By Allison Ridgway
Keshini Kumarakesary remembers one thing about her Grade 10 civics class: boredom.
Now a third-year politics major at Ryerson University, Kumarakesary is the kind of student whose eyes light up whenever she talks about current events.
But she insists the half-semester civics course she and all other Ontario students must take in Grade 10 did not inspire this love of politics. The romance began despite it.
“Honestly, I just remember a lot of students seeing the class as a joke,” she says, recalling how the course was taught by her Scarborough Catholic high school’s religion teacher who seemed to know very little about Canadian politics.
Most periods were spent poring over dog-eared textbooks full of dry, rudimentary information that didn’t seem to pertain to daily life.
Kumarakesary is not alone in her frustration with the high school class. Canada’s low youth voter turnout is a regular reminder of just how disengaged, uninformed and disenfranchised young people in this country feel. Statistics Canada reported that just 38.8 per cent of people ages 18 to 24 cast a ballot in the 2011 federal election. The rest? Most said they were simply “not interested” in voting or “uninformed” on the issues.
It’s easy to blame “kids today” for opting out of formal political participation due to apathy or laziness.
But researchers, educators and students themselves say at least some of the blame belongs to the education system.
“I think the hardest part (of teaching the Grade 10 civics class) is convincing my students that one vote makes a difference,” says Steven Ainslie, a teacher at Crestwood Secondary School in Peterborough, Ont.
Ainslie has seen two major changes to Ontario’s civics curriculum since he began teaching the course in 2000.
The most recent revision, in 2013, saw the curriculum retain most of its old materials but call for a more “inquiry-based approach” that encourages hands-on activities.
Ainslie’s strategy is to hold a mock election in his classroom each year.
Students complete a questionnaire to find where they fall on the political spectrum, and are then divided into political parties and asked to create a platform and choose a leader.
They give speeches in front of the class and hold a mock election. The winners form a mock government and pass a piece of legislation following lengthy debates.
“When we do a debate in class, I always tell them: ‘don’t model yourselves after Parliament,’” Ainslie explains with a laugh.
“The curriculum is obviously very important, but I don’t think it has performed its function well,” — Kathleen Wynne.
“I want them to actually listen to what their opponents say and respond to it, not just yell the loudest or make the biggest commotion.”
The curriculum improvements don’t seem to be having much of an effect. In a recent survey conducted by students in Ryerson’s school of journalism, about 41 per cent of the 1,155 university and college students polled on three Toronto campuses said they were “undecided,” “unlikely” or “very unlikely” to vote in the next federal election, citing lack of information. Well over half of the survey’s participants could not name their MP.
“I remember learning way more about the (political) opinions of my teachers and their own personal beliefs that I did learning about actual Canadian civics,” says Ariana Avola, a third-year politics student at Ryerson.
Avola says she remembers students at her small-town Catholic high school didn’t get much of a chance to develop their own political ideologies: they were not allowed to write essays on controversial topics such as abortion and euthanasia.
“If the teacher had a specific viewpoint, that’s what you got,” she says.
Kathleen Wynne, Ontario’s premier and the province’s former minister of education, acknowledges there is still work to be done on the curriculum if Ontario wants to see any real progress in engaging future voters and leaders.
“The curriculum is obviously very important, but I don’t think it has performed its function well,” Wynne said during a Feb. 24 discussion at Queen’s Park with Ryerson journalism students.
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“Quite honestly, I find the Grade 5 kids who are studying Canadian and world government to be more engaged than the Grade 10 kids taking civics. I think that we need to find a way to make civics come alive in a much more fundamental way.”
That “fundamental way” may mean more than simply teaching students how to cast a ballot, says University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education professor John Portelli.
Portelli advocates for a new approach where democratic principles are upheld both inside and outside the classroom.
By giving students a voice in the decision-making processes of their schools — through student councils, school-wide votes on important matters or simply listening to and taking seriously student complaints — schools can show young people that their opinions do matter, and why democratic process is important.
Six months ago, Portelli visited an elementary school in Europe and saw these “democratic principles” in action.
While he was chatting with the school’s principal and vice-principal, a six-year-old boy walked into the office with a concern.
There was a hole in the hallway wall near his classroom left over from the construction work done there, the boy explained, and he was worried another child would get his foot caught in it.
The principal stopped the meeting and went with the child to examine the hole.
“Are we now expected to take directions from six-year-olds?” Portelli heard the vice-principal ask when the principal returned.
“It just so happens that this six-year-old was right,” replied the principal, who then called the construction workers to repair the hole.
“We have to meet students where they are in their lives in order to truly engage them,” Portelli explains.
“If students are not introduced to democracy both through their classes and through their school’s atmosphere, they will begin to say, ‘why the hell should I be interested in voting if my voice doesn’t even matter at school?’ That’s something we can’t allow to continue happening,” said Portelli.