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Thinking about knowledge in citizenship education - Conceptualising citizenship subject knowledge in the curriculum

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, sketches 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 (3): Conceptualising citizenship subject knowledge in the curriculum

To start this blog I want to mention 3 influential thinkers, whose ideas come together in interesting ways for citizenship teachers.

First, Michael Young has breathed energy back into academic debates about the role of knowledge in the curriculum, reacting against a global trend towards curriculum reform in which generic outcomes and skills were foregrounded. Young’s (2013) concept of ‘powerful knowledge’ has been particularly influential in this debate and he argues that school subjects are important because they provide access to generally valuable knowledge. He argues that the most important distinction we should grasp about ‘powerful knowledge’ is that it is powerful because “it provides the best understanding of the natural and social worlds that we have and helps us go beyond our individual experiences” (p.196). Such knowledge is “based on concepts, not facts alone” (Young, 2011: 276) but Young also recognises he knowledge is no somehow ‘given’ rather it is based on evidence and experience, and is always open to challenge. It is powerful because it opens up new ways of thinking and new avenues for action – just as we saw in Choudry’s (2015) account of learning within activist networks.

Second, Jerome Bruner (1960) argued that teachers must help students understand how individual lessons contribute to the broader task of engaging with the world, making generalisations, and interpreting complexity in order to achieve understanding. He argued teachers need to develop a clear model of the structure of their subject for several reasons:

  • Understanding the fundamentals makes a subject more comprehensible;
  • Placing new knowledge into a structured pattern helps to secure memorization;
  • Understanding the fundamentals helps learners to identify the relevance of existing knowledge to new situations;
  • Revisiting core concepts and subject structure helps to ensure learning is progressive over time, and minimises the risk that new learning simply replaces earlier learning.

Third, this question about how one defines the structure of a subject is also addressed by Shulman (1988) who observed that teachers need to understand their subject at two different levels: the substantive structures, by which he means the principles and concepts which organise the knowledge in this domain; and the syntactic structures, relating to the rules by which knowledge is established, the procedures for establishing validity, or what we might call the epistemological foundations for the domain.

This suggests a 3-dimensional view of knowledge, which might help teachers to think about how they engage with and interpret their subject areas:

The first dimension (information) refers to the factual knowledge we want to teach, in Citizenship this may well involve learning about democratic institutions, roles and processes. How does one stand as an MP, who stands and who gets elected? What is the role of an MP in parliament? How do MPs relate to their constituents and why does this vary? These are all answerable to some extent by relatively straightforward information.

The second dimension (conceptual knowledge) refers to Shulman’s substantive structures and deals with the core concepts that underpin and structure the subject. Here one might consider the concepts of citizen, state, power, democracy, deliberation etc. These mark out the distinctive conceptual territory of the subject and, importantly, it is these concepts which are likely to enable students to perceive the usefulness of the subject. These ideas provide a flexible framework through which one can make sense of the world as a citizen. This is more powerful knowledge because it is of more general use and helps us to read the world in different ways.

The third dimension (a citizenship lens) refers to this broader sense of knowing what it is to engage with an issue through the distinctive lens of citizenship. This is partly related to Shulman’s notion of the epistemic rules of the game, and thus grasping what it is to argue, think and act politically. It is possible to approach global warming through a scientific lens, through an historical lens, or through a citizenship lens. The questions one asks, and one’s expectations of what would stand as a convincing answer, are influenced by the lens one adopts. Understanding the contribution of each form of knowledge presupposes some understanding of the nature and purpose of each form of knowledge. This forms the third dimension of powerful knowledge because it enables us to understand what constitutes a claim to knowledge or a warrant for a political opinion, and therefore enables citizens to adopt a critical perspective on the various attempts to convince them of this or that interpretation of, or solution to, a problem.

By contrast, Beck (2013) points out that some of the work undertaken in citizenship education actually appears to be ‘knowledge of the powerful’ as opposed to powerful knowledge in that it seeks to promote educational experiences which are “cognitively restricting – in the sense that, by design or in effect (often both), they deny students access to alternative ways of understanding” (p.181) and thus students are restricted in their understanding of the specific situation in which they find themselves as well as being restricted in their ability to understand the issue in general. Clark and Newman (1997) refer to such examples as ‘governmental projects’ and in their research they explored reforms which close down people’s understanding of citizenship, rather than opening it up. Here then, the distinction between the two forms of knowledge becomes crucial. Citizenship education, as knowledge of the powerful, becomes a programme of indoctrination and cognitive restriction, as students are encouraged to adopt a world-view which reflects the interests of those in power. On the contrary, citizenship education as powerful knowledge furnishes students with an understanding of ideological debates and different traditions of citizenship, and thus enables individuals to use conceptual frameworks for making sense of the world as citizens.

Now, there is no obvious agreement about what content might be considered essential within each of those three dimensions, but it seems to me that one of the interesting features of citizenship is that some core concepts function in all three dimensions. Let’s take deliberation as a starting point. At the informational level we may want to teach about civil rights and laws around free speech; about the institution of parliament and the nature of debate; and about the nature of the media. At the conceptual level we might want to explore in more depth the nature of the right to free speech and how that can be regulated in relation to hate speech and others’ rights (this is not just about current UK laws, it’s a deeper debate about the nature of rights); we might also want to think about the role of deliberation within a theory of democracy (how talk occupies a central role in democratic politics). In terms of developing a citizenship lens, focusing on deliberation might help us to develop an awareness of what constitutes a good argument; how people seek to influence others; how arguments draw on information and beliefs, and how these differ. This might also encourage us to consider the provisional nature of any agreement about the right political decision. And finally, because we are interested in teaching, we can also adopt deliberation as a pedagogic strategy, and use a range of activities to encourage deliberation between students.

We can think about how these levels all interact when we are teaching a controversial issue. Imagine we are teaching a sequence of lessons around the rights of Trans people and the legal status of self-identification. It can be treated as a controversial issue because there are diverse opinions, all based on facts, but informed by different political and personal beliefs and values. Students would need to learn about different cases, different perspectives etc. (first dimension). They would also need to think about what makes it controversial, and this often involves identifying what Diana Hess (2009) calls the ‘perennial issue’, in this case probably the issue of minority rights in a democracy (second dimension). The process of debating the topic will require participants to balance for themselves their emotional responses, their public utterances, and the effects they have on others. It is likely that whatever solution is forwarded will be a compromise, rather than a simple assertion of one right answer. I might have my own ethical position, but the political agreement we reach together will be an accommodation of different opinions. In finding that position and reflecting on the compromises involved, students learn about deliberation (third dimension) as well as about the specific issue of Trans people’s right to self-identify.

I’ve argued in this blog that the knowledge we want to develop in students is complex and multi-dimensional, and is as deeply embedded in our practices as in our text books. I’ve avoided any temptation to put forward my own suggested model of those essential concepts. Those conversations can be had in departments, across schools, and through ACT, but I am suggesting the conversation shouldn’t be about a list of content, rather it needs to be address the way knowledge works at these different levels. As an illustration though, we can think of the concept of rights, which is probably an easy one to agree would be a core concept in any citizenship programme. There are international human rights agreements and pieces of domestic legislation which guarantee rights, and students can learn those (first dimension); but it seems to me the deeper knowledge is about understanding what a right is – that we use the word ‘right’ in different ways with different meanings (second dimension). Perhaps the third dimension in this example relates to how one reasons with the concept of rights, and how one balances rights claims – the more I think about this the more I see rights as a particular way to frame an issue rather than an answer waiting to be discovered. Because rights claims are often resolved in courts or through political negotiations, the answers to complex problems are seldom easily ‘read off’ the text of the rights document, they are actually context-related and provisional, like all other political decisions. You can search in vain for any recognition that these second and third dimensions exist in the GCSE specification for Citizenship, which simply asserts knowledge as a simple concept, and lists one dimensional knowledge of the justice system, legislation, international agreements and particular rights without ever really addressing that fundamental question, what is a right? And the related question, what does it mean to say I have rights?

Grappling with these fundamental issues is not just intellectually interesting, it reveals some important aspects of our subject. If we find it impossible to simply define the concepts that underpin our everyday teaching (rights, politics, power, justice, freedom etc.) that should not be brushed under the carpet and ignored in favour of teaching one-dimensional knowledge because it’s relatively easy. That would be wrong because it’s not the powerful knowledge that will open up new ways of political thinking; and it’s wrong because it fundamentally misrepresents the fact that this knowledge is itself political and contested. Offering students a package of knowledge as though this were not the case is back to boring old civics, and fails to engage with the real challenge of citizenship education.

Such thinking is also essential if we want to respond to the challenge of planning for progression in our teaching. That requires us to know what counts as a better answer, so we can help students achieve a higher level of sophistication in their understanding. That’s the topic of the next blog.


Beck, J. (2013) Powerful Knowledge, Esoteric Knowledge, Curriculum Knowledge. Cambridge Journal of Education, 43 (2): 177-193.

Bruner, J. (1960) The Process of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Choudry, A. (2015) Learning Activism: The intellectual life of contemporary social movement. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Clarke, J. and Newman, J. (1997) The Managerial State: Power, Politics and Ideology in the Remaking of Social Welfare. London: Sage.

Hess, D. (2009) Controversy in the Classroom: The democratic power of discussion. New York: Routledge.

Shulman, L.S. (1988) ‘Those who understand’: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15 (2): 4-14.

Young, M. (2011) The return to subjects: a sociological perspective on the UK Coalition government's approach to the 14–19 curriculum. Curriculum Journal, 22 (2): 265-278.

Young, M. (2013) Overcoming the crisis in curriculum theory: a knowledge based approach. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 45 (2): 101-118.

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