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Teaching political literacy

As teachers, we need to be awake to the stories that will present the most interesting starting points. But also we need to know which questions and lines of enquiry are most effective in generating social and moral thinking. 

Just as a science teacher has learnt which questions pose the scientific issues most effectively, so the citizenship teacher must learn which questions and procedures will promote political understanding.

What follows is a series of stimuli from the range of resources published by the Citizenship Foundation, demonstrating how stories can engage both the intellect and the emotion (empathy) in pursuit of social, moral and political understanding. 

Also see Political Literacy explained.

A Friend for Farouk (Key Stages 1 & 2)

This story raises questions surrounding peoples' rights to be treated with care and respect especially in the face of prejudice and cultural or racial differences. Suggested questions are provided on which the teacher may draw but these are not by any means to be worked through slavishly.

The Story is taken from You, Me, Us!, a primary resource for citizenship.

All at Sea (Key Stage 2)

Another story from You, Me, Us!, this time about power, authority, democracy and justice.

The story is fun and uses humour a good deal, but this does not detract from its ability to present a whole series of challenging issues for the children to discuss.

Political literacy for Key Stages 3 and 4

Many issues which young people confront in their daily lives have political implications of considerable magnitude. In the following unit from Your Rights and Responsibilities we ask pupils to think about the problem of cycle safety. This issue has a number of social, moral and political aspects to it. For example:

  • More and more people are forced off their cycles as roads become increasingly clogged with cars, lorries and buses. What is to be done about it and who should do it?
  • Many people have taken to cycling on pavements and some parents actually tell children to do this knowing that it is against the law.
    • Is this wrong?
    • Should the law be changed to make it legal to cycle on pavements?
    • What are the pros and cons of this debate?

Using this material, the same core concepts can be addressed as in the primary stories. This unit of work especially focuses on rights and responsibilities, laws, and social justice.

Issues of Democracy (Key Stage 3)

Issues like these can be abstract and remote from young people but are not nearly so daunting when put into a concrete form.

Take the story of the Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia, who decided that it would be better if Russian men did not wear beards and passed a law accordingly. Was he mad or bad? Actually, his motives were based on a desire to modernise and westernise Russia and in many ways Peter the Great was far-sighted and enlightened, though still ruthless in dealing with his enemies.

The following unit from Citizenship for All helps pupils think about some of the issues.

Understanding the role of Local Government (Key Stage 4)

Understanding where power is exercised and how rules and laws are made is a prerequisite for citizens who wish to operate effectively, whether to pursue something for themselves or a 'good cause'.

Knowledge of government structures is not of itself intrinsically useful and is not very interesting (except to the academic). However, sometimes it is necessary to know who decides what and, in the context of an issue that students see as relevant, it can make sense.

The following piece of work is from Understanding Citizenship' and raises interesting issues of public policy about whether violent spectator sports should be discouraged. Local authorities have the power to prevent events of this kind taking part in their locality. When Milton Keynes Authority was asked to allow a new kind of 'total fighting' some of the councillors involved found it hard to know what to do.

Key concepts include rights, responsibilities, justice, equality, law, common good, conflict and political consent.

Understanding the role of Civil Society (Key Stages 3 & 4)

Society is changed by many things, including non-governmental organisations who make political decisions of their own in numerous ways.

The following unit from Charity Matters asks pupils to imagine that they have to make decisions as if they were a charitable trust capable of doing good for society through the effect of their generosity.

Unfortunately, opting to support some causes will mean that others are deprived of funds. What are the best courses of action and on what basis will the decisions be made?

Society as a complex system of mutually incompatible interests (Key Stage 4 / 16+)

Traditionally, civics text books presented the democratic processes as the mechanism by which citizens get together to agree on what's best for the community as a whole.

Of course, this can be a dangerous oversimplification. Society is full of mutually incompatible interests, values and beliefs.

The following unit from Good Thinking demonstrates at a local level the complex problems faced by people in deciding what public policy should be, whose interests should predominate and what criteria are relevant to particular decisions.

It also demonstrates how people experience all kinds of internal moral and political conflicts when faced with such decisions about what is best for the community as a whole.

Don Rowe, Februrary 2004

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