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Thinking about knowledge in citizenship education - Progression in citizenship teaching

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 (5): Progression in citizenship teaching

The literature on ‘learning progressions’ illustrates the importance of teachers developing a coherent sense of how their subject can be conceptually divided; how students might progress in their understanding of these areas of the subject; and how such understanding can be built into planning and teaching. Brant et al. (2016) acknowledge that we lack agreement on how to account for those qualitatively different expectations, but nevertheless they consider generic models, such as Bloom’s taxonomy, as too broad to account for nuanced subject development. Citizenship teachers need to explore more subject specific accounts, including an analysis of core knowledge, and a focus on characterising the distinctive features of disciplinary thinking (more in line with the ideas discussed in my previous blog). However, we can’t wait for this knowledge to be perfected before we embark on teaching; therefore this blog explores some of the ways in which teachers can plan for progression.

At this stage it’s important to reiterate that any interest in developing students’ knowledge and understanding does not mean that our teaching needs to focus only on these aspects of citizenship.  The knowledge and understanding can be, and I would argue should be, developed through citizenship experiences. This is one of the fundamental errors of those promoting a narrow interpretation of a knowledge rich curriculum, some of whom imagine this means a return to traditional forms of teaching and testing. As Michael Young has argued, powerful knowledge is valuable because it opens up new forms of understanding but this tells us nothing of the pedagogy that will yield such knowledge. We may seek to teach children through direct instruction about the academic explanations of power and agency and about the forms of democratic participation, but equally we may teach about these concepts through hands-on experience. It would be naïve to believe the direct instruction approach would inevitably lead children to be interested in participation; and it would be equally naïve to believe that experience alone would lead to enhanced conceptual understanding. The teaching challenge is to have a very clear account of the knowledge and understanding one wishes to develop and to devise explicit strategies for doing so.

Ausubel (1963) argued that ‘advance organisers’ are a powerful approach to help children build coherent and accurate schemas.  An advance organiser is essentially a framework, defined in relatively abstract terms, into which children can sort their new learning. We might think of it as a conceptual plot-spoiler.  Initially not all of those abstract terms will be fully comprehensible but, by making the overarching framework explicit, the teacher creates a tool to use throughout the project so that new information, experiences and reflections can be related to these underlying concepts. This means at the beginning of a project the teacher’s introduction should do more than preview the learning activities that will follow, and should certainly do more than simply list some learning objectives, it should focus the children’s attention on the most significant concepts they will encounter so that they can anchor their new understanding within these concepts. Ausubel thought this could be achieved through simply explaining and presenting, but others have used concept maps and graphic organisers to achieve the same end. On this definition a ‘knowledge organiser’ would organise the knowledge in relation to increasingly abstract concepts so that information could be related to more transferable concepts. This is a flaw in many of the knowledge organisers shared in social media by teachers, where it seems more common simply to list the key facts and vocabulary encountered in a project, whilst paying limited attention to the core concepts. Of course those facts and pieces of information are interesting and useful in themselves, but they are also important because they inform students’ development of more abstract transferable concepts (see blog 3 in this series). Ultimately the aim of any subject is more than merely the accumulation of more and more facts, it is the development of a new and flexible set of thinking tools which enables one to engage more critically with the world. 

In the last blog I shared some examples of levels of children’s understanding of political action and power. If we return to that example it will help to illustrate what a related knowledge organiser might look like. Without using this specific terminology, some of the students noted that power could derive from (i) one’s role in an organisation (bureaucratic power), (ii) from an individual’s qualities (charismatic power), (iii) through control of resources (economic power), or (iv) through a number of people coming together (democratic power). These sources of power reflect the distinctions made by theorists, for example, Weber distinguishes between traditional, charismatic or legal sources of legitimation for the exercise of power; Marx focuses on the control of capital (Giddens, 1971); and campaigning organisations tend to focus on the final category – people power. Understanding the various bases of power enables students to suggest and explain a richer range of strategies which explore extended chains of influence and coalition building. These strategies also enable students to start to think about influencing people in this particular context, rather than simply asserting generic one size fits all types of response (such as asking, telling, or cajoling someone to do what you want; or having a vote because it is fair). It would be reasonable to suggest therefore that teachers might usefully integrate such conceptual distinctions in their teaching to provide students with knowledge which may enable them to develop deeper conceptual understanding of power and agency, and thus to develop their understanding of what would constitute an effective plan of action. The less sophisticated levels of understanding also indicate that it may be particularly useful to spend time considering the motivations, perceptions and interests of different actors within any case studies being used in class, as many of our participants’ responses lacked this level of empathetic understanding.

This could be populated with information from case studies. In such cases, the information is important to stimulate thinking and inspire students to think creatively about power and agency within a democracy, but the real purpose, the one that will last, is to construct a flexible and workable conceptual framework that can be used to understand a new situation and think about possible actions. This organiser doesn’t deny that all of us can desire the right thing because we have a personal moral commitment to it – I take that as read, and the research would indicate that even young children acknowledge personal motivations – what makes this a citizenship schema is that it adds a specifically political lens, and an additional way of reading a situation. 

From this approach one can derive simple teaching frameworks to help scaffold students to think at the higher levels of understanding, for example they could map individual actors and groups onto this structure and then start to construct the chains of influence or ‘theory of change’ as professional campaigners might phrase it. One might start by explaining to a property developer that you really enjoy playing football on the field, and would prefer it if they didn’t take the land, but this appeals to their basic human interest, and wouldn’t speak to their main interest in their role as a property developer. The challenge is to think about what would speak to those interests, and some of our higher level responses did this quite eloquently. Many of the students in our research were able to suggest a range of citizen actions, such as petitions, letter writing, media stunts, lobbying etc. But few were able to relate these to the role and motivations of specific actors, and therefore, what seemed like citizenship knowledge on the surface, was actually just memorised terms with no political understanding.

As students advance and revisit these concepts (as they would do repeatedly throughout a citizenship curriculum in school), the knowledge can be deepened by sharing more of the various theoretical explanations of power and agency and political action; and by prompting students to reflect more deeply and critically on their experiences. But the essential framework for organising knowledge stays the same, it just becomes richer, deeper and more profound. This is exactly what Jerome Bruner (1960) meant when he promoted the idea of the spiral curriculum – we come back to the same organising concepts repeatedly, to build on what has been encountered and understood before and work towards higher levels of understanding. But it’s the level of understanding that develops, the concepts are the same, because they define the core of our subject-specific lens.

Ausubel, D. P. (1963) The Psychology of Meaningful Verbal Learning, New York: Grune and Stratton.
Brant J, Chapman A and Isaacs T (2016) International instructional systems: social studies. The Curriculum Journal, 27 (1): 62-79.
Bruner, J. (1960 / 1977) The Process of Education, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Giddens A (1971) Capitalism and Modern Social Theory: An analysis of the writings of Marx, Durkheim and Max Weber. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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