How to turn students into active citizens

By Keith Heggart

Australians are on the streets, protesting in large numbers about their displeasure with the government’s inaction on women’s rights and safety. This follows protests across Australian (and the world) in support of #BlackLivesMatter, as well as the #March4OurLives movement in the US. 

Young people, too, are in the vanguard of environmental movements, most notably the School Strike for Climate. While some might argue that these events presage a healthy and vibrant democracy – and I would agree – what is notable about these examples is that they took place despite the failure of civics and citizenship education (CCE) in Australia, not because of it (and often despite the condemnation of politicians who suggested young people’s place was in the classroom, and not in a protest march).

These movements are diverse and it would be foolish to suggest that there is much commonality in their practices or causes (Castells, 2015), but it certainly appears that people around the world are increasingly likely to take to the streets to communicate their displeasure. 

There is an increase in civic activism and protest in some countries but elsewhere, for example the storming of the US Capitol in December 2020, showed more than the usual discontent with the status quo of democracy. The rise of authoritarian governments around the world, and the move towards what is sometimes called democratic deconsolidation (Keane, 2020) – long considered not possible in established democratic nations- is a cause for some concern.

In many democratic countries around the world, it appears democracy itself is teetering on the edge. Some research has indicated that, more than the usual discontent with politicians, young people are increasingly unhappy about democracy as a system of government, and favour more authoritarian approaches (Foa & Mounk, 2016). While these findings are disputed (see, for example, Alexander & Welzel, 2017), it certainly lends focus to what appears to be an era of increasing discontent with democratic institutions and processes. 

The recent National Assessment Program – Civics and Citizenship (NAP-CC) results provide further evidence for concern about the quality of civics and citizenship education in Australia. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the recent results is how unsurprising they are – certainly, the poor results from the sampled students in terms of civic knowledge and literacy are part of an ongoing trend stretching back more than a decade. Ultimately, we must confront the prospect that current models of civics and citizenship education are not delivering the civic literacy outcomes which we expect. If less than half of Year 10 students were literate or numerate – as they are in civics and citizenship education –  there would be an outcry. Yet that is exactly what we are facing with students and their civic literacy – and that is despite the Melbourne Declaration and the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration emphasising the important role of active and informed citizens/ members of the community within the Australian schooling framework. 

So what is going wrong with civics and citizenship education in Australian schools? In the past, significant amounts of money have been invested in teacher professional development, and high quality resources have also been developed, such as Discovering Democracy. Excellent programs and practitioners have been celebrated, and third party organisations like the Australian Electoral Commission, the Museum of Australian Democracy and The Whitlam Institute have also developed their own programs aimed at engaging young people and teaching them about their role as citizens. Yet none of these have made any significant change to the level of civic literacy.

The reasons for this failure are varied, ranging from concerns about the qualifications and civic knowledge of teachers, to the nature of the content within the Australian Curriculum. In New South Wales, for example, CCE is increasingly being pushed to one side, either to make room for more focus on History and Geography, cross curriculum priorities and general capabilities, or more focus being placed on literacy and numeracy programs aimed at arresting Australia’s slide in international rankings. There are also more demands for teachers to address other topics – like domestic violence, and road safety, and others.

This is not to say that any of these are less important than CCE; indeed, a case can be made for all of them and their role in Australian schooling. But curriculum timing is a finite resource, as is government funding. Any CCE program that is going to be successful needs to be one that is cost-efficient and scalable. The current CCE curriculum is content-heavy, and in many aspects focuses more on a history of Australia’s democratic institutions than on the practice of being a citizen in Australia in the 21st century. 

The reason for this rests on a limited conception of the purpose of civics and citizenship education. There is a fundamental question at the heart of CCE which sets it apart from other subjects within the school curriculum. The question is this: should children learn about their role as citizens of the future, and the mechanisms and institutions that support this citizenship by passively storing up knowledge until they formally become citizens? Effectively, are they ‘citizens-in-waiting?’ 

Or should students instead learn to become active citizens by adopting the practices of citizens, within their schools and communities, from a young age – that is, ‘citizens-by-doing’? Many current models of civics and citizenship education lean towards the former – and not surprisingly, as it is easier to manage, teach, resource and assess. But, in the interests of Australian democracy, it’s worth asking: what might the latter look like in an educational setting?

These were questions that motivated my research into civics and citizenship education. As a high school teacher, I’d long been the teacher to organise groups like the Student Council, or the Environmental Club. I was interested in helping students become active in their schools and communities – and I was frustrated at what I felt was a curriculum that was often tokenistic, certainly out of date and, perhaps most concerningly, did little to engage young people in the topics that mattered to them, or equipped then with the skills to advocate for change.   

This challenge informed the development of Justice Citizens, a model of civics and citizenship education inspired by Westheimer and Kahne’s (2004) conception of justice-oriented citizenship. Delivered in a Western Sydney high school, for one hour per week over a period of 6 months, the Year 9 students who took part in Justice Citizens examined ‘justice’ – or the lack of it – within their local communities, interviewing local community members, working with journalists and filmmakers, and then presenting their findings, in the form of short films, back to the community. They made films about refugees, about climate change and about teenage pregnancy – and lots more!

The research I undertook as part of Justice Citizens led to the development of what I have described as Justice Pedagogy, a framework for developing Active Citizenship amongst young people. Unlike other models of civics and citizenship education, it embraces a surplus model of young people, privileging their concerns and extant knowledge as a starting point for the development of civic action and activism. 

In this way, it is much more than teacher-centred or even student-centred; indeed, I describe it as student-led, with students in this case determining what is meant by justice, and making creative decisions about how best to shoot, edit and publish their film. It is a pedagogy that is unashamedly experiential, arguing that the best way to become an active citizen is to start being one, and in doing so, it supports a much broader definition of ‘citizen’ than a strictly socio-political one. Indeed, this definition of citizen is more in keeping with the ‘members of the community’ phrase from the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration. And the focus is on action- something that I describe as ‘action-oriented’ learning. For Justice Citizens, unlike the current CCE syllabus, it is not enough to simply plan campaigns or community education programs: students must be involved in them, advocating for systemic change – for the simple fact that this is one of the best predictors of future civic engagement.  In order to do this, schools should seek to make use of the resources available within their local communities, via school-community partnerships. Perhaps even more importantly, though, by engaging in these activities, in the real world, and working with diverse members of the community, students can practice the kind of critical literacy that is increasingly becoming important in our information saturated and algorithmically-mediated world.  

The advantages of Justice Citizens are significant. Unlike other models of CCE, there is no need for significant background knowledge regarding different civic institutions and knowledges. There is also no need to spend significant amounts of time and resources trying to make the vagaries of the democratic process engaging for all students. Instead, Justice Citizens seeks to leverage the networks and resources available within a school’s community to create an environment in which young people can develop their knowledge of civics and citizenship by engaging in the very practice of active citizenship.


Alexander, A. C., & Welzel, C. (2017). The myth of deconsolidation: Rising liberalism and the populist reaction. Journal of Democracy. Available here:

Castells, M. (2015). Networks of outrage and hope: Social movements in the Internet age. John Wiley & Sons.

Foa, R. S., & Mounk, Y. (2016). The danger of deconsolidation: The democratic disconnect. Journal of Democracy, 27(3), 5-17.

Keane, J. (2020). The New Despotism. Harvard University Press

Dr Keith Heggart is an early career researcher with a focus on learning and instructional design, educational technology and civics and citizenship education. He is currently exploring the way that online learning platforms can assist in the formation of active citizenship amongst Australian youth. Keith is a former high school teacher, having worked as a school leader in Australia and overseas, in government and non-government sectors. He has also worked as an organiser for the Independent Education Union of Australia, and as an independent Learning Designer for a range of organisations. He tweets @keithheggart

Dr Heggart’s book, Activist Citizenship Education (2021) is available through Springer. 

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