The crucial role of citizenship education during lockdown

Written by: Helen Blachford | Published:
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Having had the pleasure of Helen deliver a workshop on critical media literacy to the Citizenship ...

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As the Covid-19 crisis continues, the role of citizenship education must not be overlooked – both when it comes to navigating the huge amount of information out there and supporting pupils’ wellbeing. Helen Blachford explains

I have been a secondary school teacher for a very long time, longer than I care to admit, yet like most of us the only experience of “home learning” I have had is to set some work for students to do when school has been closed due to the odd snow day.

While there was some indication that schools would have to close at some point due to the pandemic, nothing quite prepares you for preparing and delivering home learning and teaching remotely.

What I do know though is that there is a lot of support out there – with teachers sharing ideas and resources to ensure home learning is of the highest quality and meets the needs of as many young people as possible.

I am fortunate to be part of a subject association, the Association for Citizenship Teaching (ACT), which has galvanised teachers from across the citizenship community to provide resources, CPD and – just as importantly – a “place” to swap ideas, get advice and support (or indeed just to drop-in and meet up with others via fortnightly virtual “coffee and chat” sessions).

I am an ACT regional teaching ambassador for the South East. This is a voluntary role and the ambassadors work to build regional networks of subject leaders who collaborate to support citizenship teachers and teaching in their region.

In the lead-up to the school closures the teaching ambassadors worked together to create around 70 resources/activity ideas to support pupils who may be studying citizenship at home during the Covid-19 lockdown. These are all accessible via ACT’s website (see further information).

Covid-19, media literacy and citizenship

One area that I have personally been involved in developing with ACT is media literacy. It is clear that young people’s lives have been massively disrupted and the news is full of contradictory (and sometimes just plain false) information about what will happen, when schools will go back, what that will be like, what will happen if they do not have exams, and so on and so on.

This is on top of all the media debates about who is to blame, how bad it really is and how effectively the government has responded.

ACT’s work with schools and their research with young people has shown that what they really need are opportunities to develop their understanding of complicated news stories like this.

Their problem is not getting access to information, it is getting help to make sense of it all and develop the critical thinking skills needed to filter out the noise. We also know that teachers are among the most trusted adults in their lives.

Citizenship and citizenship teachers therefore have never been more important. They are ideally placed to help the students make sense of the media debates and identify the big political and economic questions that society is dealing with.

There is something slightly surreal about filling home-study timetables with all the normal curriculum stuff without acknowledging that we are going through one of the most disruptive and dramatic events of our lifetime – any educational programme should help children make sense of what is happening.

The first in a series of lessons which I and fellow teaching ambassador and citizenship teacher Bryden Joy have developed for ACT specifically addresses media literacy in relation to Covid-19 (see further information).

Pupils are introduced to basic media literacy concepts and terms and encouraged to develop their knowledge, source analysis and critical thinking in relation to the different types of information they encounter.

Using the Covid-19 pandemic as the topical news issue, pupils develop their knowledge and understanding of “mis, dis and mal information” and how to analyse different sources of news and information.

The skills developed in this lesson are transferable to any issue we might see in the media and indeed on any platform which young people may be using to get their information.

Alongside the lesson resources, we are excited to be offering CPD on media literacy to support teachers to develop their knowledge and understanding of media literacy key concepts. This includes practical tools they can use in their own settings. The lesson resources, along with sign-up for the CPD, can also be found on the ACT website.

A larger role for citizenship

Being locked up at home can feel isolating and alienating and also leave you feeling a bit helpless. One approach is to help students with wellbeing activities, but ultimately there is only so far such individually focused reflective activities can take you. One of the best solutions we know is to get outside of your own limited experiences and connect with other people.

Amnesty International’s research (2019) with young activists shows that they really appreciate the opportunities to work collaboratively with others on problems that are outside their own immediate experience.

Helping others can help restore your sense of purpose and agency and provide you with interactions and connections to other people in a broader movement of people who share a common goal – that helps you feel more connected and more positive.

Mental health and individual wellbeing may well be important side-effects of joining online campaigns and getting involved. Again, it is here that citizenship can make a real contribution – encouraging students to engage with the issues they feel passionate about and giving them the opportunity to take action and bring about change.

I know from experience of home learning with my own students, both at key stage 3 and 4, that opportunities for active citizenship has, so far, led to the highest level of engagement.

As part of the ACT materials, you can find the active citizenship resources, which can lead to students achieving an Active Citizenship Award, which has been developed by ACT and First News and which has been adapted for home learning.

Conclusion

It would be naïve to think that young people will pick up the curriculum at exactly the same point at which they left it on the day their school closed. Too much has happened. It feels as if they have lived through a period of true social disorder which may mean school as they know it will never be the same again.

As a citizenship teacher, I can be ready to do what I do best – help young people to make sense of the world in which they live, give them a safe space to ask questions, take action and hold others to account, and help them to bring about change in their communities.

In the meantime, I will continue to support my students, learn to use a myriad of technology to become the best online teacher I can be, and work with colleagues to ensure young people have access to a high-quality, engaging curriculum which meets their needs.

  • Helen Blachford is a head of faculty for humanities at the Priory School in Southsea. She is also a teaching ambassador (South East) for the Association for Citizenship Teaching. Visit www.teachingcitizenship.org.uk

Further information & resources


Comments
Having had the pleasure of Helen deliver a workshop on critical media literacy to the Citizenship PGCE student teachers at UCL Institute of Education I can attest to the excellence of these resources developed by herself and Bryden. This is a really well articulated piece of writing attesting to the value of citizenship education always, if not even more so because of this current disaster and the skills needed in society.
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