taught these skills found that, as students developed the abilities to participate, they saw their own participation in civic affairs as more plausible. The authors observed: “In this sense, each student’s identity as an engaged, democratic citizen followed his or her capacity to be one.”lxi
Do Canadian youth possess the skills necessary for participation? Do they know how to affect change? Do they know how to support a candidate for office, for example, organize a protest, get names for a petition, hold public meetings, facilitate meetings and so on? These answers are necessary for understanding the state of students’ civic skills and to make recommendations for the teaching and encouragement of such skills in the classroom. While we have statistics regarding the knowledge and behaviours of Canadian citizens, few have investigated the extent to which young Canadians have the skills necessary to be engaged, active citizens.
From our study, if we were to take only a general look at the questionnaires completed by Ottawa secondary students, we would have to conclude that youth do not possess the skills for political action. Approximately 75% of the students left the section on such skills blank or listed a personal quality, like honesty or loyalty, as a way to address an injustice. John admitted that, when it comes to “walk[ing] the walk, maybe sometimes I’m not the best.” Similarly, Jamie portrayed himself as “all talk, so I wouldn’t do anything.” Most interviewees believed that they could not address an injustice because they did not have actionable skills beyond voting. Some students directly attributed a lack of political action to the type of lessons they received in school. Lee-Ann’s illustration of a typical lesson was shared by many students, as well as teachers. She said: “I think an experience would do us all good … School, it’s more of a work and write and learn, and you don’t really know how it all comes together and what it’s really like being a part of all these things that go on.”
There were participants who cited specific political skills that were practised within their school. Letter writing was perhaps the most often cited. At Ottawa-East HS, a student wrote a letter to the mayor concerning the safety of local parks and received an answer. A student at Fellowship HS wrote a letter to the editor about the lack of public funding for Christian schools, and it was published in the local paper. All the interviewees at Fellowship HS repeated this story because they were proud of the results. None of these incidences, however, involved the participants in our study. Some participating students did mention certain school-wide actions: they created a petition to protest an administrative decision to cancel certain classes, made anti-smoking presentations to younger students and ran in student election campaigns. Within their classes, teachers set up mock elections that were popular among the students, action plans if students were going to address a world issue and research essays on non-governmental organizations or individual activists.
We can see that the majority of these skills are situated as hypothetical or without application beyond the school walls. This was a frustrating reality for most teachers, who expressed a lack of resources and time for the application of these skills in the civic arena. Not surprisingly, when asked how they would fight for an issue important to them, students mostly replied with what they could do and not what they would do. Nicole, a teacher at Crestview Academy, sadly reflected, “It seems like the student is no longer the means of change.”
What Skills Should Schools Teach?
The kind of skills taught in the classroom will vary depending on the underlying assumptions about the proper roles of democratic citizens. Of course, “knowing how to read, write, and do arithmetic