The Future of Democracy Is In Your Classroom


In the lead-up to the 2012 provincial election in Alberta, Samantha Aylward led her Grade 6 students to experience democracy in a brand new way, by giving them a chance to talk to candidates directly (see also Samantha’s article on page 10).

Political representatives from various parties and levels of government met the students from Dr. K. A. Clark School in Fort McMurray as part of a weeklong, hands-on classroom program. The result? Her students got interested and involved; they asked questions, followed the polls and media coverage, generated discussions at home and even got their parents out to vote.

This story is a great example of what teachers can do to nurture a sense of democratic responsibility among youth. Teachers are in a unique position of influence. By getting your students excited and talking about what’s going on in their community at the political level, you are building engaged citizens and shaping the voters of tomorrow.

Helping students reconnect with our democracy has never been more important. It’s a well-known fact that voter turnout has been declining in Canada, at all levels of government. At the federal level, Canada reached an all-time low of 59% in the 2008 election, while in some provincial and municipal elections, turnout has dropped below 50%.

Declining voter turnout is the most obvious sign of democratic disengagement in Canada – but it’s not the only one. Fewer people are joining political parties and volunteering for election campaigns. And contrary to popular belief, Canadians aren’t replacing voting by other forms of citizen participation, like blogging or protesting. Many are withdrawing from civic engagement activities as a whole.

The most worrisome part of this trend is that it’s not spread evenly across the population but is concentrated among certain groups: those with lower education or income levels, new Canadians, and especially the young. In other words, some of the most vulnerable groups in society—those most in need of a voice in government.

So how do we reverse the decline in youth democratic engagement? How do we help today’s young people become thoughtful, informed and engaged citizens?

Research shows that the most important correlates of democratic engagement are political interest, political knowledge and a sense of civic duty. For example, Elections Canada’s National Youth Survey, conducted after the May 2011 federal election, found that turnout was almost 30 percentage points higher among youth who said they were somewhat or very interested in the election, compared to those who had little or no interest. This may appear obvious at first glance, but the conclusion it leads us to is important: political interest can be nurtured, and political knowledge, interest and civic duty can be learned.

Civic education can be a highly effective tool for helping students develop these essential democratic resources. The National Youth Survey found that youth who recalled taking a civics course in high school were significantly more interested in the 2011 election (by 17 percentage points) than those who did not. They were also more likely to vote.

But to yield results, civics must be engaging and experiential. Students need to be shown concrete ways to participate effectively in the public life of their community and their country—and not just how a bill becomes a law.

How to bring democracy and citizenship to the classroom

1. As a take-home assignment, have students poll their parents about the electoral process and voting habits. Tabulate the responses and use the results for a class discussion. Have your students create a campaign to encourage their parents to vote.

2. Invite someone who has recently immigrated to Canada to speak to your class about their home country, the experience of living in a new place and what they love about Canada.

3. Host a mock election in your classroom that parallels an election in your municipality or province. Have your students vote for who they think should be the next leader. Have some students create campaigns and party platforms and hold a debate. Give other students roles on election day in the polling stations and have each student vote.

4. Choose a community issue that has been in the news recently. Have the students research different aspects of the problem and then lead a discussion on ways to improve it. To take this one step further, have them either write letters or use social media to reach out to government representatives with their ideas.

5. When you teach students about the different forms of government around the world, ask them to research recent events that bring to light how valuable the right to vote can be.

They especially need opportunities for debate and discussion, to talk about politics with people of different backgrounds and views, to debate ideas and remain respectful of others’ opinions—even while disagreeing. Informed political discussion and debate are essential to a healthy democracy

Political discussion builds political knowledge and interest. In fact, the National Youth Survey found that youth who participated in political discussions with family or friends had significantly higher levels of political knowledge and interest, and were also more likely to vote. Similarly, youth who said they were contacted by a political party or candidate during the election also had higher rates of knowledge and interest, and were more likely to vote.

This is why Samantha Aylward’s program was so effective. It brought her students together with real candidates and parties, to discuss real issues in their community. Civic education (like all education) works best when students can make the connection between classroom learning and real-life application. Participatory experiences, such as real and mock elections, simulated debates, and exposure to role models who discuss issues students care about, can help foster a much deeper understanding of the inner workings of society and the public responsibilities of citizens.

So, how to bring this kind of civic education to your classroom? Organizations like CIVIX—a national charity that provides experiential learning opportunities—are leading the way. Since 2003, their flagship program Student Vote has given more than three million students across Canada the chance to vote in a parallel election. An evaluation of the 2011 federal Student Vote program found that it increased students’ political knowledge, political interest and belief that voting is a civic duty, as well as political discussions with parents. It even had a positive impact on parents themselves: fully 20% of parents who voted said that their decision to vote was influenced by their child’s participation in Student Vote!

Another way for teachers to engage students, regardless of the electoral calendar, is to take advantage of Canada’s Democracy Week, which runs from September 16 to 23 this year. Teachers can host discussions with community leaders, design classroom projects around civic engagement and encourage their students to enter a piece of writing, image or video in the National Democracy Challenge (see democracy-dé for details).

A healthy democracy means informed and engaged citizens who understand how government works and how individuals and communities can influence what it does. When teachers like Samantha Aylward bring civic education to life in their classrooms, they’re not just helping their own students—they’re helping to ensure that Canadian democracy remains strong now and in the future. And for that, we should all say “thank you.”


Miriam Lapp
Dr. Miriam Lapp is the Assistant Director of Outreach at Elections Canada.

This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Sept/Oct 2013 issue.

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