Teaching About Power

How civics classes could be made exciting

By Dave Meslin

Canada has too many disengaged citizens. Voter turnout is the simplest measure of this. For federal and provincial elections over the past decade, one-third of us have simply skipped out entirely. For city elections, the numbers are twice as bad—two-thirds of voters don’t bother to participate. But this is using the absolute lowest bar to calculate political engagement. Voting, after all, only requires 30 minutes of effort once every few years. Using this minor act as a measure of political engagement is like asking people to floss their teeth two or three times per decade as a measure of their commitment to oral hygiene.

More tellingly, very few Canadians send a letter to their representatives, volunteer for an advocacy group, have a membership in a political party, work on an election campaign or participate in municipal decision-making between elections.

Many adults don’t understand the jurisdictional differences between our three levels of government. Nearly half of Canadians, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, believe politicians are intentionally trying to mislead them—as though our legislatures and parliament are malicious actors rather than representatives of ourselves.

We can point fingers at various institutions. Maybe it’s the fault of mainstream media, for dumbing down complex issues into over-simplified, polarized, personality-driven quarrels. Or maybe people have become apathetic because our smartphones distract us constantly with cat gifs and dances. Or maybe it’s our politicians’ fault for acting so childish during Question Period, forcing decent people to look away. All of those accusations hold some truth. But I propose that the scale of this particular societal trend can be traced to the place where we form so many of our skills, habits and attitudes—our schools.

Students might realize that civics isn’t about “those people in government” but rather about “how I can make change happen.”

Schools aim to give students a basic grasp of science, math, history and geography. All school systems in Canada offer some civics lessons, but in my experience the classes are generally treated as a fringe part of the curriculum. In a 2012 interview with Samara Canada, Stephen Young from the Civics Education Network said the classes have “a bad reputation among students and teachers.” As a result, our schools equip too few students with the basic knowledge required to be an engaged citizen, or to know how to be heard or how to change the world around them.

Civics is the study of the rights and duties of citizenship. No matter what career path you choose or what your interests are, civics affects everyone. To understand civics is to understand power. Who wouldn’t want to learn about how power works and how power is shared? From the youngest age, we all cry out for power. We want to be heard, be seen, have some control. Humans crave agency and voice. This is what civics teaches. It should be the most popular part of the curriculum. And it could be, if we completely redesigned it.

For a moment, imagine being expected to play baseball without knowing the complex rules of the game. You’d look around and see three bases, a mound, a home plate… but without knowing who does what or when or why, you might stroll towards the plate with a glove on and someone would say, “Excuse me, but you’ll need a bat for this part.” Then you might hit the ball and start running towards third base. You’d soon want to quit. It would be a miserable experience. You might feel like the game was rigged in favour of those who knew all the rules.

Democracy has rules too, and players with unique roles, including politicians, political staffers, policy advisers, strategists, fundraisers, lobbyists, journalists, activists and ordinary voters. Without understanding how these players fit together and affect each other, the political game seems like a mystery. The same two parties always seem to be in power, back and forth. Promises are broken. Insider jargon is thrown around, such as “omnibus bills,” “whipped votes” or “private member’s bills.” If you don’t know what these are and how they work, it’s hard to pay attention in the first place. And that’s exactly how our political culture works. It’s inside baseball.

So many people see government as an unwinnable game, with strange and complex rules, and simply feel more comfortable avoiding it. It’s actually a natural—and rational—response to ignore a system that seems designed to exclude. We tend to label this kind of disengagement as “apathy,” but when we do that we’re actually blaming the victim.

The starting point for reforming civics education is to completely transform the approach and the goals, by shifting from a passive perspective to a participatory one. Typically we teach civics as if it’s something external to us. Something to know about rather than something to do.

Take a simple question like “How do candidates get chosen to be on our ballot?” The passive answer is easy: “Each party nominates candidates.” But the active answer, which is more meaningful—and accurate—is a little longer:

“Each party nominates candidates. This happens locally, in your neighbourhood, by your own neighbours. These groups are called electoral district associations (for federal elections) and “constituency associations” (for provincial)—and anyone can join them. All you have to do is join a party, and then you can vote to decide who your local candidate is. You don’t even need to be 18 to vote! Alberta’s NDP and UCP both allow members as young as 14. You can even put your own name forward if you want to be the candidate. And for those who don’t like any of the parties, you can still get your name on the ballot—as an independent candidate.”

Boom. Passive vs. active. Four words vs. 100 words. Boring vs. interesting. If students realize that civics isn’t about “those people in government” but rather about “how I can make change happen,” they’ll be much more likely to absorb the lesson.

In fact, I’d argue that the core message of civics aligns with elements of pop culture that kids love. Think of Star Wars, a tale of a shadowy empire that foolishly “doesn’t consider a small one-man fighter to be a threat.” This, in a nutshell, is the entire history of political movements and social change: grassroots groups of marginalized outsiders who come together to bravely challenge the monumental inertia of the status quo—and winning.

Sure, politics is about how to win elections and pass legislation. But civics is about movements, disruption and what we all do in between elections. It’s about advocacy groups, non-profits, petitions and protest. It’s about like-minded people organizing themselves into a unified and effective voice. It’s about freedom and liberation. It’s about underdogs fighting for rights and justice. Civics is the real-life version of so many family movies produced by Hollywood: Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, Avatar, Spiderman, The Lego Movie. Students not only care about power, they are culturally obsessed with it.

I’d add that kids have an uncanny ability to absorb complex information—Minecraft recipes, sports trivia, Fortnite strategies or Pokemon data. If civics were properly presented as a fun and complex puzzle that can facilitate cultural revolution, students would sit up and take notice.

Alberta is home to one of Canada’s most  important and exciting breakthroughs in civics education. Born in Calgary in 2000 and spreading to Edmonton in 2005, Alberta’s City Hall Schools have proven that revising our approach to civics education can completely transform how it’s viewed—by students and adults alike. While city halls across Canada offer short walking tours to students, City Hall Schools transplant two-dozen or so students at a time for an entire week, where they learn about democracy through a customized, hands-on, participatory curriculum.

I visited both Alberta locations during my research tour in 2015, for the book I was writing at the time, Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up. The experience was so inspiring that I visited the Edmonton school twice and the Calgary classroom three times. It was refreshing to see what a true civics education could look like.

Calgary’s City Hall School is on the main floor, just steps away from the Council Chamber. This detail on its own says so much about the intent of the program. It’s not an afterthought or a secondary detail tucked away into the basement. And rather than being built behind a brick wall, the only thing separating Calgary’s City Hall School classroom from the lobby is a floor-to-ceiling glass window.

Both programs are run by full-time teachers who work at City Hall but are employed by the local school board. I watched the classes and interviewed the teachers, parents and most importantly the students themselves.

One student, Dianna, admitted that she “always thought City Hall just kinda stood there and that it was just a building and it didn’t have any use.” Her friend Chloe told me: “I thought City Hall was just this big clock… I didn’t even know that Calgary had a government.” Volunteer parents admitted that they too learned a new appreciation for municipal politics while watching the program. The Edmonton teacher, Linda Hut, confessed that she too was skeptical when she first heard about City Hall School. “City Hall? Really? For a whole week?” But she took her class, and she liked it so much that she now runs the entire program.

The learning at City Hall is happening constantly, beyond the curriculum itself. Just the simple act of being at City Hall, and interacting with the space for five days, is eye-opening. At one point during a group discussion in Calgary the teacher, Jody Danchuk, asked the kids, “Who owns City Hall?” The students answered correctly: “We do.” 

Alberta’s two City Hall Schools transplant students for an entire week, where they learn about democracy through hands-on participation.

Let’s come back to baseball. City Hall School is a great way to teach civics because it gets students into the ballpark and near the field. It teaches the rules and roles in a way that’s meaningful and relevant. But that’s just the
first step.

If we want to produce good ballplayers, we need to get them onto the field, give them a real bat, a real glove and a real ball, and let them play. So what does that mean exactly, for civics education? How do we help students exercise their democratic muscles? We’re entering the realm of “experiential learning,” a process that can be truly transformative, or simply a hollow buzzword. It’s all about the details.

I recently spoke to some students in Alberta and asked what they were learning about civics, government, politics and power. They had very little grasp of formal systems and structures, despite being in Grades 7 to 9. But more worrisome to me was their description of experiential “leadership” programming in their schools. One student described a “leadership class” in which the administration hand-picks “the cool or popular kids” to participate. This teaches a terrible form of leadership, the House of Lords model. Another student mentioned they got to read the daily news over the school’s PA system, as part of the morning announcements. This had been presented as a “leadership” experience, even though he was simply reading the news from a script that someone else had written.

I heard about leadership students being given the chance to serve as the MC at school-wide events. But again, these leaders were hand-picked by the administration and again were doing nothing more than reading a script. I heard about buddy systems, where older students read to younger students, and I heard about fundraising events where students sell ice cream to raise money for the school.

All of these things sound fine. But… reading the news? Reading a script at a rally? Volunteering at a fundraiser? None of these “leadership” skills would cause concern for real-world leaders, because they don’t threaten power. They just solidify the status quo.

The civil rights movement didn’t reverse centuries of racism by selling donuts. The LGBT movement didn’t secure rights by reading stories to each other. And the women’s liberation movement sure didn’t topple misogyny by reciting scripts written by men.

If you’re not teaching people how to find their own voice and speak with it, then you’re not teaching leadership. And if you’re not providing students with real-life opportunities to actually lead, both as individuals and as collaborative teams, then you’re not teaching civics.

Meaningful experiential learning can take many forms. I saw it in Edmonton when Linda Hut invited a class of Grade 5 students to sit in the council chamber and role-play a meeting while sitting in the actual seats of the councillors and mayor. They were unscripted and had to work through issues on their own. (The City of Chicago takes it even further, with a youth-driven participatory budget process, where teens get to allocate real municipal budgets to their own community projects. The students propose the projects on their own, then collectively vote for those they want to see funded.)

It’s all about connecting the dots between civics and real life. It’s about building a sense of relevance and meaning, rather than teaching about democracy as an abstract or external concept. Once, when I was invited to speak to a few hundred high school students about democracy, I forgot this simple concept. As I spoke in the gymnasium, the students looked bored. I realized I was telling them stories that made sense to me, an adult, rather than helping them connect the dots to issues that made sense to them. So I asked the audience, “What do you care about? If you could change one thing in your school, for example, what would it be?” One hand rose and a student replied, “Hats. We’re not allowed to wear hats.”

Some of the teachers looked at me nervously. I smiled with excitement. “You’re not allowed to wear hats?” I asked. “Let’s talk about that.” Suddenly, eyelids that seemed heavy just moments earlier were wide open. I was talking about something they could relate to. We talked about how to change the rule. I gave them tips and ideas about how to run an effective advocacy campaign. I suggested a petition, a Facebook page, a media event and getting some parents to endorse the campaign. I told them to do some research and find data to support their cause. Surely someone has done a Ph.D. on the impacts of dress codes on academic performance, schoolyard violence, dropout rates etc. I also suggested they propose a monthly pilot project, something like “Hat Fridays,” just to see how it goes. The first step, I suggested, was to meet with the principal and have a discussion. By the end of my impromptu Activism 101 workshop, these kids looked attentive, interested and engaged. They’d been transformed, simply by understanding that democracy is not an abstract topic about ballots, procedures, bylaws and legislation. It’s about our lives, it’s about power, it’s about freedom, it’s about choice, expression, struggle and change.

How can we build this kind of exercise into the school experience? How can we normalize the practice of imagining what you’d like to change, and then working towards that change? This approach needs to be incorporated into the official curriculum. It also must be part of the “invisible curriculum,” i.e., the skills you learn outside of class. “Student councils” for example, could be completely reimagined. Rather than popularity contests between two or three abnormally overconfident teens, we could look at some of the experiments by groups such as Democracy in Practice that are replacing student elections with inclusive models that give more students a chance to lead. By using a rotating lottery system, for example, even quiet introverts get a chance to be on student council. This approach helps everyone find their voice, rather than simply taking the loudest voices in the school and amplifying them even further.

We could also make our general elections more engaging. Lowering the voting age to 16 would instantly make high-school civics class more interesting and relevant. And switching to a proportional voting system (like those used in almost every modern democracy) would make our elections much more interesting and attractive to young and old alike. We’d have a wider variety of parties in the legislature, more volunteer opportunities, no “safe seats,” and more diverse voices at the table.

Youth, in my experience, want to participate and are eager to be heard. Today’s high school students are protesting, marching out of classes, starting online movements, challenging their school’s administration and fuelling a new era of inclusion, anti-racism, queer positivity, gender equality and environmental awareness.

But what happens when they outgrow their climate strikes and want to get involved in a deeper way? Many will see no further path for practical protest and they’ll move on, graduating into an adult world marked by too much apathy. Those who do persist may sadly be exposed to crude caricatures of what civic engagement looks like. As they grow older they’ll watch the news and see a political landscape dominated by hyper-polarized partisanship, infantile bickering, hollow slogans and finger-pointing. With a sense of sadness, embarrassment and futility, they too may drift away from civic engagement altogether.

We need to teach students the rules of our civic landscape, but we also need them to know that their generation can change the rules. That government and politics and laws are malleable. That if they don’t like what they see, they don’t have to walk away. They can fix it.

But all of this must begin early. Babe Ruth started playing baseball at age 7. Wayne Gretzky was skating before he was 3. We enter traditional civic life at age 18—with little meaningful training. Worse, even, by 18 we’ve often been conditioned to hate the game. To be hostile to “bad government,” “corrupt politicians” and “noisy activists and special interests.” Or at best to feel indifferent about it all. In other words, we’re not just failing at teaching “civics.” We’ve perfected the art of teaching apathy.

This scenario can be turned upside down if we’re bold enough to make real changes. We can foster a whole new generation of thoughtful, engaged and effective citizens. School is the place where democracy education must begin, where kids begin to develop genuine leadership skills and learn how to transform their ideas into action and how to speak out, organize, amplify voices and change things.

On the last day of Calgary’s City Hall School, I watched as Jody spoke to her class about what happens next. Once they’re back at their regular school, what can they take with them? An 11-year-old named Brendan said, “We can go view things that are an injustice and then bring them to a meeting, and it’s easier for us to do that, because now we know more.”

Jody asked him “So, is this the end?”

“No,” Brendan said. And then, performing for his classmates, he deepened his voice to sound like a Hollywood trailer: “…It’s just starting.

Dave Meslin is director of Unlock Democracy Canada and author of Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy From the Ground Up.

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