What does it really mean to be a “good citizen”? What does it mean to be a Canadian citizen? Do we actually teach these things to our students? Or do we just teach students the vague and stale versions of citizenship and democracy that are provided in a school board supplied text book or resource like this?
I feel that this grade 6 guide to to a unit on Canadian Citizenship is a prime example of the way citizenship is taught in our schools. It outlines the roles and responsibilities of our government, examines prominent historical dates, and explores what new citizens must learn in order to apply for Canadian Citizenship by having the students role play the process. But are these students really learning and understanding what it means to be a Canadian Citizen or anything of real value about our country’s history of democracy? I would say not. This drab unit only serves to lay out seemingly boring information to a group of students that have no real way of connecting the information to their real world. What worth is it in having students navigate the process of citizenship? Does it really allow them to explore what it means to be a Canadian Citizen beyond the surface stereotypes? Perhaps it could, if the teacher was willing to dive deeper, but I feel that many teachers would be fearful to go beyond what is set out in the unit outline.
I think it is fair to say that the citizenship education that is taught in our schools is far removed from anything real or genuine about our country ,and it gives a false sense of the democratic process, because there is no modelling of it in their own school community. Allan Sears’ article, “In Search of Good Citizens : Citizenship in Education and Social Studies in Canada: Citizenship in Education and Social Studies in Canada” certainly brings up theses points, and addresses questions like, what do students know about effective citizenship? Are students ignorant because they have been un-educated or misinformed, or are they alienated and disengaged from the entire democratic concept? Sears explores these in the article, and I really felt connected to the words he wrote, and found myself saying, “Yes! Schools need to do better!”. Sears points out that even provincial/territorial educational ministries “are reluctant to give firm direction on the matter of teaching and learning strategies in areas that are normally associated with citizenship education” (p. 101), which I feel only further demonstrates the general reluctance and avoidance of having to define Canadian Citizenship and outline what our students need to know. Why is this though? Honestly, I think it is because even those of us who have lived here all our lives are unsure what it means to be a Canadian Citizen.
Sears points out how there has been all this research done into understanding how children learn, but that it hasn’t been applied to citizenship education (p. 102), and I feel that this is because the more we know, the more we know what we don’t know! Yes, we may understand how children think, and how they need to learn, but do we know WHAT they need to learn? Do they really need to know what’s written in a text book? Or do they need to understand what Bill C51 is, and how it can affect people in our communities? Do students need to list the dates of the Euro-centrically important historical events leading up to the confederation of Canada? Or do they need to understand the Treaties, and what has happened to the First Nations peoples of our country? Do students need to memorize the government’s definition of democracy? Or do they need to understand and be able to model the true heart of democracy in their community?
We live in a very multi-cultural society, and as such I think it is crucial that students explore what it means to be a good Canadian citizen in more than just a “picture-perfect-bulletin-board-worthy-collage-let’s-pick-up-litter-in-the-park” sort of way. We need to be brave enough to ask questions that make students question their own thoughts. We need to be able to have those conversations about how students of various cultural and religious backgrounds may have a different interpretation of Canadian Citizenship and how they fit in. While there are certainly several resources out there on teaching citizenship, like this one from the Government of Canada, I think it is the real task of teachers to pause and take a look at the messages these types of resources are giving, and then find or create supplementary resources to be able to look at the whole picture.
If we want to teach students about citizenship and democracy then we have to model it, but we must also understand it ourselves. At this point I’m not even sure I could fairly say that I do this, but I am certainly working on it. I am working at understanding and appreciating our Canadian history, including the ongoing history of our First Nations, Metis and Inuit brothers and sisters. I am working at critically evaluating and considering the platforms of our politicians so that I can make informed choices in our elections. I am working at discussing and sharing my knowledge and learning from those more knowledgeable than I on matters of Canadian governance, policy and position. We have to take the time to truly create an understanding of what Canadian Spirit is. This all takes time though, and I am not sure one can ever truly understand it all, but that should not deter us from teaching history, democracy and citizenship to our students. We are all learners, and we can teach and learn alongside our students, as long as we do it from a place of realism and in the spirit of community.