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Thinking about knowledge in citizenship education - Progression in citizenship learning

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 (4): Progression in citizenship learning

It’s clearly useful to think about how young people acquire and use knowledge and understanding in relation to citizenship. In particular teachers need some ideas about how students’ progress in their learning over time. There is a general literature on ‘learning progressions’ which seeks to establish “descriptions of successively more sophisticated ways of reasoning within a content domain” (Smith et al., 2006). Such research aims to provide qualitative descriptions of different levels of thinking about specific content, which can then be used by teachers to evaluate students’ progress and plan for further teaching and learning (Shepard et al., 2011). Those interested in ‘learning progressions’ often starts with an analysis of the academic field, but those researching ‘assessment for learning’ also assume teachers have access to such models of progression when they are urged to share criteria with students (Black et al. 2003), and the literature on threshold concepts is also explicitly concerned with domain specific concepts which unlock higher levels of understanding (Land et al., 2008). Whether these research traditions start with the student, the teacher, or the subject domain, they all share in common a need to reflect on the nature of knowledge and the progressive acquisition of knowledge and understanding.

In relation to school learning, maths and science are commonly the focus of such research projects and Brant et al. (2015) argue that in subjects such as maths the content taught to older students is inherently more complex, and that this subject accounts for progression in a fairly linear manner, with new content being consolidated and providing the foundation for more complex content. In citizenship, where the same questions might arise repeatedly throughout schooling (a 10 year old or an 18 year old might both meaningfully consider the nature of citizens’ responsibilities), we expect a qualitatively different answer of older students, what Burn and Durran (2007) call progression as ‘expansion’ rather than ‘addition’.  Because citizenship education, in the form we are exploring it, is fairly recent there is not a huge research literature to draw on.  But we can piece together some ideas from other social studies subjects and from the study of politics.

Berti (2005) reviews the literature on children’s understanding of politics and argues that very young primary school students tend not to be able to distinguish between what a person does through their social or political role, and what they do through their individual desires or beliefs. This means they operate in a pre-political stage, but they can distinguish between natural laws and social conventions and therefore understand the role of authority. As they progress through primary school, children typically develop their awareness of social hierarchy, and therefore of the complexity of social relationships, even though they may not be able to deal with the abstract concept of society.  Around the transition from primary to secondary school young people are more likely to develop an understanding of political institutions and of the roles people play within them. And as they progress through secondary school they become increasingly able to use abstract concepts. If we apply this broad model of development to a particular topic such as rights there is some research to suggest that young children think about rights as specific things one is allowed to do, whilst older children put more emphasis on their rights to autonomy and also understand rights as universal, rather than simply reflecting the whim of adults. Whilst such findings fit comfortably within dominant models of child development Berti’s own research indicates that this is not determined by age, and limited knowledge and misunderstandings can be relatively easily overcome by explicit teaching.

These general insights were reflected in Don Rowe’s (2005) research which concluded that more politically literate students were able to draw on a wider range of ‘social and political schemas’ to frame a problem. In other words, they could interpret a specific situation from the multiple perspectives of different stakeholders and using different concepts, for example understanding the situation economically, personally, environmentally, and in the short and long-term.  In my own small scale research I have tried to explore some of the specific ways in which children’s reasoning develops.  I devised a classroom based task to be used by young people at the ages of 10, 14, 16, and 18.  They were presented with a scenario in which builders wanted to acquire and develop half of the school’s playground.  After some questions about who has power in the school the children were asked who could influence the scenario and what they might do about it.  This was devised to explore children’s sense of political action and agency.  Their responses could be broadly organized under the following categories.

I Pre-political thinking
Many of the younger students’ responses re-defined the problem of other actors’ motivations as simply a lack of knowledge about the situation. This enabled them to side-step the political nature of the problem by failing to acknowledge the situation as one in which there is a confrontation between people with different interests.  Such responses tended to assume that simply by vocalising their own preferences, this problem could be resolved. This was exemplified in comments such as “surely they can’t [proceed with the building] once they know” (Secondary student) and “ask them nicely and say I am sorry but you can’t” (Primary student).

II Vicarious action
Some students preferred other, more powerful, actors to represent their interests and take the appropriate action. Such responses typically deferred to the teachers, for example, “Talk to the teachers about this, they could help you with stuff” (Primary student).

IIIa Direct actions (politically naïve)
In the third category students acknowledged the reality of different perceptions of the situation and different motivations, and therefore engaged politically with the problem as a clash of interest. But their response, based on their direct experience of influencing adults, could be described as politically naïve: “Shout and scream;” “Do cutesy eyes;” “I would pretend to cry” (Primary students). This fails to recognise the different roles occupied by adults.

IIIb Direct actions (politically literate)
Many of the respondents, especially in secondary schools, were able to make what we might recognise as more overtly political recommendations for action which are more grounded in an understanding of the context. Some of these represented a more direct form of action to disrupt the plans of others, for example one student suggested, “Chain myself to the fence” (Primary student). Other types of response that might be classified as politically literate action include petitions and letter writing that move beyond the simple assertion that these will clear up misunderstandings (category I) or that others will automatically do as requested (category II).

IV Chains of influence
Responses in the final category more completely acknowledge that others have their own reasons for pursuing courses of action, therefore one can take action to change another actors’ calculation of the benefits to accrue from their original plan. These responses also reflected the respondents’ understanding that coalition building can be adopted as a deliberate strategy, and that a student’s best line of action to stop developers may not be to directly engage with the developers, but rather to enlist others who have greater power: “Protest – start petitions, rallies and public outcry… that would gain media attention. Negative media attention could affect the school’s image negatively and may cause them to cancel the decision so as not to harm it further. Also it would encourage others who are not connected to school to protest and there is power in numbers” (FE student).

Such research projects are small scale and not easily generalizable, but they do start to indicate some of the broad patterns and we might expect to see in children’s citizenship learning.  Whilst we may not have definitive models of student progression to work with, Shepard has argued that we need to develop some working theories about what progression might look like so that teachers can develop formative assessment interventions which are qualitative (not centred on test scores) and responsive to the particulars of a student’s thinking (Shepard, 2018).  Such working theories can also inform curriculum planning over time, which is the focus of the next blog.

Berti A (2005) Children’s understanding of politics. In M Barrett and E Buchanan-Barrow (Eds) Children’s Understanding of Society. Hove: Psychology Press.
Black P, Harrison C, Lee C, Marshall B and Wiliam D (2003) Assessment for Learning: Putting it into practice. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Brant J, Chapman A and Isaacs T (2016) International instructional systems: social studies. The Curriculum Journal, 27 (1): 62-79.
Burn A and Durran J (2007) Media Literacy in Schools: Practice, Production and Progression. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.
Land R, Meyer J and Smith J (Eds) (2008) Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.
Rowe D (2005) The Development of Political Thinking in School Students: an English Perspective. International Journal of Citizenship and Teacher Education, 1 (1), 97-110.
Shepard L (2018) Learning progressions as tools for assessment and learning. Applied Measurement in Education, 31 (2): 165-174.
Shepard L, Penuel W and Davidson K (2011) How middle school mathematics teachers use interim and benchmark assessment data. Los Angeles: National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing.
Smith CL, Wiser M, Anderson CW and Krajcik J (2006) Implications of research on children’s learning for standards and assessment: A proposed learning progression for matter and the atomic-molecular theory. Measurement: Interdisciplinary Research and Perspective, 14 (1&2): 1-98.

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