Toward a Critical Citizenship


This post is part of a serialized collection of chapters composing my recently completed Master’s of Education degree at the University of Victoria. You can access the other chapters on this site here, and access a pdf of the completed paper on the University of Victoria library space here

Within this modern context, it is important to not conceive of curriculum – as with citizenship – as something static. Rather, as a pluralist society demands a citizenry capable of fostering greater and greater inclusivity, a primary concern of schooling and curriculum becomes the practice and realization of social constructivism. Indeed, if young people are to learn to co- create individual and collective identities across social, ethnic, economic, and geographic classes, the development of such critical capacities takes on a singular importance in educating for citizenship as diverse populations seek unity and common purpose despite deep differences. This results in a conception of citizenship that begins to bear emergent properties as the national identity is fluidly forged from an ever-changing sum of its constituent parts. Just as such a view of citizenship presents a contradiction to those looking to inculcate a national identity in its populace, Osberg and Biesta (2008) similarly challenge those looking toward curriculum development to consider that,

If we hold that meaning is emergent, and we insist on a strict interpretation of emergence (i.e. what emerges is more than the sum of its parts and therefore not predictable from the ‘ground’ it emerges from) then the idea that educators can (or should) control the meanings that emerge in the classroom becomes problematic. In other words, the notion of emergent meaning is incompatible with the idea of education, traditionally conceived. Emergent meaning – if it exists – is incompatible with the idea of education as planned enculturation. (p. 317)

Forty years ago, Paulo Freire (1970) met with a similar contradiction in proposing an educational philosophy to supplant what he called the “banking approach” to education, wherein knowledge and meanings are transferred (or deposited) into learners’ thoughts. Viewing such deposits as oppressive limitations upon the realities of the recipient-students, Freire set about describing a critical praxis through which citizens would investigate and re-create their own realities: “To investigate the generative theme,” he wrote, “is to investigate the people’s thinking about reality and people’s action upon reality, which is their praxis,” adding: “The more active an attitude men and women take in regard to the exploration of their thematics, the more they deepen their critical awareness of reality and, in spelling out those thematics, take possession of that reality” (p. 87). Freire proposed a methodology very much in line with the emergent view of knowledge described by Osberg and Biesta, where “knowledge is neither a representation of something more ‘real’ than itself, nor an ‘object’ that can be transferred from one place to the next” (p. 313). Rather, such a view holds that knowledge “in other words, does not exist except in our participatory actions” (p. 313). Within an epistemological framework of emergence, curriculum is created as participants engage in their individual and shared inquiries, which together bring about the emergence of knowledge. Freire described a curriculum which “constantly expands and renews itself” as students investigate their generative themes:

The task of the dialogical teacher in an interdisciplinary team working on the thematic universe revealed by their investigation is to “re-present” that universe to the people from whom she or he received it – and “re-present” it not as a lecture, but as a problem. (p. 109)

By resolving the contradiction at the heart of such educative problems, students experience the transformation Gregory Bateson (1972) outlined in his hierarchy of learning, a process of five stages beginning with Learning 0, characterized by “responding to stimuli but making no changes based on experience or information” (Tosey, 2006, p. 6) and leading to Learning IV, which “probably does not occur in any adult living organism on this earth” (p. 3). While Learning IV may be seen to represent the evolution of a species into a genetic descendent, the crux of Bateson’s transformative learning arises in Learning III, which learners encounter “driven by contraries at level II” (p. 3). In presenting Bateson’s hierarchy as a possible framework for transformative learning, Tosey frames this view of Bateson by citing Bredo (1989), observing that “The ‘problem’ to which third-order learning is a ‘solution’ consists of systematic contradictions in experience” (p. 35, as cited in Tosey, 2006, p. 3). It is here that we glimpse the limit-situation described by Freire (see: Chapter 1), and after which the critical praxis is begun again anew.

Reconciling a view of curriculum within such an emergent sense of knowledge presents a similar challenge to the “third-order learning” needed to cultivate an evolving multicultural citizenship, and it is unsurprising to find an orientation toward process-oriented, critical solutions is suggested to best resolve contradictions in each of these domains. Schools striving to prepare young citizens for participation in the democratic process ought consider the fluid state of citizenship in the national sense, and reflect on how this view is represented in the school space. In addition to crafting a curriculum suited to enabling critical and emergent learning, schools in such pluralist democracies “are expected to celebrate the diversity of the student body, but also to minimize it by developing civic capacity and a host of shared dimensions” (Ben‐Porath, 2012, p. 382). Ben-Porath confronts this tension with an “alternative, national membership […] conceptualized here as shared fate – a relational, process-oriented, dynamic affiliation that arises from the cognitive perceptions as well as from the preferences and actions of members” (p. 382).

By conceiving of citizenship as shared fate, schools are able to formulate a curricular response consistent with principles of emergent knowledge and Freire’s critical praxis. Citizenship is no longer a vision of national unity or virtue, but exists as the assemblage of “visions, practices and processes that make up the civic body through engaging individuals and groups in the continuous process of designing, expressing and interpreting their membership in the nation” (p. 382).

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Johnson and Morris (2010) suggest a framework (see table 1) for such critical citizenship education by synthesizing literature concerned with citizenship education, critical pedagogy, and critical thinking “for analysing and comparing curricula which promote forms of critical citizenship” (p. 90). In a table highlighting distinct elements of critical pedagogy on the horizontal-axis, and “Corgan et al.’s (2002, 4) useful definition of citizenship/civics education as ‘the knowledge, skills, values and dispositions of citizens’” (p. 87) across vertical categories, the authors present “a working, flexible model of critical citizenship, open to reinterpretation and adaptation” (p. 90). The authors suggest the base knowledge, skills, values and dispositions in addressing elements of critical pedagogy: the political, social, self, and praxis, creating a point of departure for the unit framework presented here.


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