Young Kiwis more engaged as citizens than we think

This commentary is provided by Dr Bronwyn Wood, senior lecturer in the School of Education.

Calls for more civics education in New Zealand schools have become a clamour in recent times. Parties as diverse as the Greens, the Māori Party, United Future and the Labour Party are committed to expanding civics education in schools or making it compulsory.

Further support for enhancing civics education has been made by the Justice and Electoral Committee’s Report into the 2014 Election, the New Zealand Constitutional Advisory Panel and the Electoral Commission, which opened up anational discussion on the impact of declining voter participation in 2014.

A plethora of bipartisan groups, such as the McGuiness Institute, Active Citizenship Education and the Civics Education Trust, have also emerged recently to lobby for more civics education in schools.

So, do we actually need more civics education in our schools? And if so, what should it look like?

Underlying these cries for more civics education are three assumptions. First, that there is a ‘civic deficit’ crisis in youth today that needs fixing; second, that young people need more civic knowledge; and three, that students currently receive no civics education in New Zealand schools. These three crisis narratives need some critique.

The first assumption, made about young people’s current civic deficit, relies on narrowly defined and traditional public expressions of political participation—such as voting and joining political parties. While the young have falling rates of involvement in these areas, the greatest drop has been in the 25–29 year group, along with associated enrolment declines by 30- to 34-year-olds. This shows the problem is not uniquely related to youth.

In addition, narrow measures of citizenship participation overlook the many ways young people are currently engaged as citizens. New Zealand young people ranked among the highest in 38 countries in community volunteering, cultural group participation and collecting money for a cause in a 2010 International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS).

Secondly, the calls for more civics education often stipulate greater levels of civic knowledge. However, simply learning more about civics and political processes has not been shown to lead to greater civic participation. Longitudinal research shows that the only type of citizenship education that has a long-term impact on political participation is when students gain active experience  in working on civic and political issues—and particularly on issues that matter to them.

Finally, the ‘more civics’ brigade also assume that because New Zealand does not currently have a formal civics education curriculum nothing is happening. However, New Zealand has a strong tradition of citizenship learning through cross-curricula themes and most specifically in the social studies curriculum. While there is room for improvement, the ICCS study confirms that New Zealand students had higher-than-average civic working knowledge and were “generally well-prepared for their roles as citizens in the 21st century compared with many other countries participating in [the ICCS study]”.

An initiative in social studies since 2013 has been the NCEA ‘personal social action’ achievement standards. These allow students in Years 11–13 to undertake and reflect on social action on an issue of their choice.

Nearly 5000 students undertook these standards in 2015. Research with these students showed that the real life community engagement the standards required and actions such as emailing and letter writing to newspapers and Members of Parliament, interviewing and surveying people, and meeting with community members, led to the development of many citizenship and life skills.

Students took social action on a wide range of social issues at school, community, national and global levels. Their actions commonly included creating awareness (72 percent), fundraising (71 percent) and letter writing (56 percent). In Year 13, students worked to influence policy, often resulting in close engagement with local and national political representatives and democratic processes, such as submitting to a select committee.

Students today need strong civic knowledge, but more than anything, if we want citizenship education to create active citizens, we need to provide positive experiences of real decision-making on issues that matter to students. New Zealand’s social action standards provide one such opportunity—and go some way to alleviating the crisis narratives that often underpin calls for more civics education.  

Dr Bronwyn Wood has just completed a two-year Teacher & Learning Research Initiative-funded research project investigating the new NCEA ‘personal social action’ achievement standards in Years 11–13. ‘Creating young citizens: How well is New Zealand doing?’ is the subject of a talk she is giving on Wednesday 24 May at Victoria University of Wellington as part of the Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies’ The Road Ahead Seminar Series.

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