Creating change through civics education

Issue: Volume 102, Number 3

Posted: 8 March 2023
Reference #: 1HAZpj

Civics education is not just about learning the electoral system, it’s also about engaging ākonga in how to interact with government, and how they can create change.

Holly enjoys engaging students in civics education. Photo by Brian Langdon.

Holly enjoys engaging students in civics education. Photo by Brian Langdon.

In 2022 the Supreme Court made a declaration of inconsistency with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 in relation to the voting age in New Zealand. Currently the age to vote is 18, but there had been activism by young people wanting the age to be lowered to 16. While Parliament is still to decide whether the age will be lowered, the situation does highlight the importance of civics and citizenship education for all ākonga.  

In the same year, there was also a review of the All-of-Government Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy. One of the recommendations was to ‘Explore ways of increasing promotion of existing civics and citizenship education resources, and encourage their wider use within the school system and beyond’.  

Engagement with children and young people found that many didn’t know how or why to engage with government, but they want the opportunity to learn more about civics and their rights.  

Two schools that have been meeting this challenge are One Tree Hill College and Taitā College.  

Critical thinking  

Holly Bodman is a kaiako at One Tree Hill College, Auckland, and leads their civics and citizenship programme. Her journey into civics education came from travelling the world and seeing the lived experience of developing countries and countries that displayed the impact of colonisation.  

“This started a passion to teach critical thinking so that young people can have their minds opened to ways of engaging with society to create the kind of world they would like to live in,” she says.  

Holly believes it is critical to provide students with frameworks to unpack their own lived experiences, rather than the teacher being the fountain of all knowledge.  

“My teaching philosophy is very much based on the reciprocity of ako, that teachers both teach and learn at the same time. I teach and I learn from my students who have really rich lived experiences that they can draw on in order to understand the world and to interpret different world views. 

“Many students have experienced systemic racism and patriarchal colonial values, so understand the influences that can exist within a society. What civics education can do for students, is help them to question these influences and look at ways to disrupt them.  

“It’s about giving students the tools to interpret their own lived experiences and critiquing the way things are; alongside that is understanding how change can come about and supporting students to take action on issues they care about.”

Civics education Holly Bodman

Holly Bodman


Examples of projects  

One example of the projects that Holly runs is with Ihumātao, where Year 12 students learn about SOUL’s campaign to prevent Fletcher Building’s residential housing project from going ahead. Students learn about the way SOUL engaged with local and central government, the United Nations and the negotiations led by the Kiingitanga. Ākonga visit Ihumātao and learn about SOUL’s actions by talking with Pania Newton, the media face of the campaign.  

“Students learn about those different avenues for bringing change as well as the use of direct action and protest. It’s been very exciting for me as a teacher to be able to talk with students about Ihumātao as it is one of the few settlements and negotiation to take place outside of the Waitangi Tribunal.”  

A Year 13 project that looks further abroad is about the Indonesian Government’s military occupation of West Papua since 1962. Students examine Aotearoa New Zealand’s relationship with Indonesia and successive New Zealand Governments’ policy of non-interventionism in West Papua.  

“Students work in small groups to take action for West Papua, and last year we had one group successfully lodge a Parliamentary petition which calls for the banning of importation and use of kwila wood,” Holly proudly states. 

Kwila is a hard wood akin to kauri. Foreign consumer demand for kwila is contributing to the deforestation in West Papua, which in turn negatively impacts indigenous tribes living in the rainforests.  

Promoting change  

Michael Harcourt, head of social studies at Taitā College, Lower Hutt, also takes an approach of engaging students in the process of promoting change.  

“I would say that the intersection of civics with citizenship is my passion. I see civics as the content knowledge of how democratic societies work. Whereas citizenship has students actually participating within and even outside of these systems. When we have them working together you’ve got transformative education, transformative social studies.”  

Michael sees the potential for civics knowledge to become another abstract body of knowledge that students struggle to understand or retain. The way to overcome this is to embed the knowledge within the context of engagement with contemporary contested social issues.  

One way to approach this, he says, is to guide topics with questions that are quite open-ended, but not so open-ended that they are impossible to answer.  

Michael adds that the questions are ones that people in our democracy would answer in different ways, so it requires students to come to grips with multiple perspectives to form their own.   

Contemporary issues  

Taitā College students have been able to engage with a contemporary issue for the area, which is whether the school should have a macron placed on its name. The New Zealand Geographic Board determined that the area should have a macron on the second ‘a’ (Taitā), which has been adopted for parts of the area.  

“So, we’re getting students to think about the question, ‘Why are macrons important?’  

“Then we are looking at other schools and other contexts that have had discussions about naming and getting the students to select someone in a position of power to write a letter to, saying what they think should happen,” Michael says.  

These types of activities, whether it is local issues or contemporary international issues, allow students to think about power structures, and who can be contacted to obtain change.  

Michael’s students did also engage in the debate about voting age. He was delighted that within the class, there were different and opposing views put forward, creating an atmosphere of ideological diversity where each ‘side’ had to listen and evaluate the opposing arguments.  

While some students may have found this difficult, Michael stresses that this is at the heart of good social studies education, the ability to find yourself in the world, take a position and then potentially act on it.  

“Some may say the purpose of social studies education is to learn about society, but I do not think that goes far enough. I think that as teachers, we need to really get our heads around how we might get students more engaged, but not just in the political process, although that is a good start. We need to think about citizenship education as going beyond engagement with the electoral process.” 

Understand, know, do

Civics and citizenship education is linked to a number of progress outcomes as part of the refreshed Te ao tangata | Social sciences curriculum.

Read more about the refreshed curriculum here.(external link)

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 7:33 pm, 8 March 2023

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