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Effective Teaching for Active Citizenship: a systematic evidence review

Whole school policies • Active Citizenship • Research

Effective Teaching for Active Citizenship: A systematic evidence review

This downloadable summary report has been produced by the Association for Citizenship Teaching and Middlesex University as part of the research and evaluation of the Active Citizenship in Schools programme that is running from 2021-25. The programme offers a strategic approach to embed social action and active citizenship within the school curriculum. It aims to identify models and practices that ensure pupils engage in and benefit from citizenship education in a sustained and impactful way.

Similarly to its companion report for school leaders, the evidence informing this report has been analysed following a systematic review of research journals. The researchers looked for peer-reviewed academic journal articles which were concerned with evaluating the impact of citizenship education, specifically in relation to active citizenship outcomes. The review included 133 articles from around the world, including 18 randomised control trials and large cohort studies, widely thought to be the most reliable form of evidence.

This summary report provides seven recommendations for subject leaders and teachers to consider in order to support active citizenship outcomes; including political knowledge, efficacy, trust, tolerance and attitudes towards democracy. Download the summary report for full details.

1. School context: Teacher-student relationships and school ethos

The quality of teacher-student relationships and student perceptions of their school have an impact on students’ citizenship outcomes. When students perceive they have a good relationship with teachers, whom they respect, they are likely to have more positive attitudes towards democracy and to be more likely to participate in a range of activities.

2. Planning

Taught provision makes a significant difference to student outcomes in a range of measures. It is well established that citizenship education in the curriculum leads to greater levels of knowledge about citizenship. But, there is mixed evidence about the wider impact in terms of attitudes towards citizenship and intentions to participate. Studies suggest that planned provision should also include active learning experiences to ensure progress in the wider range of citizenship outcomes.

3. Teaching styles

In England there is substantial current interest in forms of direct instruction and knowledge-led teaching and the research evidence suggests that this can be useful in building student knowledge and some citizenship skills. However, the evidence is equally clear that this must be accompanied by more interactive teaching methods to secure positive impacts on attitudes and students’ agency to affect change. The more forms of active learning students experience, the more sustained the positive impacts.

4. Discussions and debates

Students’ perception of the degree to which their classrooms encourage the expression and exploration of diverse opinions is correlated with improved knowledge, attitudes and experience of active citizenship. A number of small evaluations of specific projects suggest that it is the discussion that makes the difference, as opportunities to discuss work are often linked to higher outcomes than simply learning about the material individually.

5. Active Citizenship

Active citizenship works in securing a range of valuable outcomes, but the type and content of experiences can impact significantly on the outcomes. Generally speaking, the more active citizenship learning the better, in terms of scale and duration of impact. There is evidence to suggest that choosing topics that resonate with students’ immediate contexts and concerns may be easier to manage and secure positive outcomes, partly because of motivation and because of easier access to decision-makers.

6. Simulations

The evidence-base is weaker here but research generally finds positive outcomes in terms of knowledge, attitudes and skills. The evidence suggests that it is important to include time for a full de-brief and also that three design issues should be considered. First, classroom simulations may generate a greater impact if they include real life engagement, by presenting outcomes or engaging with speakers. Second, because simulations offer students a safe space to experiment with undesirable decisions, the simulation should make such options legitimate to ensure students ‘try out’ a range of approaches. Third, it might be useful to change roles part way through longer simulations to avoid students over identifying with one perspective.

7. Diversity and equality

There is a ‘civic gap’ which mirrors the general attainment gap between children eligible for free schools meals and their better off peers. This class divide is also complicated by a gender gap (in which girls reports better results from citizenship education than boys) and variations according to age (with younger students reporting more benefits than older ones) and differences according to migration experience (with migrant children having more positive attitudes towards political participation than others of comparable socio-economic status). 

More about this research

There is also a companion report The Impact of Citizenship Education: a review of evidence for school leaders aimed at school leaders and governors, and a full technical report is also available. You may also be interested to read the Journeys to Citizenship Education: four case studies.

Download Effective Teaching for Active Citizenship