Citizenship Education : Dare more controversy in the classroom

Students should be encouraged to question rules, says Joel Westheimer in an interview with Das Deutsche Schulportal. The professor for education at the University of Ottawa, Canada, explains how students learn to ask critical questions and why teachers should dare more controversy in the classroom. Westheimer is also keynote speaker at this year’s Forum of the Deutsche Schulakademie.

Annette Kuhn 21. November 2019 Aktualisiert am 17. Mai 2020
Joel Westheimer leaning against a wall
Joel Westheimer, Professor for Education, University of Ottawa, wants to encourage schools to use debates and controversy as “teachable moments”.
©Joel Westheimer

Deutsches Schulportal: Professor Westheimer, your focus is on citizenship education in school. At this year’s forum of the Deutsche Schulakademie you will speak in this topic. You distinguish three types of “good citizens”. Which are they?

Joel Westheimer: When we look at schools all over the world, we find that most education programs that hope to make students better citizens fall more or less into one of three categories that we called: the Personally Responsible Citizen; the Participatory Citizen; and the Social Justice Oriented Citizen.

Could you please elaborate a bit more on these different types?
Responsible Citizens
 are responsible, considerate, and helpful. A personally responsible citizen obeys the law, follows the rules and takes care of people around them. They might volunteer in a soup kitchen or senior center to help those less fortunate, give food or clothing when asked to help and contribute time, money, or both to charitable causes. School programs that encourage personal responsibility emphasize character traits such as honesty, integrity, self-discipline, and hard work.

Participatory Citizens actively participate in the civic affairs and the social life of the community. Educational programs designed to support the development of participatory citizens focus on teaching students about how government and other institutions (eg. community based organizations, churches) work and about the importance of planning and participating in organized efforts to care for those in need, for example, or in efforts to guide school policies.

Schools tend to focus on the personally-responsible kind of ‘good’ citizen.

Social Justice-Oriented Citizens want to look at the root causes of problems. I call this kind of citizen the Social-Justice Oriented Citizen because these programs emphasize the need for citizens to be able to think about issues of fairness, equality and inequality, and power. Educational programs that promote a social justice-oriented vision of the “good” citizen are less likely to emphasize the need for charity and volunteerism as ends in themselves and more likely to teach about ways to address root causes of problems and seek systemic change.

If Participatory Citizens are organizing the food drive and Personally Responsible Citizens are donating food, the Social Justice Oriented Citizens are asking why people are hungry and acting on what they discover.

According to your experience, which of these types are “generated” in today’s schools?
Schools tend to focus on the personally-responsible kind of “good” citizen: follow the rules; listen to your teachers; don’t litter; help someone who needs your assistance; don’t do drugs; and so on.

Some programs teach about participation and about how government works. But the least represented kind of teaching and learning is the kind that wants students think critically about society, about social and political policies, about how social change happens. Individual teachers may teach these things, but few organized or district-wide programs put these goals into practice.

German reality is that students’ voices are rarely heard. Is that any different in Canada or in the U.S.?
I would say that is the predominant situation in Canadian and American schools as well. But there may be more experimentation with more authentic student involvement. For example, there are schools where students make substantive decisions about the curriculum or themes they might study or the school schedule or school discipline.

What ideally should democratic formation in schools look like?  On what areas should students have more influence?
You can notice that personally-responsible citizens is something that any country in the world would want. The leaders of North Korea and China want citizens to be nice to one another, to obey the laws, to pay taxes, not to litter or do drugs. So I am interested in what schools in democratic societies should do differently.

Schools in democratic societies must teach students how to ask challenging questions – the kind of uncomfortable questions that challenge tradition.

Some schools also help students consider whether being a ‘good’ citizen ever requires questioning rules, or what might be the proper balance between rule-following and thinking about the origins and purposes of rules. These are qualities that democratic countries need in their citizens. So, for example, schools should teach students to ask questions.

One hallmark of a totalitarian society is the notion of one single “truth” handed down from a leader or small group of leaders to everyone else. Questioning that truth is not only discouraged, but also often illegal. By contrast, schools in democratic societies must teach students how to ask challenging questions – the kind of uncomfortable questions that challenge tradition.

Although most of us would agree that traditions are important, without questioning there can be no progress. Dissent – feared and suppressed in nondemocratic societies – is the engine of progress in free ones. Education reformers, school leaders, and parents should do everything possible to ensure that teachers and students have opportunities to ask these kinds of questions.

Why would we expect adults, even members of Parliament, to be able to intelligently and compassionately discuss different viewpoints in the best interests of their constituents if schoolchildren never or rarely get that opportunity?

We also need schools that expose students to multiple perspectives. Students need practice in entertaining multiple viewpoints on issues that affect their lives. These issues might be controversial. But improving society requires embracing that kind of controversy so citizens can engage in democratic dialogue and work together toward understanding and enacting sensible policies. Why would we expect adults, even members of Parliament, to be able to intelligently and compassionately discuss different viewpoints in the best interests of their constituents if schoolchildren never or rarely get that opportunity?

In schools that further democratic aims, teachers engage young people in deep historical, political, social, economic, and even scientific analysis. They also challenge children to imagine how their lived experiences are not universal and how issues that may seem trivial to them could matter deeply to others. They have students examine multiple perspectives not only to know that their (or their parents’) views may not be shared by everyone, but also to foster a kind of critical empathy for those with competing needs.

How can this be implemented concretely in school?
For example, teachers might present newspaper articles from around the world (easily accessed through the internet) that examine the same event. Which facts and narratives are consistent? Which are different? Why? Textbooks from several different countries could provide another trove of lessons on multiple viewpoints and the role of argument and evidence in democratic deliberation. Many of these textbooks are now accessible online, allowing the kinds of comparisons that would have been difficult before the advent of communications technology. If textbooks are not available online, teachers can use the power of social media to connect with classes in other countries who are reading different textbooks.

Students should also examine controversial contemporary issues. Students are frequently exposed to past historical controversies – such as slavery, Nazism, or laws denying voting rights to women. But those same students are too often shielded from today’s competing ideas (for example, immigration, the #MeToo movement, women’s reproductive rights, misinformation campaigns that employ social media as a dangerous and powerful tool, controversies over what should be taught in the school curriculum, how, and by whom). Engagement with contemporary controversies using a range of perspectives and multiple sources of information is exactly what democratic participation requires.

How can students benefit from this?
One way to provide experiences with democratic participation in civic and political life is to engage students in community-based projects that encourage the development of personal responsibility, participation, and critical analysis. Some schools in the United States now engage students in something called “action civics” in which students do work in the community that is tied to their curriculum in school and reflect deeply on their experiences and on the ways governments work and social policies are implemented. When students have the opportunity to engage with civics education through action in their own communities, they learn the habits and skills of democratic participation that can last their whole lives.

Teachers should be supported and protected, encouraged to use debates and controversy as ‘teachable moments’ in civic discourse.

Of course, choosing to be explicitly political in the classroom can cause friction for teachers – with students, parents, and administrators – even when teachers avoid expressing their own political views. Encouraging discussion, controversy, and action in the classroom can be difficult. Students may express views that make classmates uncomfortable; they may engage in political acts that concern their parents; or they may choose to challenge their own school’s policies. Democracy can be messy. Rather than let fear of sanction and censorship dictate pedagogical choices, however, teachers should be supported and protected, encouraged to use debates and controversy as “teachable moments” in civic discourse.

Are teachers sufficiently trained to make pupils “good citizens”?
No. We need teacher education programs that help teachers feel comfortable with these kinds of activities.

Where could Germany learn from Canada or the U.S. when it comes to democratic formation?
It is important to recognize – in all countries – that schools are not only places where knowledge is transmitted but also places where children learn about the society in which they are growing up, how they might engage in productive ways, and how they can fight for change when change is warranted. There are some excellent school programs that aim for these goals. Germany and Canada have some advantages over the U.S. in this regard because teaching tends to be highly respected and there exists broad public support for education. In the U.S. – and to a lesser extent, in Canada, an obsession with standardized testing in math and literacy has hijacked the broader school curriculum.

But Germany is at risk of narrowing school goals as well. PISA scores drive too much education reform around the world. Schools need to focus on a broad array of goals and not get caught up in a race that has limited educational value. The United States, on the other hand, does have an enormous variety of educational programs, some of which serve as excellent examples for others. Groups such as Rethinking Schools (, iCivics (, Facing History and Ourselves (, and Educators For Social Justice ( provide excellent resources, many of which are relevant world-wide.

To the German version

More about Joel Westheimer

  • Joel Westheimer holds the University Research Chair in Democracy and Education, University of Ottawa, Canada and he is Full Professor for Education.
  • His research interests are: democracy and education; civic activism, equity and social justice; service learning and youth leadership; teacher professional community; urban school reform.
  • He is author of the books: What Kind of Citizen? Educating Our Children for the Common Good. (2015) and Teaching for the Common Good: Democratic Citizenship Across the Curriculum (forthcoming).