Civics: Is there enough room in the syllabus?

By Claire Golledge

Politicians and policy makers constantly express concern over students’ lack of civic knowledge and their lack of engagement as citizens; their understanding of democracy. At the same time, Australian students consistently fail to demonstrate basic proficiency in the national assessment of civics and citizenship education (NAP-CC)

The politicians have a point. It is in all our interests to have an engaged and knowledgeable citizenry. The question is how to go about improving civics and citizenship education (CCE) in a way that makes a meaningful difference? 

Renewed focus

The current round of hand-wringing about CCE has found expression at both state and federal levels. In February, the NSW Educational Standards Authority (NESA) announced that the revised HSIE syllabus, to be revealed later this year would have a “renewed focus” on civics and citizenship education, although we are yet to see what this renewed focus looks like. Meanwhile, last week the Commonwealth Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters held public hearings (chair Kate Thwaites pictured in header image) as part of the inquiry into civics education, engagement and participation in Australia. It was disappointing that amongst the many experts appearing before the hearing last week, none were current classroom teachers. 

It is hard not to notice that it is history teaching, or more specifically history teachers, who are (paradoxically) considered both a key cause and solution to the deficiency in student knowledge of CCE, with former education minister Alan Tudge famously calling for a more “optimistic” version of Australian history to be taught in classrooms so that “Individual students learn to understand the origins of our liberal democracy so that they can defend it, they can protect it, they can understand it, and they can celebrate it”.  

Voices and concerns of students

Despite what might be offered by the latest round of curriculum reform in NSW, and without pre-empting the findings of the parliamentary inquiry, it needs to be said that efforts to pursue CCE through more mandated content in humanities courses, won’t on their own improve the quality of student civic knowledge or engagement. Efforts to improve CCE need to include the voices and concerns of students and teachers, and consider the different contexts in which teachers approach CCE across the diversity of Australian classrooms. 

Teachers get it

I’ve undertaken research with history teachers across NSW, and it’s clear from my interviews with them and time spent in their classrooms that they do understand history education as having a pivotal role in the teaching of CCE. But critically, they see history as doing this through the teaching of disciplinary skills such as the critical reading of sources, the ability to ask robust questions and notions of the contestability of knowledge, rather than through the teaching of any sort of ‘canon’ of knowledge about Western democracy and civilisation. In an era of misinformation and fake news, the ability of students to ask critical questions – of individuals and our institutions is perhaps more important than ever. 

The syllabus and HSC are hindering, not helping CCE 

Whilst it’s easy to talk about adding more CCE content to the syllabus, teachers report that they are already working with a history curriculum that they describe as ‘full’ and ‘tight’ and which as a result doesn’t allow any wiggle room to explore areas of passion or interest for their students. We need to be careful about making the syllabus even less flexible for teachers to work with. 

For one teacher in my study – Jane – who is an expert in local Aboriginal history and storytelling, the formal curriculum in senior history courses, with their emphasis on world wars and Western history, limits her ability to share this expertise with her students.

As a result, Jane is deeply cynical about attempts to formalise civics and citizenship education through mandated knowledge in the history curriculum which she sees as alienating, “boring” and “deeply irrelevant” for her students. Jane instead tries to engage with democratic notions through inclusive pedagogies and the building of a classroom community.

Lovely kids but so sheltered

For another teacher in my study – Max – who teaches in a high-fee independent school in Sydney, it is not only the curriculum that frustrates his teaching of CCE, but also the high stakes assessment of the HSC. Max describes his students as “pretty Anglo [and] affluent, they are so sheltered here. They are lovely kids, but they are so sheltered”. Max understands his task as being to challenge some of the ways in which his students are ‘sheltered’ through exposure to challenging content and ideas, and grappling with the contestation at the heart of history education.

But Max also admits that the primary expectation of him as a teacher of senior students at his school is to get his students the best possible result for their Higher School Certificate examination. This means that in his senior history classrooms, with students on the precipice of voting, he prioritises ‘teaching to the test’ and this means sometimes foregoing opportunities to pursue rich and meaningful CCE. 

CCE in an inequitable education system 

While both Max and Jane are passionate teachers of history who are seeking to embed CCE in their classroom, they are not doing so on an even playing field. Educational inequity is rarely discussed as a factor in improving CCE in Australia, and yet the resources and opportunities afforded to Max’s students make a huge difference in his ability to connect their learning in history to the development of their civic knowledge. For Jane, teaching in an under-resourced, regional school, she struggles to get students to comprehend the broader significance of their learning in history:

I am trying to teach them who Mussolini is, but they have no idea who their own Prime Minister is, that’s really quite a challenge….

I’m sure at many schools that wouldn’t be a problem. At some schools the name of the Prime Minister is on the honour board.

Jane’s insight is a telling one, because indeed the honour boards of Max’s school are replete with the names of Australian politicians and other notable individuals. Messages about democracy, participation and active citizenship are encoded into the very fabric and structure of our education system which provides so much to some students and so little to others. And yet we wonder why so many students begin their adult life feeling disengaged from politics and public life? 

Let’s hear more from teachers when we talk about CCE 

As we look around at the political and environmental challenges being faced by the next generation, there is particular urgency to engaging with the question of how to best develop in our students an appreciation for democratic ideals, a valuing of inclusive notions of citizenship and the knowledge and capacity to be empathetic and engaged civic actors. But improving student knowledge and capacity in these areas won’t happen if all we do is think about content in the curriculum without parallel regard for the systems and structures at work in our education system more broadly. History teachers are well aware of the way in which notions of citizenship and democracy can be pursued in their classrooms, and we would do well to listen to and value their insights. 

Claire Golledge is a lecturer in education and the co-ordinator of HSIE Curriculum (Secondary) in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work. Prior to taking up her position at the university, Claire worked as a secondary teacher of humanities, as well as in school executive leadership positions, leading teacher professional learning.

Our header image is from the Facebook page of Kate Thwaites, chair of Commonwealth Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

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