A look at any of the supposedly respectable daily newspapers and online media sources from the UK in the days after the referendum throws up a similar line. The day of the results the Huffington Post UK led with “EU Referendum Results: Young ‘Screwed By Older Generations’ As Polls Suggest 75% Backed Remain”. On Monday 27.6.2016 the Independent asked, “After Brexit, what more can the older generation do to show their disdain for young people? Push out Jeremy Corbyn”. The following day 28.6.2016 The Guardian online continued the line with the headline “Meet the 75%: the young people who voted to remain in the EU”.
In the wake of the UK referendum calls from many 18-24 year-olds for a revote were overwhelming. Old people were demonised and those who did not vote for staying in the EU were caricatured as uneducated racists. Many openly rejected the democratic process and were completely unable to empathise with a differing political point of view. I would argue that something is very broken in democratic discourse and participatory citizenship. The question is what can schools do to counter this.
- The individual teacher is the most important element in teaching effective citizenship to students. In another reflection on the UK referendum I pointed out that in this current polarised political era teachers must be more self-disciplined and reflective in their teaching so as to avoid bringing their own political biases into the classroom. You can read more on this here.
- Every school has a Mission Statement and set of Learning Principles that act as a constitution for that school. The Values and ideals outlined in these documents reflect the type of students that will graduate from a given school and, considering the vilification of older voters highlighted above, this is an area not currently attended to in enough schools. Make sure that these documents are central to all teaching and learning in a school. These documents are powerful and adequate time should be spent designing them with all stakeholders to ensure that students are democratically-minded and engaged citizens upon graduation. These documents are non-partisan and reflect ideal student characteristics. Abiding by these lessens the likelihood that teachers will (consciously or unconsciously) be biased in their dealings with sensitive or political topics. In this article I discuss how to make the Mission Statement and Learning Principles the core of teaching and learning in school.
- Rather than reducing democracy to simple tasks such as voting in well-intentioned student council elections, it is much more important to establish a culture of democratic participation in all aspects of teaching and learning. This is best achieved by employing an Inquiry or Project-Based Learning approach. Because PBL is a student-centred process of individual inquiry with real-world outcomes it makes learning and the outcomes of that learning more real-world for students. In PBL students must identify a real-world problem and present final artefacts to an authentic audience. This means that all students are regularly given the chance to feel as though they can effect real change in their local communities and on a national or global level. PBL produces engaged citizens and engaged citizens understand the importance of democratic participation on a local and national level. This step is the most vital one. If administrators and teachers can shift the balance from consumption to production in their schools as I write about here, then students leave school and enter voting age keenly aware of their potential to effect society.
- The most obvious point that the UK referendum highlighted is that many graduates of secondary school are not sufficiently able to think critically, detect bias, interpret data or identify quality sources of information. I would advocate that every school have a core skills department or class period where students are taught basic trans-disciplinary skills such as sourcing, understanding, graphing and analysing quality data, debate, research and the detection of bias etc. These are skills that every national curriculum expects to be taught but it is clear from this referendum that if they are being taught, students are not able to apply them to real-world contexts.
- A final and important step is for schools to teach basic digital literacy skills to students. There appears to be a misconception still among teachers that students, most now equipped with internet-ready Smartphones, are somehow more productive or “in-touch” with current affairs than they actually are. Teens still use their phones primarily for social reasons, with peer-to-peer texting or messaging the primary use. Where teens use FaceBook or other social media platforms, where news stories can be easily shared, it is highly likely that students will be more prone to groupthink. A recent study by Columbia University and The French National Institute found that the majority of news being shared on social media was recommended by a peer and of these links, 59% were shared without ever having been read. Essentially, people were sharing news and opinion that they identified with without having read it. Where schools allow students access to their phones for school work throughout the day and incorporate them into research and project work, they increase the likelihood of producing more productive and civically-engaged students. This should help students to maximise the potential of their Smartphones and use them as tools for making informed decisions that impact their futures rather than sharing unopened news links and hashtags that give the appearance of activism but change nothing.