2007. Ottawa, as the political capital of the country, seemed like the optimal setting for observing and discussing civic learning with those people charged with instructing and learning its lessons.
This study targeted youth who were engaged in formal education and interested at some level in discussing civic issues. As the voices of these participants emerge and the absence of other voices are recognized, we are reminded that young Canadians are not a homogeneous group, and thus our approach to civic literacy must be multi-faceted and include political dialogue based on the conflicts of difference. Our case sample of the nation’s learning institutions attempts to represent the multiplicity of youth experience. The participating four schools were selected based on a desire to include public, alternative (within the public system), private and independent models of education. These schools also represent diverse ethnic, class, gender, age and religious demographics. Schools were chosen from the secondary system, where citizenship education has an explicit objective in the school curriculum. During the course of the study, each school had to be offering, and teachers had to be willing to open their classroom doors to, mandatory Grade 10 Civics and/or upper-year electives in History, World Issues, Economics and Law. While a teacher interview was a prerequisite to selecting each class, student participation was completely voluntary. Student interviewees were randomly selected from those who consented.
To enable more open discussion with participants in our study, each institution and individual has been provided with a pseudonym. The first school, Crestview Academy, is a private day school for girls in an affluent area of the city. The second school is Fellowship High School (HS), an independent school for boys and girls whose families want them to have a Christian-based education. The last two schools are part of the public school board. Ottawa-East HS is one of the most multicultural schools in the city and has a large program for English as a Second Language. Ottawa Alternative HS provides curriculum and social services to mature students, mostly between the ages of 18 and 35, who previously left school without completion. We attended Civics classes at all schools except for Fellowship HS, where, due to scheduling, we met only with a World Issues class. At Ottawa-East HS, we attended only the Civics course, whereas we met with upper-year classes in World Issues at Crestview Academy and in Canadian History at Ottawa Alternative HS. We were also invited to a Literacy class at Ottawa Alternative HS. The students in that course shared their recent experience visiting Parliament and witnessing Question Period.
We visited each school for a total of one week. During that time, with the exception of the Literacy course, we observed each class for one or two sessions and attended school assemblies and special events that were taking place. Students who consented were given a two-page questionnaire that asked a range of questions about their knowledge of political leaders, skills to address political issues they deemed important and understandings of the relevancy of civic lessons (see Appendix A). Interviews were then conducted with two to three randomly selected students for approximately one half-hour. The interview questions corresponded with the themes on the questionnaire, but they also enabled us to get a clearer picture of students’ impressions of political and social issues and the role of the school for increasing civic engagement (see Appendix B). The teacher for each course participated in an interview lasting approximately one hour that touched upon his/her perspectives on democracy, students’ ideas of civic affairs, the content and methods of citizenship lessons, and school policies relating to democratic modelling (see Appendix C). In total, six teachers (four male and two female) and 16 students (12 female and four male) offered their views on civic learning in an interview.