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Thinking about knowledge in citizenship education - Looking for knowledge in the space between civics and service

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 (2): Looking for knowledge in the space between civics and service

In citizenship education we have tended to veer between the old false binary of knowledge and skills. On the one hand, Civics lessons, like the old Constitution O level, have been criticised for being too concerned with the acquisition of political facts. On the other hand, traditions such as Service Learning are criticised for being concerned primarily with doing good deeds, rather than developing political understanding. The problem with the Civics approach is that there is an endless supply of facts and it’s fairly difficult to commit them to memory. How is a policy idea turned into a law? How are MPs, councillors, and various assembly members elected? What are the roles of MPs, civil servants and citizens? Who is responsible for the quality of roads, the funding of schools, the maintenance of sport facilities etc? Because government touches most aspects of our shared lives, there’s a huge amount of ‘things to know’ and this can keep civics teachers busy for a long time. But such information, when learned just for the sake of remembering it, is pretty inert. There will always be something else you don’t know, and what does each fact really mean if it hasn’t been integrated into a broader sense of citizenship and political action? Why do I need to know who funds the roads (central government funds motorways and trunk roads, local councils fund minor roads and there’s a complex patchwork of funding mechanisms to allocate money) unless it’s an issue I want to take action about? What’s the point of trying to learn everything, on the off chance it might be useful one day, and who decides children need to learn about Black Rod rather than the Serjeant at Arms (one is in the GCSE and the other not)? Of course this is not to suggest that such knowledge is never useful, just that it seems a fairly strange and arbitrary starting point for designing a programme of citizenship education.

But simply veering to the other end of the polarised debate and espousing action as the only valuable form of citizenship education is equally problematic. Just volunteering to help out in a community organisation may be useful and enjoyable, or not, but there’s no obvious reason to believe it is inherently educational. One citizen can fully occupy themselves picking up litter, but it’s unlikely to be as effective as securing a well-funded and comprehensive street cleaning service. And many public issues that require improvements are not obviously amenable to individual (or even collective) action. Service learning may lead to political learning, but all too often it doesn’t. It might help individuals to feel good about themselves, to develop some relevant skills in the context (gardening, cooking, caring etc.) and that may well be desirable, but it’s not citizenship education. Similarly, in school, serving on the school council may have no impact on citizenship education if one’s role is purely focused on helping others through a bully-buddy scheme, or designing a new lunch facility. Such activities are valuable in running a decent school community, but are not citizenship education.

Somewhere in between these two distortions, is a form of citizenship which Bernard Crick called ‘political literacy’ and which others might call ‘critical informed citizenship’. The point of this tradition is that it combines action and knowledge. This might happen in a number of ways, either starting with developing one’s understanding or with participation. Westheimer and Kahne (2004) have argued that undertaking active forms of service can lead to different outcomes associated with competing models of the ‘good citizen’: (i) personal responsibility; (ii) participatory; (iii) justice oriented. The key issue here is that the action itself is only one aspect of the total learning programme and it’s the way this experience is framed by the teacher that leads to the different outcomes. Participants need to learn something about the local context, the organisation, the people with whom they will be working (and serving), the public policy context, their role, and the way the organisation connects up with other forms of provision to solve a problem or meet a need. If I work in a soup kitchen for 6 months as a citizenship education activity my learning should be more multifaceted than simply how to make good soup, or even how to run that particular soup kitchen efficiently. The broader learning is about understanding the nature of poverty and homelessness, the complexity of such issues, and the ways in which individual lives are framed by policy, so that some options are opened up and others closed down. In short, participants in such schemes need to be able to understand what they are doing politically, and that requires acquiring some knowledge before, during and after the experience. Fetishizing the activity risks de-politicising the experience and undermining effective citizenship education. By contrast, getting bogged down in learning about the issue and deferring the experience risks turning the lessons into a dry and dusty exercise in committing facts to memory, rather than developing the understanding that emerges through doing, feeling and being.

The valuable knowledge to be developed through such an experience might be categorised as:

  • Knowledge of the specific social issue;
  • Knowledge of the actions taken by people and agencies to deal with that issue;
  • Knowledge about how to work with others to achieve a shared aim;
  • Self-knowledge about what kind of citizen we are, and to what roles we are best suited.

Some of this knowledge is context-specific, some of it is intensely personal, and some of it is shared and public. It would be pointless only focusing on one type of learning outcome, one form of knowledge, when we recognise citizens need to know and understand all of them to function effectively as citizens.

And this approach is not just needed in schools as some form of abstracted model of citizenship and citizenship learning – it is based on how citizens actually learn from their own collective experiences. The tradition of ‘community organising’ has probably become better known as a consequence of Obama’s presidency, because his formative years were spent working as a community organiser in Chicago. This tradition, based on the work of Saul Alinsky (1989/1971), puts knowing and learning at its core. A community organiser has to know the people in their community, the community leaders they work with have to know their followers, and everyone has to know who has power, what their interests are, and what levers they can pull to achieve the desired outcomes. There is now a level 3 award in Community Organising and the first module is all about knowledge – understanding theories of power, power dynamics, and one’s own power as an organiser; but the course is also about self-knowledge so each organiser needs to understand their own strengths in the role and understand how to bring groups together. This certainly resonates with my experience volunteering with London Citizens and attending training which artfully combined learning about ourselves, our communities, and the way power operated.

Aziz Choudry in his book ‘Learning Activism’ (2015) explores the ways in which activist groups are perpetually in learning mode – learning about the best forms of action to undertake, learning about their organisation and members, learning about the political context. In this process, some learning emerges from the experiences of activists – not automatically, but through reflection and critical discussion. But also some learning is more deliberate and preparatory – investigating an issue or organisation to work out a strategy. And some learning is theoretical, in that using certain concepts to critically read a situation (critical race theory, neo-liberalism etc.) opens up new ways of perceiving a situation and suggests new ways forward. Always, he argues, “human activity and thought are mutually constitutive; they are shaped by each other” (p.34).

What I have tried to do in these first two blogs is to argue that knowledge is important to any realistic conception of citizenship. But by stressing how knowledge and action are combined I also want to head-off any argument that we can defer action until we have knowledgeable citizens. I think that’s wrong because I don’t think an abstracted form of school knowledge does lead to critical action, especially if it has been acquired as an inert body of knowledge. And I think it’s wrong because it misses the fact that such knowledge cannot easily be extracted from the experience itself. It’s both at the same time, or it’s pub-quiz fact retrieval and do-good volunteering.

All of that leaves wide open all the practical questions teachers will have about organising a curriculum and planning learning activities, and it’s to those practical issues that I turn in the next blog.



Alinsky, S. (1989/1971) Rules for Radical: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals. New York: Vintage Books. Available online:

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

Westheimer, J. & Kahne, J. (2004) What Kind of Citizen? The Politics of Educating for Democracy. American Educational Research Journal. 41 (2): 237-269. Available online:

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