Youth Civic Engagement and Formal Education in Canada: Shifting Expressions, Associated Challenges

  • Mark EvansEmail author
  • Rosemary Evans
  • Angela Vemic
Living reference work entry


In this chapter, we explore shifting expressions of youth civic engagement in Canada and the variant ways in which educating for youth civic engagement has been envisaged and approached in formal education (K-12). Attention is also given to those personal and contextual factors propelling these changes over time. We contend that while expressions of youth civic engagement have been for the most part moderate, varied, local, institutional, and tempered historically through a filter of personal and social responsibility, there has been a gradual shift of emphasis towards less formal, digital, and rights-based representations.

Educating for civic engagement through formal education in Canada has also undergone a gradual transition. This transition has moved from an emphasis on civic duty, deference, and formal political structures and processes as they are to more recent characterizations that encourage more informal, exploratory, and critical understandings of engagement with public issues, from the local to the global. Interwoven in these understandings of engagement are themes such as identity, cultural diversity, pluralism, and issues of social justice and equity. Indicators of these changes are found in spheres of Canadian educational research, curriculum policy reform, and strengthened pedagogical practices.

Moving towards these broadened and more complex characterizations of civic engagement through formal education has proven to be complicated. Curriculum ambiguity, undertones of compliance, an avoidance of controversial concepts and issues, and varied understandings of engagement among students with differing identity affiliations, for example, all signal uneven and fragmented access to particular learning experiences. These complications are further exacerbated by a variety of factors associated with educational change that have mobilized and/or inhibited steps forward.


Youth civic engagement Youth activism Youth participation Citizenship education Civics Formal education Pedagogy Canada 


Today, youth worldwide are civically engaged in a variety of community activities and with a range of public issues. While the focus of this engagement remains for the most part local, youth voices are increasingly evident in national and international matters (e.g., democratic governance, racism, indigenous rights, sexual assault and harassment, gun control, refugee settlement, environmental and social justice). Expressions of youth civic engagement reveal significant variation and shifting patterns, guided by cultural and historical traditions and influenced by changing local and global pressures including globalization, changing forms of democratic governance, populist nationalism, and the rise of digital media (Davies et al. 2014). Recent studies highlight a range of personal factors also affecting youth engagement and disengagement (e.g., different socio-cultural understandings of participation, living in contexts where poverty and/or violence predominate, deficiencies in civic education, youth mistrust of politics and politicians), illuminating the intricacies involved in better understanding these variant expressions and shifting patterns (Ménard 2010; Sherrod et al. 2010).

According to Kahne et al. (2016), patterns of youth engagement, in general, are shifting toward more informal, participatory forms of political activity (e.g., volunteering with community groups and organizations, service to community projects, blogging and circulating political news online) and less so toward formal, institutional ones (e.g., voting, political party membership, working on a political campaign). New digital tools have provided an expanded range of opportunities for youth across the political spectrum to circulate information, articulate personal political viewpoints, and mobilize social networks in ways that exert pressure on issues of public concern (Vromen 2017). We have seen evidence of this, for example, in the form of movements such as Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, and Me Too. This expanded range of opportunities for youth, according to Kahne et al. (2016), is different from institutional politics in that they are “peer-based, interactive acts, and not guided by deference to traditional elites and institutions” (p. 1). They “empower individuals and groups to operate with greater independence in the political realm, circumventing traditional gatekeepers of information and influence” (p. 3).

Not surprisingly, there has been increasing attention paid to, and deliberation about, the role formal education is playing and ought to play in assisting youth develop a deeper understanding of public issues and the capacities needed to meaningfully engage in and respond to often complex and conflictual civic questions. Educational stakeholders worldwide are increasingly encouraging careful consideration of the curricular and pedagogical shifts that would be helpful in facilitating effective and equitable civic engagement in teaching and learning. In this chapter, we explore shifting expressions of youth civic engagement in Canada and the variant ways in which educating for youth civic engagement has been envisaged and approached in formal education (K-12). Attention is also given to forces propelling these changes over time and to some of the associated challenges that are currently confronting educational stakeholders. Lastly, we offer our concluding reflections.

Biesta’s (2011) reminder that democratic learning in schools “represents a small proportion of the environment in and from which young people learn” (p. 14) acknowledges that a good deal of civic engagement learning takes place in less formal contexts outside of education (e.g., through family activities, interaction with peers, community teams and organization, TV and social media). In light of this, we acknowledge that this chapter presents at best an introductory and partial sketch of the relationship between youth civic engagement and education in Canada.

Early Developments

Canadian political culture, influenced by European, North American, and Indigenous beliefs and practices, has continued to evolve gradually and pragmatically. While contrasting theories and debates over the nature of Canadian political culture have been evident, constitutional law, a federal, parliamentary, democratic system of governance, personal rights and freedoms (e.g., women, visible minorities, Indigenous), dualism (French and English), cultural pluralism, regionalism, a mixed economy, and continentalism have been prominent themes in this evolution, tempered by traditions of (neo) liberalism, conservatism, and social democracy (at different times and to varying degrees). Public issues related to topics such as environmental concerns, discrimination protections, poverty and welfare, health care, alcohol and drug use, electoral reform, hate speech, guns in Canada have posed ongoing governance questions and challenges. Within this context, Canadians have tended to participate moderately in formal political processes although principles of political efficacy and support through electoral participation (e.g., voting, joining a political party, volunteering) have been valued.

Expressions of civic engagement among youth in Canada have also been moderate and varied, tempered historically through a filter of personal and social responsibility. Youth civic engagement in the early part of the twentieth century was characterized by personal responsibility and more compliant modes of engagement, closely linked to the broader colonial project of encouraging and supporting nation-building, social and political initiation and, outside of Québec, a pro-British assimilationist orientation. Expressions of youth civic engagement often occurred outside of formal education in organizations like Boy Scouts and Girl Guides and through church affiliations. Civic learning in schools during this same period reflected a similar orientation. Schools were expected to pass on understandings that youth would need to be productive members of the newly emerging Canadian society. Attention to formal civic structures and processes and civic duty and obedience, for example, were key features of civic learning (Clark and Case 1997; Evans 2006). Civic learning intentions included “deference to authority, limitations to the freedom of individual and family norms, devolution of their authority to the demands of the state, and the development of an orderly and compliant public culture in the public space of the school” (Llewellyn et al. 2007, p. 7). More directive and less active forms of learning and teaching were the norm. Teachers were expected to transmit certain content and students were expected to receive it (McLeod 1989). Osborne (1996) describes this period in the development and implementation of civic learning in Canadian schools as the “Canadianization of children as a vehicle of assimilationist nation-building” (p. 36).

Repercussions of the First World War, a sense of growing national autonomy and patriotism, difficult labor conditions, and other factors led to a deepened emphasis on personal responsibility, an extension of civic entitlement (e.g., the declaration of women as “persons” under the British North America Act in 1929), and dutiful expressions of civic engagement. This shift in emphasis, according to Osborne (1996), served to depoliticize forms of engagement by paying limited attention to political concepts such as conflict and power. He states, for example,

one could serve through volunteer work, through charity, through church membership, and other forms of non-political activity. In this view, a good person, defined as someone who was kind, neighbourly, law-abiding, and so on, was by definition a good citizen, thus ignoring the long philosophical tradition that holds that good citizenship demands more than this (p. 43).

Civic learning and teaching continued to support personal responsibility and more compliant modes of engagement, national intentions of coherence and social harmony, and knowledge about government institutions and processes through Social Studies curricula and the introduction of student councils. Predictably, teaching practices focused on knowing about the mechanisms of government and one’s responsibilities to others and to Canada. While provincial curriculum policies developed incrementally, attention to learning experiences that encouraged more active and critical expressions of civic engagement was minimal (Tomkins 2008). It should be noted, however, that not everyone accepted the civic message of schools during this time and various groups, including First Nations’ peoples, Québecers, and trade unions, often voiced concerns (Strong-Boag 1996).

Shifting circumstances and issues arising during the second half of the twentieth century fostered a renewed interest on citizenship and civic learning across Canada. Escalating American influence over the Canadian economy, increasing ethno-cultural diversity, the Quiet Revolution in Québec, and First Nations land claims, for example, prompted increased youth engagement in both formal and less formal political contexts. For a brief period during the late 1960s and early 1970s, university campuses across Canada became sites of protest and conflict (e.g., rallies, marches, sit-ins) as student activism reached heightened levels, influenced by developments mostly south of the border (e.g., civic rights movement, racism, the American war in Vietnam, the New Left). Although these developments helped to politicize a generation of citizens and offered a critique of existing political structures and decision-making processes across Canada, expressions of engagement among youth soon returned to more moderate forms. Around the same time, recommendations from the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (1963–69), the Constitutional Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982), and the Canadian Multicultural Act (1988), in particular, assisted in re-shaping notions of citizenship. Themes such as cultural diversity, pluralism, human rights, civic conflict and controversy, global perspectives, and democratic engagement became gradually more intertwined in the public rhetoric and policy about citizenship.

These developments created a renewed interest in civic learning across Canada. Schools were “most often recognized as the public institution best positioned to reach the majority of young Canadian citizens” (Llewellyn et al. 2007, p. 9). Attention to civic learning in formal provincial and territorial curricula began to reflect this broadened civic mandate, constituting what Osborne (1996) referred to as “the beginning of a trend” and “a new conception of citizenship education” (p. 52). Recommendations from the Report of the Commission on Canadian Studies (Symons 1975) led to the provincial development of new “Canadian Studies” curricula, creating more opportunities for teachers and students to explore Canada’s expanding cultural diversity, the complexities of French-English relations and Canadian-American relations, and Canada’s emerging role in a global community. (Many countries speak of national education systems within nation-state contexts. It should be noted that education in Canada is the responsibility of provincial and territorial governments operating within a federal system. This means that each of the ten provinces and three territories has developed its own distinctive education system and administers its own educational curricula and programs, although some degree of commonality exists across them (e.g., some shared policy development by region).) Civic engagement was gaining attention as a curricular goal (e.g., local inquiries, critical thinking, province-wide simulations like the Southern Ontario Model Assembly) although implementation in classrooms and schools remained embryonic and uneven. Engaging in civic matters usually meant increased awareness of aspects of participation related to formal politics (e.g., voting, joining a political party) and the possibility of some minor form of involvement in school governance (e.g., student councils) (Broom 2016; Hodgetts 1968; McLean et al. 2017) as curriculum priorities increasingly focused on employability skills and preparing students to be productive workers for an emerging global economy (Osborne 2001).

More Recent Developments

From the late 1990s onwards, a variety of issues and contextual pressures (e.g., globalization, issues of inclusion and exclusion, the rise of populist nationalism, increasing attention to Canada’s enduring colonial legacy and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2008–2015)) prompted ongoing conversations about citizenship and its purposes and practices in Canada. While expressions of civic engagement among youth remained moderate and varied (A few recent examples include the Youth Impact Summit/Studio Y– MaRS Ontario (, the 2017 Youth Action Gathering/Canadian Council of Refugees (, and the Canadian Roots Exchange Conference on Truth and Reconciliation (2107/ 2018) (, a variety of empirical studies reported important concerns about and shifts in how and why young Canadians were engaging in civic matters (Ménard 2010; Turcotte 2015a, b; Llewellyn et al. 2007; Llewellyn et al. 2010). On the one hand, these studies reported increasing disengagement in formal political contexts among youth (e.g., voting and membership in political parties). Some of the contributing factors cited included a general mistrust of politicians among youth, not seeing how formal political decisions affected youth directly, an increasing sense that youth have little impact on the decision-making process, and experiencing a lack of connection to election platforms or attention to issues important to youth (Ménard 2010). On the other hand, these and other studies also reported an increasing level of youth engagement in what is referred to as informal or nonelectoral or participatory political activities in areas of personal interest (e.g., antiracist initiatives, environment, Indigenous peoples’ concerns, LGBTQ rights, access to higher education), enhanced by the emergence of social media platforms which have facilitated the development of rights-based interest groups in particular.

Turcotte’s (2015b) study, based on data from the 2013 Statistics Canada General Social Survey (GSS), for example, corroborated that while younger people (15–24) in Canada have been less likely to vote than older individuals during the past decade, “these trends in electoral political engagement conceal a relatively high degree of engagement in other (nonelectoral) activities” (p. 11). This shift is characterized by,

(1) an emphasis on specific causes and issues (for example, the environment, access to education or gender equality) as opposed to the more general political issues discussed in an election; and (2) participation in social groups or movements that are less hierarchical and less officially organized (for example, interest groups) as opposed to involvement in traditional political organizations, such as political parties or unions (p. 7).

“Younger people,” according to Turcotte, are “less likely to vote than older individuals… and tend to be less interested in politics than the older counterparts” (2015b, p. 6). They are, however, more likely than older people to participate in nonelectoral civic and political activities (face-to-face and online). In 2013, “74% of youth aged 15 to 19 and 64% of youth aged 20 to 24 were part of a group, organization or association. This compared with 65% of individuals aged 45 to 54 and 62% of individuals aged 65 to 74” (2015b, p. 9). Forms of involvement included volunteering, engaging in community projects, and/or joining various community groups and/or NGO organizations operating outside of formal politics. In most instances, these studies also revealed that while engagement remains mostly face-to-face, there is evidence of increasing online engagement with a broader range of civic issues, from local and indigenous to international and global (Depape 2012; Friedel 2015; Tossutti 2007; Tupper 2014). Not surprisingly, these shifting patterns and understandings of youth civic engagement in Canada raised questions for educational stakeholders in terms of what formal education is doing or might do to support the types of learning needed to assist young people meaningfully engage in civic matters.

Attention to civic learning in formal education contexts continued to increase gradually in Canada during this period. Broadening understandings of civic learning, often associated with “western” liberal and civic republican traditions, became increasingly evident in different spheres of Canadian education (Bickmore 2014; Osborne 2001; Sears 2004). Civic engagement experienced heightened consideration, motivated in part by research undertaken in Canada and internationally revealing increasing disengagement among youth in formal political activities and increased interest in informal, participatory, and digital expressions of engagement (e.g., Hughes and Sears 2008; International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), Torney-Purta et al. 1999; Torney-Purta 2002; Rothwell and Turcotte 2006).

Next, we explore briefly this heightened consideration of civic engagement in relation to formal education as evidenced through educational studies, curriculum policy reforms, and strengthened pedagogical practices undertaken within the Canadian context in recent years. Doing so reveals a gradual transition from a focus on engagement primarily as personal and social responsibility and learning about formal political structures and processes as they are more so than what they could be towards characterizations that encourage more active and critical expressions of engagement through public issues, community service, and other more informal and participatory expressions of engagement.

Educational studies. From the early 1990s onwards, notions of civic engagement received increased attention in educational studies, in both Canadian and international scholarship. Internationally, McLaughlin’s (1992) “minimalist” and “maximalist” frame, Parker’s (2008) “traditional,” “progressive,” and “advanced” continuum, Westheimer and Kahne’s (2004) distinction among “personally responsible citizen,” “participatory citizen,” and “social justice-oriented citizen,” and, more recently, Banks’ (2017) “failed,” “recognized,” “participatory,” and “transformative” model provided contrasting understandings of civic engagement within broader theoretical citizenship education frameworks. In Canada, Sears (1996) distinguished “elitist” from “activist” conceptions of citizenship education. The “elitist” conception prioritizes prevailing narratives of nationhood and government, voting as a key mechanism for citizenship participation, and preparing students to communicate common facts and values, whereas the “activist” conception privileges students as those who construct knowledge about citizenship and who learn to question the function of institutions and structures in determining social organization. Strong-Boag (1996) critiqued what she interpreted as elitist conceptions of citizenship education that tended to exclude “pluralist” and “inclusive” elements of engagement such as feminists, First Nations peoples, working-class groups. Shultz (2007) drew attention to differences between neoliberal, radical, and transformationalist orientations within transnational contexts. More recent scholarly inquiry into educating for civic engagement in Canada has focused more closely on the interconnections between and among civic engagement and youths’ ethno-cultural and national identities, issues of social justice, students’ lived experiences and concerns, learning practices, and in some instances, transnational considerations (Bickmore 2014; Broom 2016; Eidoo et al. 2011; Llewellyn et al. 2010; Peck et al. 2010).

Curriculum policy reforms. Broadened and more nuanced notions of citizenship and civic learning have also become more evident in provincial and territorial curriculum policy reforms (Bickmore 2006, 2014; Evans 2006; Hughes and Sears 2008; Llewellyn et al. 2007; Sears 2004). While earlier conceptions of citizenship and civic learning remain, more recent reforms have encouraged greater attention to some of the emerging connective themes mentioned earlier (e.g., cultural diversity and pluralism, issues of social justice and equity, indigeneity education, democratic engagement with conflict, global interdependence). Bickmore (2014) noted that,

although they still generally embed mainstream liberal individualist assumptions, Canadian social sciences and citizenship curriculum policy documents reveal an increasingly nuanced, inclusive picture of Canadian society and citizenship, rather than a simple master narrative of nationalistic political history (p. 261).

While civic engagement as a learning goal has received continuing attention through history, social science, and civics curricula, increased attention to youth engagement has also been evident through other subject areas, cross-curricular policy documents (related to such areas Character education, Equity education, Sustainability education), and day-to-day school-based governance, discipline, and community service guidelines.

In Ontario, for example, a Citizenship Education Framework was introduced in 2013 to provide general curriculum guidance (K-12) to “bring citizenship education to life, not only in Social Studies, History, and Geography, but in many other subjects as well” (The Ontario Ministry of Education 2018, p. 10). Four main themes of citizenship education are highlighted in the Framework: (1) active participation (work for the common good in local, national, and global communities), (2) identity (a sense of personal identity as a member of various communities), (3) attributes (character traits, values, and habits of mind), and (4) structures (power and systems within societies). This framework is complemented by a range of core learning goals and specific topics for each grade and subject (Ontario Ministry of Education 2013, p. 7). This deepening attention to civic engagement has also been evident in broader system-wide policy documents such as Achieving Excellence: A Renewed Vision for Education in Ontario (Ontario Ministry of Education 2014) where creating “actively engaged citizens” (p. 1) is identified as a fundamental purpose of Ontario’s schools.

While an increasing commitment to civic engagement in education policy across Canada is evident, a variety of concerns have been voiced. Provincial policy guidance is often viewed as strong in rhetoric but vague in terms of what goals are to be given priority and/or what depth of coverage is expected. Such uncertainty, coupled with teachers’ considerable autonomy in how curriculum is interpreted, leaves teachers to choose what types of civic learning are experienced by students. Consequently, learning experiences remain uneven and fragmented. Learning intentions that intersect with understandings and practices of civic engagement such as identity, power, social justice, and controversial issues are given low priority and are often avoided and/or omitted in practice altogether (Bickmore 2006; Evans 2006; MacDonald 2013; MacDonald et al. 2015; Priestley et al. 2012).

Some scholars have also pointed to continuing undertones of harmony building, compliance, and a privileging of certain kinds of knowledge. Llewellyn et al. (2010), for example, suggest that civic engagement,

is almost always preceded or coupled by concepts of the informed, responsible, and dutiful citizen (Llewellyn et al. 2010, 11–12). The implication is that only when students have “procedural knowledge” and “legislative knowledge” (know how to do something), they are ready for civic engagement (p. 798).

Only occasionally do government documents interrogate courses of action that confront complex relationships of power that are fundamental to the democratic process. Even rarer are occasions when guidelines explore student aptitude for civil disobedience, protests, or boycotts; actions that are often considered unpatriotic, regardless of the political stakes at play (p. 803).

Llewellyn et al. (2007, p. 31) have noted that behavioral codes of conduct (e.g., Ontario Schools Code of Conduct),

tend to envision ideal civic behaviour as being compliant and obedient. The critical-thinking skills enumerated in all of the curriculum guidelines do not appear to apply to the regulations governing students’ behaviour in schools. The behavioural guidelines, then, tend to be consistent with the vision of personally responsible citizenship…while civic education guidelines tend, occasionally, toward more participatory visions… (p. 32).

The intent here seems to be to guide youth behavior both in school and in the community, generally in relationship to adhering to laws, and respecting others – conforming to human rights codes.

In their study analyzing the ways newly mandated civics course guidelines in the provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario interpreted active citizenship, Kennelly and Llewellyn (2011) found that active citizenship is consistently coupled [in course documents] with cautions about the importance of compliant behavior (i.e., ethics, duty, and responsibility) and is distanced from seemingly inappropriate participation in civic dissent. These concerns have been further complicated by questions being raised about colonialism, aspects of difference, about whose knowledge counts, and whose interests are being served through curriculum policy reforms and schooling practices (Abdi 2014; Dei 2014; Kennelly 2009; Peck et al. 2010).

Strengthened pedagogical practices. Although a continuing focus on civic engagement in relation to formal politics in local and national contexts is evident, a variety of classroom, schoolwide, and community-based resources have been developed by educators that support more informal and participatory civic learning experiences. These resources often reflect a variety of inquiry-oriented, interactive, and sometimes, experiential learning approaches and practices that often take students beyond the classroom into the community and in some instances, internationally (through online and first-hand experiences). (Three examples of interesting work underway to support inquiry and participatory-oriented civic learning experiences in schools are Maximum City (; Leave Out Violence Everywhere (LOVE) (; The Social Innovation Student Symposium (2015) ( It should be noted that these examples represent only a small proportion of pedagogical work underway and offer varying perspectives about and approaches to the types of learning to be encouraged.) Public issue/action projects, model town councils, peace-building programs, public information exhibits, community participation activities, online international linkages, involvement in day-to-day school-based governance, and youth forums, for example, are some of the practices that have been developed to assist students to become better informed, to promote inquiry, and to engage in a range of current civic themes and issues (Bickmore 2014; Chen and Goodreau 2009; Evans 2008; MacDonald 2013; Molina-Girón 2013). A wide range of stakeholders, including teacher federations and provincial subject councils (e.g., British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, Ontario History and Social Science Teachers’ Association), organizations and NGOs (e.g., CIVIX, Samara Centre for Democracy, War Child Canada), the education divisions of local and national media organizations (e.g., CBC, TVOntario, Toronto Star), and various government departments (locally, provincially, and nationally), have supported this direction.

Widespread implementation of these types of approaches, however, remains limited. Various studies point out that classroom teaching and learning practices continue to be largely teacher-directed, mostly emphasizing knowledge acquisition and skill development (e.g., political structures and systems, governmental history, legislative processes, improving skills in communication and collaboration), suggesting that teaching and learning practices continue to focus more on knowing about and thinking about rather than engaging in (Faden 2012; Hughes and Sears 2008; Kennelly 2009; Llewellyn et al. 2010; Molina-Girón 2013; Sears 2004). Engaging in, if practiced at all, is linked to increased awareness of aspects of participation related to formal politics (e.g., voting, joining a political party), community service (which may or may not enhance participation of civic engagement), and/or the possibility of some minimal form of engagement in school governance (e.g., student council). Bickmore (2014) has noted that there is often little attention to, or consideration of, how school-based citizenship learning opportunities implicitly communicate students’ lived citizenship curriculum in the form of patterns of discipline, conflict management within the school, school councils, and community service programming.

Results from various studies have found that civic learning experiences for Canadian students remain varied among students with differing identity affiliations (e.g., race, class, culture, gender, religion, region), signaling variable learning opportunities (Bickmore 2014; Claes et al. 2009; Kennelly 2009; Kennelly and Llewellyn 2011; Peck et al. 2010; Tupper et al. 2010). These studies have shown how Canadian students’ civic learning experiences are often not responsive to and/or are disconnected from their lives and own ideas of democracy and citizenship. In their three-year study, Tupper et al. (2010) examined “the relationship between formal citizenship education programs and students’ perceptions of themselves as citizens, especially as these relate to issues of equity and difference” (p. 337) in two Saskatchewan urban high schools. Jackson is a school in a diverse working-class neighborhood with a sizeable indigenous population, and Mackenzie is a school in a mostly white, middle class neighborhood. Results revealed that while students articulated similar “official” liberal notions of “universal” citizenship at an abstract level, their experiences varied given their social location. The authors concluded that,

Students at Mackenzie are better able to take up citizenship in uncomplicated, less ambivalent ways because of their social location: their experiences, visions for the future, and understandings of themselves fit with the official discourses articulated through citizenship education in the curriculum … Students at Jackson understand in similar ways the rights and responsibilities of the citizen but their social locations complicate their ability to take up ‘good’ citizenship: their experiences, visions for the future, and understandings of themselves do not fit with the discourse of citizenship available in officially sanctioned curriculum. Because of this, citizenship becomes a site of ambivalence for these students (p. 357).

While on the one hand youth are often seen as playing a leading role in contributing to re-defining and authoring the meaning and scope of civic engagement and forms of civic engagement, they continue to be predominantly regarded as passive recipients within formal education spheres of an education intended to prepare them for a particular (more formal) form of civic engagement.

Additional Issues and Challenges

In relation to the shifting expressions of youth civic engagement in Canada and the variant ways in which educating for youth civic engagement has been envisaged and approached in formal education (K-12), different studies have provided further explanation and clarification of some of the subtleties associated with emerging understandings and foci of youth engagement and disengagement (Kennelly 2009b; Llewellyn et al. 2007, 2010). Some of these studies, for example, illustrate how youth civic engagement and/or disengagement is distinctly nuanced, linked to a variety of factors including, for example, gender, race, cultural background, education, household income, family civic participation influences, and contextual circumstances (Broom 2016; Dlamini et al. 2009; Eidoo 2016; Hanvey and Kunz 2000; Hall et al. 2001). Some highlight a growing disconnect between youth’ and politicians’ values and interests and democratic institutions, while others consider the availability of new approaches to civic engagement, including the increasing use of the internet and social media (Loader and Mercea 2011; Raynes-Goldie and Walker 2008; Uldam and Askanius 2013).

Accurate understandings of how young Canadians are engaging in civic matters are further complicated by the lack of comprehensive data on young Canadians’ engagement in civic matters beyond voting and ongoing discussions about what should be considered as civic engagement. According to Llewellyn et al. (2007), research studies often “conflate involvement in charitable direct-service volunteering, community organizations and even sports with involvement in political interest groups” (p. 14). Their study found that involvement in charitable and co-curricular activities is high but also found little evidence that these activities translate into increased engagement in civic matters. Some scholars of youth civic engagement have indeed advocated for a broader definition of civic engagement that includes engagement with emerging institutions and activities that achieve the same purpose as larger, longstanding “normal political” organizations (Ho et al. 2015; Turcotte 2015b).

Additional issues are also evident in relation to formal education contexts. Studies conducted with youth across Canada have suggested that many students have developed only initial and partial notions of civic engagement and its value. For youth themselves, notions of civic engagement are often associated with good behavior such as volunteering in community, cleaning up parks, assisting the elderly, and voting (Chareka and Sears 2005, 2006; Llewellyn et al. 2010; Llewellyn and Westheimer 2010). In one study, students from various backgrounds from two high schools in Regina were invited to create and explain visual images depicting their perceptions of “good” citizenship. The majority of these students reproduced mainstream citizenship notions such as national pride, official multiculturalism discourse, and caring for the environment, family, and neighbors. These young people tended to understand citizenship in individual rather than social or political terms and reported believing that democracy and social justice had been already realized (Tupper and Cappello 2012).

Additional studies also reveal that teachers report concerns about their own preparedness for teaching citizenship and civic engagement and identify a need for ongoing professional learning support (Bickmore 2005; Evans 2006; Hughes and Sears 2008; Peck et al. 2010). Teaching and learning practices that attend to the critical purposes of civic learning and engagement, including inquiry, equity and social justice themes, controversial issues, experiential civic engagement activities, are complicated to implement. Learning about and having opportunities to practice civic engagement can also be very controversial and many teachers are concerned about the broader implications in terms of how, for example, parents and community members will respond (MacDonald 2013). While some professional development opportunities and resources have been developed in Canada to support teachers’ work in this area, concerns continue to be raised about the provision of suitable professional learning in initial teacher education and in-service professional learning programs to effectively address the complexities of teaching and learning for democratic engagement in classrooms and school communities. Lastly, these issues and challenges are further exacerbated by a variety of factors associated with educational change that can either mobilize and/or inhibit steps forward in schools. Inadequate financial/resource support, low curricular status/priority, the hierarchical nature of formal education, and other factors influence the extent to which steps towards engaged citizenship for all students can be realized (Claes et al. 2009; Stolle and Cruz 2005).

Concluding Considerations

This chapter has briefly explored shifting expressions of youth civic engagement in Canada and the variant ways in which educating for youth civic engagement has been envisaged and approached through formal education (K-12). We have contended that while expressions of youth civic engagement have been for the most part moderate, varied, local, institutional, and tempered historically through a filter of personal and social responsibility, there has been a gradual shift of emphasis towards less formal, digital, and rights-based representations. This shift of emphasis has been influenced by a variety of personal and contextual factors over time.

We also considered how understandings of educating for civic engagement through formal education in Canada have also undergone a gradual transition, moving from a focus on civic duty, deference, and formal political structures and processes as they are to more recent characterizations that encourage more informal, exploratory, and critical understandings of engagement through public issues, from the local to the global. Interwoven in these understandings of engagement are themes such as identity, cultural diversity, pluralism, and issues of social justice and equity. Indicators of these are found in spheres of Canadian educational research, curriculum policy reform, and strengthened pedagogical practices.

Moving towards these broadened and more complex understandings of educating for civic engagement through formal education have proven to be problematic, complicated by a variety of associated challenges. Curriculum ambiguity, undertones of compliance, an avoidance of certain controversial concepts and issues, and varied understandings of engagement among students with differing identity affiliations, for example, all signal uneven and fragmented access and learning experiences. Systems-wide implementation remains mostly random and minimal. These challenges are further exacerbated by a variety of factors associated with educational change that can both mobilize and/or inhibit steps forward.

As research undertaken in Canada and internationally continues to reveal deepened understandings of youth civic engagement, it is imperative that educational stakeholders acknowledge and be responsive to the disconnects between the ways that youth are participating in civic affairs (and the reasons why) and the learning opportunities they are provided in formal school contexts to make meaning of these experiences and to propel deeper civic engagement in public affairs across local, national, and international spheres, while at the same time keeping in mind, as Biesta (2011) has reminded us, that a good deal of civic engagement learning takes place in contexts outside of formal education.



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Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Curriculum, Teaching & LearningOntario Institute for Studies in Education, University of TorontoTorontoCanada
  2. 2.University of Toronto SchoolsTorontoCanada
  3. 3.Ontario Institute for Studies in EducationUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada

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