Discussion Forum

27 March to 31 March 2000



Stimulus Material to start discussion:

Recent state and national elections and the head of state referendum show that many Australians have a concern that the people ‘in power’ (whether be politicians, intellectuals or economists) are deciding what is best for Australians with out really involving the people. It is often assumed that the ‘ordinary’ Australian does not have the knowledge to understand the issues being dealt with and therefore should be grateful that the people in power are making the hard decisions for them.

This attitude is also reflected in schools and the place of students as receivers of learning rather than active participants. Civics and citizenship, supported through the Discovering Democracy program provides an opportunity for schools and their communities to change to a more participatory learning community.

I believe student voice - that is students actively involved and valued in decision making at the class, school, district, State/Territory and national level - is central to achieving this. Through effective student voice the civics (knowledge of government structures and decision making processes) and citizenship (actively participating in a civil society) are integrated as the key component of all students learning and the very functioning of schools and their communities.

John Dryden (formerly of the University of South Australia) in a talk he gave to the South Australian education department’s Civics and Citizenship Education Reference Group in 1997 on student voice identified four ways that teachers and other adults involve students in their learning and school decision making.

  • [learning and decision making are done] To students
  • [learning and decision making are done] For students
  • [learning and decision making are done] With students
  • [learning and decision making are done] By students

The first two ways view students as receivers of learning, while the last two involve students as active participants in learning. The aim of all teachers and administrators should be to work with students to enable students to develop their own learning environment. This involves us looking at our classroom and school practices to eliminate doing ‘to students’, reducing doing ‘for students’ to the bare minimum and greatly increase learning and decision making by students.

In achieving this we are also practicing good civics and citizenship education.

David Butler


Look around the country for curriculum innovation award programs, celebrations of student achievement and occasions when school and community have worked together to achieve success, and more often than not you’ll find an involvement with the environment. Kids are concerned about the environment, they want to do something for the environment and, on a local scale particularly, they can.

Becoming active for the environment involves understanding how decisions are made in communities, understanding the civic processes and being skilled in active citizenship. With active citizenship, the environment is enhanced as students gather their research, form their arguments and communicate their views. There are many examples where school students have intervened in their communities to make a difference. But first of all, they must believe that they can!

The Middle Secondary Collection of the Discovering Democracy Australian Readers presents, in Political People, personal stories of a number of Australians who have made a difference. None of them are known through their involvement with the environment, and most are not contemporary figures. We have Billy Hughes, Alfred Deakin, Sir Robert Menzies, among other dead, and some alive, white males. There are three women, Edith Cowan, Susan Ryan and Margaret Guilfoyle – hardly classroom names to students today. In a slight departure from the whole Anglo mob – there is Neville Bonner and Charles Perkins.

Now I’m not saying that these are people not worthy of study. They are, and their contributions have, in many cases, been fundamental to the democracy we have today. Nor am I saying that we should dumb down in order to appeal to otherwise disengaged students. But what about some more contemporary political people who have been working in areas in which students have interest?

Where is Jack Mundey, who was a skilled practitioner of citizenship in the early environmental movement, and shaper of Sydney today? How about considering Ian Kiernan, Ailsa Keto or Peter Garrett – people more or less well-known who have made a difference in areas in which our students are interested? And when it comes to indigenous political people, we could be quite innovative and consider Archie Roach, a person whose story is both inspirational and illuminating in considering citizenship and its practice as experienced by Indigenous Australians, or perhaps Noel Pearson or Lowitja O’Donohue.

I believe that there is a challenge in using these readers, that of making them relevant to our students. Maybe the way they can be useful is to consider the criteria that have been used to determine who was included in the selection, and then have the class consider their criteria for developing a list of Australians who have made a contribution to our democracy. Applying the agreed criteria to Australians of their own experience would lead to a list, I think, of considerable interest. I would look forward to seeing such criteria, and the outcomes of their application in response.

Greg Hunt

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