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Tense family dinners during the pandemic, the “Freedom Convoy” in 2022 and, more recently, confrontations over the issue of gender identity: all bear witness to social polarization and the spread of disinformation. Such events weaken social cohesion, heighten divisiveness and prejudice and undermine democracy.

The result is a growing chorus of calls for more civic education in the hope of resolving or preventing these social crises. This idea is based on the principle that involved, informed and responsible citizens are essential to maintaining a functioning and resilient democratic society.

Nevertheless, while such a request might seem reasonable, should we not first analyse the quality of the existing services offered before calling for more? That’s precisely the goal of L’Éducation civique mise au second plan, a report that describes Canadian teachers’ perception of this matter. To produce it, 1,922 professional educators across the country were surveyed. Focus groups and one-on-one interviews helped delve deeper into certain aspects of the study.

The conclusion is clear: civic education is seriously undervalued in Canada, which critically jeopardizes its effectiveness. Acting upon this assessment, it’s important to equip teachers in their difficult task of preparing young people for their role as engaged and well-informed citizens.

What is a “good” civic education?

Civics includes the formal study of political processes, of the role of government as well as of the rights and responsibilities of citizens. However, at a more fundamental level, it concerns community and the way in which we identify with others and interact with them.

It is the teacher’s pedagogical approach that makes all the difference.

A good civic education emphasizes the active participation of students rather than the mere imparting of knowledge, facts and dates.

The best practices stress pedagogical methods that put students in situations where they must observe and experiment; for example: constructive debates on political issues, mock political activities, and civic action programs.

But to get there, teachers need a great deal of time, training and resources to enable them to implement best practices.

The state of civic education in Canada

On paper, school curricula present active citizenship as one of the most important educational goals, but in the field it’s another matter altogether.

Almost two-thirds of teachers in the report stated that this component is not a priority at their school. This lack of validation within the school system compromises its effectiveness, especially since teachers lack adequate training and sufficient time or resources to teach it.

The report reveals deficiencies in civics training for teachers: 25 per cent of respondents underwent civics training, which is not the case for almost twice as many (48 per cent). So it’s not surprising that many teachers lack sufficient confidence in their ability to teach politics. They feel pressure on them, or a sense of helplessness in the face of weak guidelines from the school system, which includes schools, school service centres, districts or education ministries. This lack of guidance and integration of the program may also give the impression that civic education is an optional skill set, both in the eyes of the teachers and of the students.

And yet, the majority of Canadian study programs set out high expectations on this front. For example, the Atlantic provinces’ social studies curriculum asserts that “social sciences, more than any other curriculum area, is vital in developing citizenship”, embodying “the main principles of democracy.” However, most of these programs fail to offer guidance or specific instructions on how to attain these learning objectives.

Though some teachers benefit from this flexibility by implementing genuine civic education programs, such is not the case for all. Most have instead signaled the need for tangible pedagogical and didactic strategies aimed at reaching the prescribed learning objectives.

Currently, these activities more often than not consist of discussions of current affairs and political issues. Yet active-learning or experience-based pedagogical strategies have proven far more effective, for example properly supervised constructive debates, realistic mock elections or civic action projects allowing students to apply what they have learned in their community.

How to overcome these challenges? 

For young people to become citizens who are involved, informed and active in their communities, civic education must become a priority, both for teachers and for school authorities.

First of all, there must be investment in teacher training at all levels, for both current and future educators. They should be able to develop their own civic knowledge and skills while also mastering evidence-based pedagogical strategies. Training is one of the primary means of learning best practices in the subject, allowing students to engage in constructive debate and participate in authentic and experiential programs.

Secondly, teachers must have access to sound pedagogical strategies and tangible examples of how to incorporate the subject matter into their classroom, whatever the material being taught. This can be achieved with ready-to-use teaching resources that help teachers properly prepare their students for such exercises as a mock-election vote; other tools include guidebooks or lesson plans that help them lead in-class political discussions.

Finally, there must be infrastructure investment to support the creation of a teachers’ network for the sharing of the latest civic-education research, best practices and resources. Despite their best intentions, few educators have the time or the means to keep up with current research in the subject. Access to scientific papers often involves a fee, not to mention the hours of commitment to process the research or use it to implement new pedagogical approaches. We therefore need infrastructure that gathers emerging research in one place and helps educators connect that research to their work, in practical and effective ways.

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Dana Cotnareanu is director of francophone programming at CIVIX, an organization dedicated to youth civics education. She contributes to programs to develop skills and habits of active and informed citizenship in young people.
Amély Paquet writes French educational content at CIVIX, an organization dedicated to youth civics education. Amély develops educational materials for French-speaking teachers across Canada. She is a former high school French teacher.

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