Are we taking our democracy for granted? - Education Matters Magazine
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Are we taking our democracy for granted?

David De Carvalho, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Curriculum, sheds lights on the importance of students understanding Australia’s democracy.

Each year there is hand-wringing over NAPLAN results, and every three years the angst rises when the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results are announced.  

But we don’t seem to have similar concerns over results showing students’ languishing skills, knowledge and understandings of our rights, legal obligations and shared values. Given what we’ve recently witnessed in the United States, we should be asking ourselves, “Why not?”

The results of the 2019 assessments in the National Assessment Program – Civics and Citizenship (NAP–CC) are out. A sample of around 5,600 students in Year 6 and 4,500 students in Year 10 from 627 Australian schools answered questions based on the Civics and Citizenship content in the Australian Curriculum and completed a survey.  

The results provide valuable insight into students’ understanding and appreciation of democracy, civic processes and institutions, and how these are perceived. They are both encouraging and concerning. 

On one hand, survey results show a promising evolution of Year 6 and Year 10 students who are engaged citizens: they are concerned about our environment, they embrace the diverse values immigrants bring to our shores, and approximately 90 per cent of them expressed positive attitudes towards Indigenous cultures. 

They also paint a picture of a generation of students who are concerned about their planet and increasingly get involved in raising money for a charity or social cause. 

However, just 38 per cent of Year 10 students reached the national proficient standard for knowledge in civics and citizenship. This figure has hovered around this mark consistently for many years and compares with a little over 50 per cent for Year 6 students. 

There appears to be a worryingly low level of understanding about, and appreciation for, our democratic institutions and why they are important. These are the institutions that underpin our society’s values around justice, fairness and equality of opportunity, and give our future generations the opportunity to shape their world.

While literacy and numeracy are clearly important foundations, what are they the foundations for if not for what the Alice Springs Education Declaration (signed by all education ministers in December 2019) refers to as one of the goals of schooling: active and informed members of our community? 

Schooling should help students develop curiosity about public affairs. We know teachers play a crucial role in supporting students’ understanding and interest in civics and citizenship. The report includes a dedicated chapter for teachers, which assists in how the Civics and Citizenship curriculum and the History curriculum can be used in teaching and learning of the skills and capabilities required to become “active and informed members of the community”. The chapter also includes exemplar questions and answers to help teachers.

The tweens and teenagers surveyed are living through a momentous era in history. These are the digital natives who are being educated in a rapidly evolving world. We know they are engaged when it matters to them but there is no question, we want to lift these results. 

Some have suggested that this knowledge deficit is because issues of sustainability, such as the impact of carbon dioxide on the atmosphere (a scientific issue), are taking up too much space in terms of what is taught in the classroom. 

But that is a false dichotomy. It is like saying we want you to learn about the rules of tennis but not play the game. Learning about democratic processes and about issues that need to be discussed and decided on through those processes go hand in hand and are the basis of being a citizen in a democracy.

We need to ensure all aspects of our values are understood and we cannot allow the quality of our public conversation on important matters of public policy to slip into slanging matches. It’s as if we’ve forgotten how to have respectful debate or are afraid to do so because it means engaging rationally with others with whom we disagree. 

We don’t have to look too far to see what the future might hold if our cultural resilience in the defence of civics and citizenship fails. A slippery slope of complacency can lead to the steps of the Capitol. It’s not too late. We can start by asking why the results are so poor and seeing if we can lift the proportion of our 15- and 16-year-olds who know about and value our Australian democracy.

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