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Thinking about knowledge in citizenship education - Knowing and doing citizenship

In recent years, knowledge has emerged as a contentious issue for curriculum designers and teachers, in England and elsewhere. In this series of blogs Lee Jerome, an ACT Council member and Associate Professor of Education at Middlesex University, will sketch out some ideas about how citizenship educators might think about knowledge - from what kinds of knowledge citizens need; how such knowledge relates to citizenship participation; and how teachers might plan for progression in knowledge and understanding. 

Thinking about knowledge in citizenship education (1): Knowing and doing citizenship

In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in the role of knowledge in school curricula, and in England this is often discussed in relation to promoting a ‘knowledge-rich’ or ‘knowledge-led’ curriculum.  The debate has become increasingly heated, especially in the world of twitter and blogging, and often seems to revolve around the binary division of traditionalist or progressive.  Such polarising arguments tend to either promote knowledge instead of activity or skills development, or the proponents of skills development defend their position by attacking an undue focus on knowledge and rote-learning.  In history education some time ago Christine Counsell (2000) pointed out that somehow pitting knowledge against skills was unhelpful and at the very least “a distracting dichotomy”.  Her reasoning was that it was impossible to practise the skills of a historian without using knowledge and understanding; likewise it’s difficult to demonstrate one’s understanding without engaging in some form of historical skill.  The construction of a historical narrative or explanation is partly judged by the author’s command of the facts and the sophistication of their understanding; our ability to question and interpret historical artefacts is a skill but it is also an activity which draws on knowledge.  One response for citizenship educators to the polarised debate about knowledge might be simply to echo Counsell’s logic and to argue that knowledge and skills are simply two sides of the same coin.  However, in this blog series I want to explore the nature of knowledge in more depth and in this first entry I start by thinking about the nature of citizenship in general, before we even start to think about knowledge in relation to citizenship education.

In his classic book ‘In Defence of Politics’ (1962) Bernard Crick argued that politics was an essential activity for a free and diverse society.  He stressed that politics was an activity not a thing, and a complex activity at that.  Living alongside others makes it inevitable that we experience conflict, and politics is the public activity we undertake to deal with such conflict.  To understand others, and the nature of such conflicts, citizens must develop some knowledge of how things are done and of the diversity in society.  Crick also argued that a properly political system, in which citizens exercise political freedom, is the only form of government which thrives when everyone knows how the system works.  Whilst dictators are compelled to secrecy and censorship, democracies require openness about the system of government and a relatively free flow of information. And this latter point was echoed by Matt Flinders (2012) in his book ‘Defending Politics’ in which he argued contemporary citizens are information rich but knowledge poor, and have little understanding of the nature of democracy. Flinders worries that this leads citizens to have unrealistic expectations of politicians and of politics in general.  For these two authors knowledge sits at the heart of the practice of politics: citizens need to know and understand the nature of democratic politics, the role of politicians and of citizens, the processes by which conflicts are negotiated and settlements agreed, and they also require some knowledge of the diverse groups and interests in their society. The lack of such knowledge threatens democracy.

When we turn to consider the day to day practices of politics, we also find that knowledge and understanding are essential components of democratic decision-making.  For theorists of deliberative democracy, such as Zsuzsanna Chappell (2012), the construction, presentation and justification of argument sits at the heart of politics.  In order to participate in a political decision citizens must develop arguments which reflect their interests and values but which also acknowledge the conflicting interests and values of others and make good use of available information.  When citizens enter the process of public deliberation they should adopt an open mind and be prepared to subject their own arguments, as well as those of others, to scrutiny.  Whilst these criteria may not always be observed in practice, we understand the inherent value of informed reasoning as the ideal basis for identifying the best decision in a difficult situation, even whilst we accept that decision may change as circumstances change or new information becomes available.  The best political decision is always provisional and may change as new information comes to light, or new solutions are tested out.

So far, so good.  Politics is an activity, but one which only works when participants have knowledge of the system, and of the issues to be resolved.  But, in order to understand the role of knowledge in relation to citizenship, we have to go further and reflect on what we mean by ‘knowledge’ in this context.

Aristotle provided us with a more sophisticated language for thinking about knowledge in different ways.  In formal education we often focus on the kind of abstract conceptual knowledge that can be learned in a classroom, and which does not easily arise from everyday activity.  Aristotle calls this knowledge episteme and contrasts it with techne, which might be more readily understood as know-how.  Whilst episteme is evident in the understanding of scientific theory, or in the acquisition of the technical rules of grammar, techne is evident in the expertise of a carpenter or builder, whose expert knowledge is almost entirely evident in their action. But Aristotle also identifies phronesis as a third form of knowledge concerned with the ability to make the right decision in particular circumstances – a form of practical wisdom, which combines knowledge and action with judgement.  Phronesis offers us a way of thinking about political knowledge which is always applied and embedded in a particular context, and which draws on technical knowledge within an ethical framework. In itself this should discourage us from thinking that citizenship knowledge can be easily articulated, described, and learned; rather it encourages us to consider how it is embedded in the process of political action. Such phronetic knowledge must be practised and subject to critical scrutiny, and it must be responsive to context; it defies easy codification.

Aspects of this knowledge can be distilled and turned into generalizable tenets and principles, and so there is an element of citizenship knowledge which can be described as episteme. Such knowledge on its own may be a useful foundation for a career as a political scientist, but in relation to nurturing active citizens, who sustain and reproduce democracy through their participation, this knowledge also has the potential to be completely inert – it’s no good knowing everything if I just sit at home and refuse to participate. On the other hand, the skilled activist or political operator may demonstrate techne, but is also somewhat lacking if this is not applied within an informed understanding of the situation they want to change. Being committed to a furious rate of political activity is unlikely to be very effective, if I do not understand the issues on which I campaign, the system I want to influence, or the way that power operates. In such cases we may need more phronetic and less frenetic citizenship. Informed citizens will draw on episteme and techne, but they also develop phronesis when these other forms of knowledge are interpreted for a particular purpose, in a specific context, balanced against a broader ethical framework. Flybvbjerg (2001) has argued this makes case studies particularly appropriate for conveying knowledge about the social world.

A democratic political system requires that collectively we know and understand how the whole system of politics operates, how the constituent parts connect and form a whole viable system; it requires the free-flow of information so that citizens are able to develop informed judgements about politicians and the political issues that need to be confronted; and it requires that we, as individuals, are able to develop our own understanding to inform our actions in the public sphere. Knowledge of the system, knowledge of society, knowledge of each other and of the issues that need to be collectively addressed are the very heart of sustaining a plural democratic system through our everyday interactions. Knowing and doing are both simultaneously central to any sustainable idea of democratic citizenship. In this context, Christine Counsell’s admonition that constantly harping on about skills and knowledge is a distracting dichotomy seems like a very measured piece of advice. More dramatically we might assert that insisting we can divide knowledge from action threatens to impoverish our view of citizenship, misunderstands the challenge of maintaining a healthy democratic system and ultimately undermines the very idea of democratic citizenship.

In the next blog I discuss how this relates to citizenship education, and consider some of the implications for thinking about how citizens come to learn such knowledge.


Chappell, Z. (2012) Deliberative Democracy: A Critical Introduction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Counsell, C. (2000) Historical knowledge and historical skills: a distracting dichotomy. In J. Arthur & R. Phillips (Eds) Issues in History Teaching. London: Routledge.

Crick, B. (1962) In Defence of Politics. 2nd edition. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Flinders, M. (2012) Defending Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Flyvbjerg, B. (2001) Making Social Science Matter: Why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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