citizens’ electoral choices, such as public debate, media, opinion polls, advertising, interest groups and political party campaigns”. But does this really equip students practically to make an assessment of their preferred party or candidate in a voting context? Shouldn’t students also learn about the history of different political parties/independents, influences on those parties/independents and the central ways in which their current policy positions differ? “The curriculum authors have shied away from the political – political literacy is not explicitly referenced as a curriculum goal.” To avoid these questions is once again to tacitly steer students to pick a party based on the heuristics mentioned above.
Participation, including activism, beyond elections. The curriculum makes mention of some of the “way that individuals can contribute to civic life, for example, volunteering their services to charities and service groups, making submissions to public enquiries and attending public meetings”. Dr Keith Heggart writes very compellingly on the failures of the current curriculum to teach activism. While the curriculum requires that students “evaluate ways they can be active and informed citizens in different contexts,” he argues that “current understandings of critical thinking go beyond why. The next step must also be taken, which is to ask: can I change this state of affairs? Should I? How? That there is no discussion of this sense of empowerment and agency means the curriculum precludes the most fundamental citizenship imperative of all: how to make the world a better place.”
And there is absolutely no reason why teachers should or would have to take a side in these discussions. There are guardrails teachers could observe as politically neutral facilitators, and of course, if the curriculum were revised, we would also need to invest in equipping them to play this role.
Dr Heggart also offers a very compelling critique of the standard approach to teaching civics and citizenship. He argues that “rather than explicitly focusing on the development of active citizenship through practice-based models, policymakers have begun with the assumption that the best way to learn to be an active citizen is by storing up knowledge about governmental mechanics and systems. There is no evidence that this develops any kind of active citizenship – or is even very effective in developing any form of civic understanding”. The critical point here is that even if you think I’m nit-picking on the substance-related deficits I’ve noted above, there’s a huge difference between teaching these skills in the abstract and practically applying them to current issues. It feels like we’re trying to teach students how to surf from the beach; they can only learn and be inspired so much without hitting the ocean.
He has proposed several ways of grounding civics education in experience:
Action-oriented learning and participation in the public sphere
School community partnerships
Advocacy for systemic and systemic change
Some practical examples
What if we revised the curriculum to explicitly encourage or even require teachers, with enough time, to promote engagement with current policy issues, through assignments like this?
Design and participate in a deliberative-style discussion of a relevant local, state or national health or economic policy issue with fellow students
In teams, pick a local issue you care about and develop an activism strategy, thinking creatively about the both formal and informal ways in which you might participate
Individually draft a policy memo evaluating policies a national issue you care about, including why the issue matters, an evaluation of the policy along dimensions like equity, efficiency and cost and trade-offs, and identifying your preferred policy
In teams, draft a set of questions you would put to politicians at a local town hall meeting or other forum for participation on a policy issue you care about, attend the meeting (trying to ask the questions if you can) and report on what you observed
In teams, identify an issue related to justice – however you choose to define that – and then research, shoot, edit and publish a film about that aspect of justice. In fact, this one has already been piloted with great success by Dr Heggart, and it was called “Justice Citizens”
One immediate criticism to these ideas relates to aptitude and interest. But as I’ve noted in other posts, students are absolutely capable of tackling the issues they care about together; to argue otherwise is condescending. Perhaps most significantly, they often find this to be an incredibly rewarding experience.
Lastly, this kind of participatory civics education can only go as far as the opportunities students have to meaningfully participate in our current politics during and beyond their schooling. There aren’t enough of those opportunities right now. But at the very least, this might motivate students to create more.
It's one thing to be involved in politics at school. But I think the practice of democracy in schools is much more effective, because all theory is grey.
Students should have the greatest possible autonomy in deciding what they want to learn and when. Many things within schools can be decided democratically by students. And student representatives can not only be elected, but also chosen by lot, as has already been done in Bolivia. Then not only the usual suspects hold such offices, but everyone has the chance to do so. And those who do not fall into the lap of such offices can thus be empowered.