“the problem” with civic learning nor the only solution. The school, however, as one of the primary locations for student learning, has a responsibility to improve civic literacy: the ability of youth to make informed political choices for collective action toward equitable societal improvement.
This report deals with two central questions: What knowledge and skills serve as a basis for models of civic learning for young Canadians? What changes to learning processes are needed to encourage youth participation in democratic processes? The report is based on a dialogical examination of secondary literature on youth and civic literacy, government policy that shapes school civics and a case study in Ottawa schools, specifically about the perspectives of teachers and students on the potential of civic learning in secondary schools. From this research, we argue that civic learning is characterized by procedural knowledge and compliant codes of behaviour that do not envelope students in collective action for systemic understandings of political issues. Civic learning in our schools, stemming from our culture, has contributed to a value-neutral approach to politics. Large-scale possibilities for change-making are thus lost in the eyes of students. We argue for renewed efforts to put social justice citizenship at the heart of student learning and the school environment. Models for social justice can range from curriculum that encourages student dialogue on controversial topics to the role-modelling of effective democratic participation within the school and community.v Educational programs for civic literacy would teach students to make informed, active choices about policies that affect their lives and to engage with their community in efforts for social change.vi
The first part of this report discusses the place of “apolitical citizenship” in Canadian education. We then briefly summarize current youth trends in civic participation. Specifically, research shows that youth have turned away from formal activities, such as voting and membership in political parties, and have moved toward informal politics, such as volunteerism.vii The next section explores the possible reasons for youth disengagement from the formal civic arena. Students feel disconnected from democratic institutions, and they are finding new ways to talk about community participation, often through Internet chats, which are under-represented by researchers. The following two sections identify the knowledge and skills, or lack thereof, that our education system provides for students to have robust civic literacy. Young Canadians lack both sufficient knowledge of how government works and the capacity to apply democratic skills beyond their school walls. Finally, we outline how provincial curriculum guidelines and codes of conduct have contributed to a depoliticized citizenship for youth.viii
This study builds from a previous report, Strengthening Canadian Democracy: Civic Literacy in Perspective, produced by Joel Westheimer, Sharon Cook, Alison Molina and Karen Suurtamm with the Democratic Dialogue Research Unit at the University of Ottawa. That report was commissioned by the Democratic Reform Secretariat, Privy Council Office of the Government of Canada, to review literature on civic literacy to demonstrate what we already know and what we still need to discover about the knowledge and skills Canadians possess for political participation. We present quantitative data, primarily national statistics of political participation, in relation to qualitative data, specifically case-study interviews that give a richer picture of youth experience with civic affairs.
A team of researchers, with one primary investigator conducting all interviews, engaged in conversations with students and teachers in four Ottawa schools from November 2006 to February