Active learning and the development of Citizenship
‘For a school to teach Citizenship: it must live it!’
This paper describes and analyses how active learning can make citizenship education
more effective in schools. By active learning I suggest that citizenship can be learnt by
engaging young people in projects and other activities, which encourage them to
develop an understanding of the responsibilities and skills needed to become citizens
in society. Active learning empowers young people to apply their knowledge and
skills to solve problems and learn from their experience. This approach makes
citizenship education more effective by planning learning activities which use young
people’s experience and develop skills sand understanding through their active
involvement in a project. Research on how learning takes place and on how the brain
operates has pointed out the importance of making connections between experience
and new ideas:
Connecting to what the learner already knows and understands is an
essential prerequisite for accelerating learning. The brain constantly seeks
patterns of meaning based on those patterns that are already known and
understood and the capacity to recognise and learn new patterns. (Smith
Researchers have explained how the brain requires opportunities to use and apply
knowledge and ideas using skills that have been acquired to enable effective learning
to take place:
You’ve got to take time to get kids deeply involved in something so they can
think about it in lots of different ways and apply it – not just at school but at
home, on the street and so on. (Gardner, 1993)
Involving young people in active learning projects makes learning about citizenship
relevant to young people and provides motivation for extending learning. This paper
will consider the practical steps that can be taken to provide opportunities for pupils to
learn about citizenship and apply knowledge learnt in the curriculum.
When in Rennes on our TIPD study visit, we saw examples in a number of schools of
these kinds of activities, and it became so obvious to us of the merits of this kind of
The final report of The Advisory Group on Citizenship argues that citizens must be
equipped with the political skills needed to change laws in a peaceful and responsible
manner. Effective education for citizenship involves children learning socially and
morally responsible behaviour both in and beyond the classroom, both towards those
in authority and to each other. The report and the subsequent programmes of study for
Citizenship Education (QCA 1999) present three dimensions for effective education
1) Social and moral responsibility.
2) Community involvement.
3) Political literacy.
The report states that citizenship education ‘is behaving and acting as a citizen’
(Advisory Group on Citizenship 1998). This implies that it is not simply knowledge
of citizenship and how democratic society operates that is required but that it involves
the development of values, skills and understanding. Concerns about youth alienation
and apathy encourage ideas about active citizenship. It recognised that it is not enough
for young people to know about citizenship but education needs to encourage them to
participate in the process. The Hansard Society Submission stated the view that:
Programmes should be developed to promote political discourse and
understanding as well as encouraging young people to engage in political
processes. Young people must be encouraged to develop leader4ship and
team skills in order to promote self-discipline and self-motivation. (Advisory
Group on Citizenship 1998).
Pupils need to experience and develop political skills if they are going to be
empowered in their adult life to have some effect on issues and problems that concern
society and their community. The recommendations of the report allow the possibility
of different approaches to citizenship by setting out specific learning outcomes rather
that detailed programmes of study. Schools should cover an understanding of
democratic practices, the duties and responsibilities of a citizen, and involvement of
the individual in the local and wider community. This can only be achieved, and
learning be effective if the pupils’ experience includes being encouraged to become
actively involved in the school community and the local community to provide them
with opportunities to apply their knowledge and learn from the problems and
difficulties they encounter.
It is difficult to conceive of pupils as active citizens if their experience of
learning as citizenship education has been predominantly passive. (Advisory
Group on Citizenship 1998).
Citizenship education will become more effective where the learning is linked to a
group learning project where they have been empowered to identify the problem, plan
and implement the action and evaluate its success.
Often the schools a its local community can provide a perfect context
for pupils to examine issues and events and to become involved in active
participatory activities and experiences where the emphasis is on learning
through action. (Advisory Group on Citizenship 1998).
Participation in active learning activities is designed to empower young people to
become active citizens by developing academic skills, responsibility and character
while working to meet a real community need. Five citizenship competencies have
been identified for development through hands-on active learning experiences in the
community. The competencies are designed to help students become caring members
of their neighbourhood, contributors to the improvement of the community and
lifelong productive citizens.
The citizenship competencies are:
To work effectively in a variety of group settings
To identify and evaluate the values and ethics of self and others in the
To recognise, appreciate and support vital elements of the local
To gather and evaluate data necessary to effect positive change
To implement effective decision making and problem solving
Elected representatives from pupil body meet termly to focus on class projects, class
activities and have the very important role of reporting progress and behaviour to
parents and other representatives. In a primary school some of the issues that had been
raised at the council meetings included: requests for water jugs and glasses, serviettes
and salt and pepper on dinner tables in the canteen; requests for TV to be available in
the Dining Hall - this idea was actually rejected at the school council meeting by the
pupil body, who thought it would be a bad idea and cause a lot of noise! Pupils had
also made requests for the school library to be better stocked and open at more
frequent times for classes to use.
Training of pupil representatives:
The expected responsibilities for class representatives can only be achieved
successfully, if these young people are provided with the necessary skills. When
pupils have not been expected to discuss, elicit ideas, and to make judgements in the
past, this is a vital step towards making the whole process work satisfactorily. In one
of the schools visited, they had also recognised the need to 'train' the other pupils so
that they could make best use of the Council system and their representatives.
School Councils with representatives from all stakeholders:
The idea of a fully representative body that discusses the day-to-day issues of school
life, and the progress of pupils. This is slightly different from the governing body
system that exists here in Britain, as pupils bring issues from the classes, and pupils of
a younger age are part of this Council. In the schools visited, few had faced difficulties
in getting the parent body involved, and all had expressed very positive support from
the local council officers who were represented, and also other co-opted members
from the local community.
Negotiated class and school rules:
At a Nursery school that we visited, we saw in the playground, commercially
produced signs have been designed by children to show the accepted behaviours.
There were a number of signs showing that pupils had thought long and hard about the
kind of behaviours which were unacceptable. Also, inside many classrooms,
especially in the 'primary' schools we visited, were lists of rules that the pupils had
designed and agreed for classroom behaviour, and general school standards.
Meals as social occasions:
In all of the schools that we visited, the mid-day break was up to two hours in
duration. During this time the vast majority of pupils stayed on the premises and ate a
school lunch that was provided in the canteen. Some schools had large number of
pupils eligible for free or subsidised meals, other had less numbers, but the meal
arrangements were still of great importance
In one Nursery school staff went to great pains to provide the best facilities and
cutlery etc. to enable pupils to learn to respect the property. In a number of schools
colourful tablecloths were used, all the cutlery, crockery and glass ware was of good
standard, and was well used (not abused). Perhaps it something peculiar to France that
the mealtime was seen as an important event in the middle of the day. This time was
equally important for staff relaxation, as it was for pupils. During the break, non-
teaching staff are brought in to provide supervision and support for the social, sporting
and study activities that take place. This was an idea that appealed to all of us, but is it
really realistic in our schools?
Identified competencies to be developed through Citizenship Education:
The early stages of guidance for the introduction of Citizenship education in "Cycle 1,
2, and 3" identifies specific skills and attributes that are expected to be achieved.
Many of these competencies are already identified and located within the framework
for PSHE and Citizenship. When schools move into the realm of establishing
assessment schemes for Citizenship they are likely to focus on those skills and
attributes that can be addressed through participation in citizenship based activities.
Class projects - social, school based, humanitarian:
Over the course of a school year each class could become involved with a project that
they had decided upon. The use of this approach would enable many pupils to meet
the requirements for two of the three interrelated strands of 'Social and moral
responsibility' and 'Community involvement'. This approach also provides the
opportunity to develop citizenship for all pupils, not just for a few. By undertaking
this project approach, the scope for active learning activities is enhanced, with
opportunities for: research, groupwork and discussion, simulation activities and
Specific skills identified for further development e.g. critical thinking, oracy etc.
Throughout our visit, when we met students, the main focus was that of skill
development. In order to enable students to feel confident about taking a full and
active role in the various citizenship based activities that we have been impressed
with; these students have needed to be trained in a range of skills. All students need to
develop skills that enable them to capitalise on the opportunities that Citizenship
Education provides, and also to take their place as useful citizens in society, when
they have left school. By exploring contemporary events and issues, this may help
promote understanding and knowledge, and lead to the development of skills for
participation and action. These skills for participation and responsible action can be
further developed through local, national or international activities that could form the
basis of class or school project activities.
For a school to teach Citizenship: it must live it! The underlying principle that enables
Citizenship Education to be successful in schools must be that Citizenship is seen to
be explicit as well as being implicit in school policies and practices. The ideas and
values that underpin Citizenship Education, need to be the same that provides a school
with its ethos and 'modus operandii'. In this way Citizenship Education will be seen as
an extension of what the school is doing, and the implementation of a whole school
approach would be more successful that attempting to 'add - on' Citizenship as an
Schools are being encouraged to use curriculum time to teach pupils about the
different aspects that have been defined as being part of citizenship. Pupils will be
taught in the curriculum about their rights and responsibilities as citizens and given
information about how society operates. These active learning opportunities are an
effective way teaching citizenship because pupils learn from their experience and it
motivates them to develop their skills and understanding. I would suggest that this
approach is effective because it advances a model for citizenship education where
young people are treated and valued as citizens themselves. Any approach to
citizenship education, which simply teaches children to conform, misses an
opportunity to involve them in the process and challenge the youth alienation and
apathy that is such a concern in Britain today. Active learning recognises the
contribution that young people can make as citizens. Only by engaging young people
in active learning projects and other activities that enable them to experience
citizenship will pupils in Britain’s schools develop the skills, understanding and
motivation needed to become active citizens in society.
THE ADVISORY GROUP ON CITIZENSHIP (1998) Education for Citizenship and
the Teaching of Democracy. London: Qualifications and Curriculum Authority
GARDNER, H. (1993) Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences.
SMITH, A. (1998) Accelerated Learning in Practice. Stafford: Network Educational