Critical Citizenship for the Digital Age

Brian and Bryan Jam

Photo courtesy of Alan Levine

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

This project builds on these notions of a process-oriented citizenship curriculum by bringing them into the digital age. As communicative technology has altered how people relate to both information and one another, humankind is forced to reimagine both knowledge and citizenship in contemporary society. “In the digital age,” Simsek and Simsek (2013) write, “it is a vital requisite to fully understand and use the capacity of new information and communication technologies” (p. 128). Where prior media landscapes – print, film and radio – forced citizens to make meaning based on limited societal authorship, literacies arising in the 21st century “differ from the previous ones, mainly due to their operational, interactive, and user-based technological characteristics” (p. 129). Epistemologically, the creation of cultural narratives and realities has been urged away from a minority authorship toward what Sidorkin (2000) describes as “polyphony, the principle of engaged co-existence of multiple yet unmerged voices” (p. 5). Thus the communications revolution calls upon schools to foster the discovery and synthesis of diverse voices in the service of citizenship learning, something digital tools are well-suited to provide, as “the free flow of information through new technologies is consistent with the requirements of deliberative democracy and corresponding citizenship practices” (Simsek & Simsek, 2013, p. 130).

In a seminal essay in the movement toward open 21st century education, Gardner Campbell (2009) builds on Marshall McLuhan to explore the message at work in the medium of the World Wide Web. “Print is not advanced calligraphy,” he writes. “The web is not a more sophisticated telegraph” (p. 58). To better interpret curriculum in the digital age, Campbell suggests the idea of “personal cyberinfrastructure,” where students are assigned and provided with their own web servers and domain names, and then proceed – through the course of their institutional educational experience – to “build out their digital presences in an environment made of the medium itself,” allowing them to “shape their own cognition, learning, expression, and reflection in a digital age, in a digital medium” (p. 59). Citizenship education, in this view, is enabled by educators and institutions willing to exemplify the participatory culture required by democracy, and which is essential to the information landscape of the digital age:

if what the professor truly wants is for students to discover and craft their own desires and dreams, a personal cyberinfrastructure provides the opportunity. To get there, students must be effective architects, narrators, curators, and inhabitants of their own digital lives. Students with this kind of digital fluency will be well-prepared for creative and responsible leadership in the post-Gutenberg age. Without such fluency, students cannot compete economically or intellectually, and the astonishing promise of the digital medium will never be fully realized. (Campbell, 2009, p. 59)

Stewart (2013) similarly describes an “ethos of participation” grounding many open educational experiences, as she notes that, “To be digitally literate is to be able to engage the connections and communications possibilities of digital technologies, in their capacity to generate, remix, repurpose, and share new knowledge as well as simply deliver existing information.” However, Groom and Lamb (Groom & Lamb, 2014) counter these attempts at optimism in their description of “innovation fatigue” taking over education in 2014: “As institutional demands for enterprise services such as e-mail, student information systems, and the branded website become mission-critical, the notion of building and re-imagining the open web gets lost” in a preoccupation with “what’s necessary rather than what’s possible,” as institutional decisions are further driven by private capital and interests that fall outside those of education for the public good (para 12). If education for citizenship is to be concerned with the “analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them” (Foucault, 1984, p. 50), educators must seek the promise of openness, not only in technology but society itself. Chief engineer of the World Wide Web, Tim Berniers-Lee, described the necessity of seeking an open Internet as central to the democratic project: “Unless we have an open, neutral internet […] we can’t have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture” (Kiss, 2014). Groom and Lamb note that “It is well within the power of educators to play a decisive role in the battle for the future of the web,” even if this will “require an at-times inconvenient commitment to the fundamental principles of openness, ownership, and participation” (2014).


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.


Apathy & Oligarchy in the Public Sphere


Photo courtesy of Filippo Minelli.

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

Two forces at work in North American society at the outset of the 21st century present a troubling prospect for those considering the citizenship education of Canadian youth in an era of digital shock: those of apathy and oligarchy. Research into both the perceived and actual influence of individuals on the political process reveals a body politic that is, even if motivated to effect political change, ill-inspired to participate in the process of electoral politics (Howe, 2007). In the era of the Occupy Wall Street movement (Calhoun, 2013), carbon divestment campaigns at major North American universities (McKibben, 2013), and public demonstrations against austerity measures implemented across Europe (Della Porta, 2015), young people demonstrate signs of being politically engaged and do act in political ways (MacKinnon, Pitre, & Watling, 2007, p. 5). However, in North American contexts, these trends fail to affect significant political change due to downward voting trends and the rise of an influential financial and media elite.

While it acknowledges that “Participating in elections is the essential starting point of any democratic system,” Elections Canada’s own working paper on the Electoral Participation of Young Canadians (Howe, 2007, p. 5) cites a characterization of the nation’s youth as “political dropouts,” building on the dour findings of Ottilia Chareka and Alan Sears (2015) that even though “Youth understand voting as a key element of democratic governance, a hard won democratic right, and a duty of democratic citizenship […], most indicate they do not plan to vote because voting does not make a difference” (p. 521). The paper notes that despite being politically inactive when it comes to voting habits, young Canadians are more inclined toward other forms of political engagement – political rallies, demonstrations, or public awareness campaigns and petitions – that offer encouraging signs that positive change may be possible. McKinnon, Pitre, and Watling (2007) similarly observe that “youth have tended to reframe engagement in more individual and less institutional terms” (p. iii), which may create a more engaged voting block as the millennial generation comes of age.

In the meantime however, available data presents a troubling landscape. Drawing on Election Canada Studies (1997, 2000, 2004, 2006, and 2008), Blais and Loewen (2011) note that “[voter] turnout decline is a long-term phenomenon” and “that this trend is not unique to Canada” (p. 13). The authors observe that “At least two-thirds of new voters would cast a ballot in the 1960s; by 2004 it was about one third” (p. 12), and explore different possibilities leading to such a declining interest in voting, ranging from gender, to marital status, to socioeconomic class and religious affiliation, finding inconclusive data to support a case that any of these factors in isolation could prove the cause of the trend. Similarly, the political contexts affecting youth attitudes toward the democratic process – the tone of campaigns or partisan advertising, the competitiveness of electoral contests, or narrow interests represented by national political parties – fail to yield a singular cause of disenchantment among youth voters. However, “There is ample evidence that the attitudes and values of recent generations are different from those of their predecessors and that this change is in good part responsible for the recent turnout decline” (p. 18).

This disinterest in the franchise of voting itself threatens to amplify the trend Gilens and Page (2014) identify in the United States wherein the political economy has been transformed into (or returned to) an oligarchy, where “mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence” (p. 565). “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests,” they write, “they generally lose” (p. 576). While many are quick to champion the levelling or democratisation that digital tools have brought the global public sphere (see subsequent sections of Literature Review), recent trends in the privatisation of educational resources (Ball, Thrupp, & Forsey, 2010), the revelation of corporate cooperation with government surveillance (Lee, 2013), and the strident defense of private intellectual property that might otherwise benefit the common good (May, 2013) are less inspiring.

Habermas (1991) describes the rise of the period leading to the establishment of our modern democratic institutions as having created the bourgeois public sphere, where “for the first time in history, individuals and groups could shape public opinion, giving direct expression to their needs and interests while influencing political practice” (Kellner, 2000, p. 263). However, the course of Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1991) charts “the path from a public critically reflecting on its culture to one that merely consumes it” (p. 175), which aptly describes the findings of the previous paragraph. Kellner notes, however, that “Habermas offered tentative proposals to revitalize the public sphere by setting ‘in motion a critical process of public communication through the very organizations that mediatize it (1989a, p. 232)” (p. 65), a sentiment which underlies the motivation for this project to explore the role that the experimentation with and the discovery of one’s voice within digital spaces might play in the citizenship development of young people, as well as the reclamation of the public sphere.

Indeed, a 2007 synthesis report of the Canadian Policy Research Networks series of papers, entitled “Charting the Course for Youth Civic and Political Participation,” cites schools, “and, more precisely, civics or citizenship education – both in content and pedagogy – as being both a significant cause of and solution for declining political knowledge and skills” (MacKinnon et al., 2007, p. 15). The authors note that “educational institutions, governments, political parties, politicians, the community sector and youth themselves” must collectively engage in the process of citizenship learning, a dynamic process which is not simply an act of “transferring knowledge from one generation to another – rather, it is about embracing youth as co-creators and partners in renewing civil and democratic life in Canada” (p. vi). In concert with the critical framework for citizenship learning outlined here, the report stresses that,

As young people reflect on their civic and political roles, it is clear that many of them must first find their own identity as a Canadian[.] They need opportunities to practice being a citizen – through discussion and debate, at home, in schools and in their own and broader communities. (p. vi)


Citizenship Curriculum as a Response to Digital Shock


Image courtesy of Tom Woodward.

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

As Clay Shirky noted now almost ten years ago, “We are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capacity in the history of the human race” (2008, p. 106), prompting many educational stakeholders to encounter a digital age in which “forms of information have changed drastically” (Simsek & Simsek, 2013, p. 127), inducing what may be viewed as a state of shock. They explain:

Information is an integral part of daily life in today’s society in order for individuals to survive against information-related requirements. Production of knowledge requires different skills than those necessary for producing goods. Thus, the concept of shock could be interpreted partly as the feelings of the confusions of people, being aware of not having necessary skills for the new literacies. (p. 127)

While pervasive across the affected culture, this type of societal confusion represents an opportunity to reform collective enterprises including, but certainly not limited to, monetary policy and public schooling. Naomi Klein notes in The Shock Doctrine (2008) that such ‘shocks’ are opportunities for radical interventions in policy reform, citing the champion of neoliberal capitalism Milton Friedman’s admission that “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around” (p. 166). This holds true as schools look to encounter the shock of producing a curriculum for the digital age, as David Berry highlights “the plasticity of digital forms and the way in which they point toward a new way of working with representation and mediation […] whereby one is able to approach culture in a radically new way” (2011, p. 1).

Educationists and those who would ensure that the educational “ideas that are lying around” in the midst of such a shock ought consider critically the role that curriculum plays in adequately equipping young people to inherit and recreate a society that reflects Canadian pluralist ideals: a skillset and disposition we might broadly encapsulate as “citizenship.” This project outlines a particular conception of citizenship curriculum for the digital age that it might be an “idea lying around” as stakeholders look to reform education in the 21st century. The citizenship proposed here intends to address inequalities inherent in democratic systems by helping bring about the “full and active participation of each member of society” promised by the Multicultural Act of Canada (Canadian Multiculturalism Act, c 24 (4th Supp), 1985), as well as the representation of all members of Canadian society in the ongoing construction of the national identity.

Integral to this conception of citizenship learning is the notion that

“Young people learn at least as much about democracy and citizenship – including their own citizenship – through their participation in a range of different practices that make up their lives, as they learn from that which is officially prescribed and formally taught” (Biesta, Lawy, & Kelly, 2009, p. 3).

In looking to design educational opportunities in which young people can experience authentic citizenship learning, curriculum cannot be bound to a static perception of content, skills, or outcomes, but rather must emerge from an exploration of the lives of young people (see: Freire, Osberg, Biesta). As a result, the project considers forces impacting the democratic realities of youth, and looks to allow for the creation of a new narrative of citizenship learning to emerge in the process of the unit framework outlined here.


Literature Review: Introduction

As in a Dream

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

In the preparation of this project, this review consults diverse sources of scholarship and literature ranging from contemporary educational philosophy and political science, to modern literature, philosophy, and the traditions of critical pedagogy and emergent epistemology. This inquiry considers educational databases, peer-reviewed journals and scholarly blogging, as well as presentations, collaborative learning and social networking to explore key themes and thinking about: citizenship, critical pedagogy, transformative learning, emergent epistemology, constructivism, connectivisim, the digital humanities, personal cyberinfrastructure, open education, networked learning, and the public sphere. Literature reviewed in these fields ranges in date depending on the topic, as digital, pedagogical, or sociological (i.e., pertaining to youth voting patterns) scholarship was limited to the last five, or occasionally 10 years, and literature focused on educational or broader philosophical traditions dates back much further (see: Kant, Foucault, Freire). Given particular prominence in the construction of the project’s underlying conceptual framework have been the ERIC and PsychInfo databases, journals concerned with contemporary citizenship, critical pedagogy, and digital culture; an ongoing engagement with public academics, scholars, and colleagues on social media has also greatly shaped the nature of this study.

To establish a conceptual framework, the literature reviewed here presents a view of curriculum reform in a moment of digital shock affecting all aspects of human society, not least education. This moment of digital shock, it is supposed, asks that educational reformers carefully consider the implicit messages that schooling (as well as the wider culture) communicates to young people about the nature of their own citizenship. In so doing, it is hoped that the educational opportunities created as a result allow for the rehearsal and experience of applying a critical lens to one’s culture, and creating unique individual and collective narratives which authentically represent the participants. It is hoped, as well, that students gain an awareness and ability to broaden the base of individuals holding positions of power and influence in the construction of a shared societal narrative. The literature reviewed highlights the prominence of challenging trends toward political apathy and economic oligarchy in North American society (with data suggesting a similar trend across western Europe), and proposes a reclamation of the public sphere that seeks to restore the democratic possibility of continuously reimagining collective identities out of emerging individual perspectives.

With this foundation, the conceptual framework is completed by aligning components of emergent epistemology, critical pedagogy, and transformative learning to present a conception of citizenship as shared fate, a notion which makes possible the critical renovation of democratic society to suit an evolving populace and citizenry. This view of citizenship is supported by the advent of digital communications technology, and the world wide public web, allowing the principles of such a citizenship to be applied to a global populace, inviting the potential for pluralism on an unprecedented scale.

As the advent of the 21st century presents educational stakeholders with rapidly evolving information, economic, and political realities, society encounters a state of “shock” wherein public policy discussions around how to respond to shifting contexts can become overwhelming, and lasting reforms may be implemented without a thorough consideration of their consequences. The directions that are taken during periods of such shocks, the project supposes, hinge upon the quality of the “ideas that are lying around,” and with this in mind works to present its notion of critical citizenship in the digital age such that it might be considered by those discussing 21st century curriculum. In this view, the notion of curriculum – as with citizenship itself – cannot be considered static but rather as a responsive construction of those who are engaged with it: teachers and students, as co-investigators and creators.

A particular challenge facing those who would seek to reform curriculum in the 21st century is facilitating – as part of the institutional design of modern schooling – the realization of truly constructivist practices in making meaning in the classroom setting. By attempting to prescribe the economic, cultural, or practical skills of value to society that policymakers deem ought be included in school curricula, institutions seeking to initiate the continuous pluralist recreation of society itself are posed with the difficulty of delineating between the meanings, dispositions, or cultural practices which are acceptable, and those which are not. As schools provide young people with foundational experiences in the relationship between citizens and the state, as well as between citizens themselves, it becomes important for educators seeking to promote diversity and inclusion to provide opportunities for young people to rehearse the expression of a collective voice that takes into account community narratives and perspectives. In considering the literature, the project explores the possibility that constructivism and an emergent view of knowledge can prepare young people to contribute to an inclusive society that promotes “the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society and assist[s] them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation” (Canadian Multiculturalism Act, c 24 (4th Supp), 1985).

The notion that multiculturalism poses a direct challenge to a static national identity contributes further to the complexity of the ‘shock’ experienced in developing standardized curriculum in the 21st century, as educators are perpetually compelled to provide an ongoing process of relation and feedback to individual students and unique classroom communities.

However, the project works within a conception of “citizenship as shared fate,” wherein individuals and groups engage in a “continuous process of designing, expressing and interpreting their membership in the nation” (Ben‐Porath, 2012, p. 382), and places central importance on the praxis of critical reflection and relation to one another; as well, the unit framework strives to realize a pedagogy wherein the competencies at the heart of this learning are experienced directly and articulated by students rather than by being formally taught through a curriculum designed in advance to serve this purpose. To best impart such a mode of citizenship to young people, schools and classrooms are compelled to transform the view of the curriculum from a tradition of standardization toward one in which it is discovered – and created – by unique communities of practice in real time.

Finally, the literature review considers contemporary research into digital pedagogy and open education, and finds evidence to support the notion that the public web and infrastructure of online spaces allow for the democratic and collectivist spirit of pluralism to be practiced in a global public sphere. Literacies of participation, information, and fluency with personal cyber infrastructure are presented as learning experiences in which the meanings created through relating to the curriculum are individually and collectively forged in emergent, real time. This method of meaning-making is not only congruent with democratic principles dating back to the Enlightenment period, it is suggested, but also true to the spirit of the World Wide Web since its inception.