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Citizenship Education and Challenges to Democracy: Exploring Educational Practices in the ‘Political Classroom’

Participation
Policy
WS03
Trond Solhaug
Norwegian University of Science & Technology, Trondheim
Simone Abendschön
Justus-Liebig-University Giessen

Abstract

Currently, Western democracies face several, often intertwined challenges that also affect teaching and learning in citizenship education, of which we would like to mention the following. In many countries, rising (youth) unemployment and social inequality occur alongside declining levels of political trust, decreased confidence in political elites and institutions, and reduced citizen satisfaction in regard to governmental performance (Dotti Sani & Magistro, 2016; Prakash & Potoski, 2016). Conventional political participation is decreasing, and many democratic political systems are observing a rise and success among populist parties and governments that promise simple solutions to complex political problems. In some countries, there exists support for radical policies and political decisions favouring non-democratic principles (Green, Sarrasin, Baur, & Fasel, 2016; Savelkoul, Laméris, & Tolsma, 2017). New political alternatives are growing in the form of protesting, boycotting, signing petitions, and joining ad-hoc activist groups, to name a few (Franklin, 2004; Dalton, 2008; Norris, 2011; Dassonneville & Hooghe, 2015).These recent changes in the level (quantity) and forms (e.g., social media) of political participation may, in the long run, undermine the relationship of the political subject with the polity (Howarth, 2008; Johnson, 2015; Norris, 2011). Increasing immigrant populations and cultural, social, ethnic, and economic diversity in national societies (Bauböck, 2017; Kymlicka, 2013) has produced controversies in regard to othering, national identities, citizenship, and cultural differences. Topics such as Islamophobia and changes in immigrants’ rights (Springs, 2015) dominate public debates, and electoral support for radical, populist, and highly protectionist policies and politicians is apparent in many countries (Green et al., 2016; Savelkoul et al., 2017). Last, but certainly not least, the reconstruction of welfare states and the socio-economic transformation of societies in post-modern democracies fuel anxieties among conservatives and disadvantaged social classes alike. These developments are very often intertwined and should be considered simultaneously difficult to disentangle. To summarise, we believe these political, social, and economic challenges that quite often result from intertwining neoliberal modalities and different forms of (non)democracy have given new impetus to the ideals, practices, and settings of active citizenship. Becoming apparent during the apprehensive responses to the 2008 economic meltdown, heightened during the Arab Spring and bolstered amid (more recent) challenges from the diversification of societies, the characteristics of active citizenship have begun penetrating the actions of institutionalised political actors across the world. In this challenging context, member states of the Council of Europe (CoE, 2010) recommend that all states administer education for democratic citizenship: …education, training, awareness-raising, information, practices and activities which aim, by equipping learners with knowledge, skills and understanding and developing their attitudes and behaviour, to empower them to exercise and defend their democratic rights and responsibilities in society, to value diversity and to play an active part in democratic life, with a view to the promotion and protection of democracy and the rule of law (para. 12). At the same time, increasingly more educational and political institutions are stressing the importance of teaching civic education early on. The United Nations demand participatory rights for children in all matters that affect their lives (UNICEF, 1990), and many countries have implemented such rights in children’s parliaments and other (mostly local) participatory opportunities for their youngest citizens. Curricula for primary schools introduce ‘democratic learning’ as early as first grade (Abendschön, 2017), and political institutions offer children extracurricular learning programmes to convince them of democratic representative procedures (Abendschön et al., 2018). This approach to civic education advocates an active civic education early on in adolescents’ lives. More recently, however, there have been growing criticisms of both educational programmes and the meaning of ‘active citizens’ support for democracy’ in citizenship education. For instance, Hedke and Zimenkova (2103) point out that students are typically not assigned the role of political subjects in citizenship education. Rather, they are expected to acquire knowledge and competences anticipated as relevant to fulfilling greater or fewer participation patterns. The critical citizen is one who may take a critical or counter position to official participation politics and may ask uncomfortable questions; this type of citizen is rarely found (Hedtke & Ziemenkova, 2013). In the challenging political context, we argue that a focus on critical thinking is needed in citizenship education. We understand ‘critical’ as based on the principle of criticism: a careful analysis, a sound critical estimate of a problem that is negative and/or finds fault (Webster, 1983). Critical thinking may also be perceived as creative thinking, understood as ‘the ability to come up with new (political) ideas that are surprising yet intelligible, and also valuable in some way’ (Wheeler et al., 2002). We believe a critical approach to citizenship education is essential yet significantly under-researched and, consequently, critically emphasised in the current workshop. In recent decades, there has been a growing educational emphasis on critical debate and controversial issues in schools as well as criticism of the stress on ‘political formalities’ in citizenship education (Crick, 1998; Hahn, 2010; Haste, 2010). The relatively recent ‘celebration’ of the 1976 Beutelbach consensus in Germany stressed that ‘matters which are controversial in intellectual and political affairs must also be taught as controversial in educational instruction’ (Bruen & Grammes, 2016, p. 2). Discussion is widely viewed as the most appropriate pedagogical approach for knowledge construction and the exploration of controversial issues in the classroom. However, surprisingly little attention has been paid to why it is the preferred approach and how to most effectively facilitate discussions (Hand & Levinson, 2012). Public debate and political discussions in schools and classrooms are both advocated by the Dewey tradition as well as large-scale empirical studies, particularly the CIVIC 2000 and ICCS 2009/16 studies (see also Hess, 2009; Hess & McAway, 2015; for an overview, see Hahn, 2010; Knowles & DiStefano, 2015), thus making political discussion in classrooms a transatlantic approach. The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) recently published its latest, 24-country study report (Schulz, Ainley, Fraillon, Losito, Agrusti, & Friedman, 2017) on International Civic and Citizenship Education (ICCS). This report makes a bespoke contribution to the analysis of critical classroom practices across countries, and we welcome new scientific contributions based on this rich database that are relevant for the workshop. However, these international studies are based on comparable survey data and do not sufficiently consider country-specific or local contexts of educational structures, teacher practices, and student experiences. Accordingly, we welcome contributions from both large databases and local case studies of critical democratic practices. Ljunggren and Unemar Øst (2010), for instance, find significant differences in teachers tolerating debate and in teachers voicing social morality in class. Teachers understanding their political beliefs and attitudes regarding discussion and controversies in class is vital in the ‘political classroom’. Against this backdrop, this workshop responds to current democratic challenges and the CoE’s joint ministerial recommendation by exploring how these recommendations are implemented in current civic educational practices. We are therefore interested in and seek papers dealing with, but that are not limited to, the following topics: • How current challenges to democracy are addressed in the ‘political classroom’. • How critical discourses in citizenship education are shaped by social and educational ideals and structures. • How critical discourses in citizenship education are both valued by students and teachers and linked to active citizenship and debate in the classroom. • The expressed educational goal ‘to empower’ students to ‘exercise and defend democratic rights and play an active part in democratic life’; in light of the aforementioned criticism of citizenship education programmes, we welcome contributions that both focus on criticality and voice political initiatives. • Teacher attitudes to controversies that facilitate discussion on research and teacher roles in political education. • How civic educational practices are framed by educational structures (policies, curricula, legal regulations, and leadership) and thematised, practiced, and valued at different levels (the government, curricula, schools) in the education system; the workshop offers excellent opportunities to share and discuss research on educational structures and practices that address limits and options for critical thinking, debate, and more agonistic political practices (Mouffe, 2005) in various educational and cultural contexts. • Material especially relevant to citizenship learning-based critical thinking in education, involving students’ ability to perform novel ‘acts of citizenship’ (Isin & Nielsen, 2009) in schools, which thereby expands citizenship acts and sites; we have been unable to identify studies that explore students’ attempts to perform such ground-breaking citizenship acts in schools. 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