Last month the results from the 2019 National Assessment Program Civics and Citizenship (NAP-CC) were released. The scores for Australian year 10 students indicated a poor knowledge of civic institutions and processes and suggested they lack the skills required for responsible civic participation.
Some commentators have argued that these results reflect a general cultural malaise towards current affairs, while others have noted that an overcrowded curriculum has in effect crowded out civics. Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge labelled the results "disappointing", noting that "we all have an interest in our kids learning about our democracy before they hit voting age".
The minister is on the right track, but we could go even further to recognise that civics and citizenship education should not just be preparation for the ballot box. Young people are not citizens-in-waiting. They are as influenced by policy decisions as any adult, and therefore we need to invest more energy into supporting them in learning and applying civics and citizenship education, so they can actively engage in democracy and understand how their actions matter.
Every day I run workshops for high school students, leading learning experiences that explore and practise citizenship. I facilitate discussions and activities with young people around equity, justice, bias, collective action, and how to be a responsible, informed citizen.
I can tell you that young Australians are by no means apathetic about social and political issues. They have questions, and they have answers, but they also need a scaffolding with which to understand how their actions matter. More than anything, they need to be given the tools to think for themselves, understand the views of others, engage in dialogue, and ultimately form their own set of beliefs.
I see a generation of young people deeply invested in the political sphere but confounded by the games of partisan politics.
I've heard a year 7 student, unbeknownst to him, articulate the premise of affirmative action: "If a school has only ever had boys' rugby teams, the girls' team needs more money and training, 'cause of all the years the girls couldn't practise."
Then again, I've heard a year 7 student bemoan the progress of gender and sexuality politics: "I miss 2015 when it was just LGBT and none of this 'plus' stuff." Students frequently wrestle with discrimination and xenophobia: "We don't have any racism at our school," I was told by a group of year 9s, while the sole student of colour stared at the ground. And I've had year 10s report to me: "The way Australia treats refugees is f---ed", while looking sheepish, wondering if I would reprimand them for their language. Throughout these sessions, they retain their teenage sassiness - a student once muttered: "Is a bias me thinking your watch is ugly?"
Australia's youth has grown up on the internet, so their understanding of sociopolitical issues is shaped by international affairs. I was living in the United States in 2018 and attended the youth-led "March for Our Lives" in support of gun control. A year later, at a school in NSW, I noticed a "March for Our Lives" pin on a student backpack. Australia passed the National Firearms Agreement in 1996, perhaps five years before this student was even born. The pin was a sign of solidarity with global youth action.
I see a generation of young people deeply invested in the political sphere but confounded by the games of partisan politics. I'm not surprised by the poor results on the latest citizenship and civics assessment, because I believe Australia could do a lot more to foster an environment that engages our young people in the local and national political discourse in a way that shows real respect for their opinions and policy ideas.
There is a path to improved test scores: involve young people in political conversations and enable their ongoing participation as active citizens. The NAP-CC test analysis revealed that students with greater participation in school governance or extracurricular citizenship activities, as well as students who talked about political or social issues with their families or friends, are more likely to have higher levels of NAP-CC achievement. Importantly, none of this needs to come at the cost of student performance in numeracy and literacy. The OECD's PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results have shown a positive correlation between literacy and citizenship skills. Civic engagement will help our scores across the board.
It is our duty as adults to collaborate with young people in our creation of a fairer and more just world. We must share the knowledge that we have while giving them the power and autonomy to act on this knowledge.
I was lucky. I attended a high school with a teaching staff that encouraged us to critically engage with the world. During those years I participated in the citizenship program I now teach. The overwhelming memory I have of that time is of the confidence I had that my ideas and opinions were being taken seriously.
The program included a student-led social action project where, for one period a week, the school would turn off all the classroom lights to conserve energy. As I recall, this endeavour lasted a fortnight before being canned (dark classrooms proved quite disruptive to learning).
Thinking about it now, the short-lived nature of the project provided an important lesson: your grand plans to save the world aren't always going to work, but that doesn't mean you give up. Creating positive change is a never-ending process to be practised and refined.
If we want young people to be conscious of their responsibilities as Australian and global citizens, adults must acknowledge their seat at the table. When we foster civic and citizenship learning and action across school students' lives, our young people are more likely to appreciate their role in our democracy. Citizenship is something that affects them every day, and should not just be confined to a test they take.
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