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Active Citizenship and the Development of Social Literacy: a case for

experiential learning

Jon Davison and James Arthur

This paper explores the relationship between social literacy, citizenship education and community involvement and argues the case of the centrality of experiential learning to the development of active citizenship.


‘An active someone who not only believes in the concept of a democratic

society but who is willing and able to translate that belief into action.’

Education for Active Citizenship – 1989, p. 7 Australian Government

Social Literacy

Social literacy concerns itself with the development of social skills, knowledge and

positive human values that engender the desire and ability in human beings to act

positively and responsibly in range of complex social settings.

Essentially, the Government wishes to build schools as learning communities that develop individuals who feel they have an active and full part to play in society; who feel they can cope with relationships with other people; who are sociable and who are going to be good parents in the future.

Active citizenship implies and even requires action on the part of the citizen pupil. The ability to think and act on social and political concerns underpins effective citizenship

education. Pupils therefore need to develop active, collaborative and co-operative

working patterns focused on real problems in a real community - what is variously called

service learning, community-based learning, community participation, community

education or experiential learning.

Young (1999: 469) has outlined the main obstacles to experiential learning in the

community and lists them as the:

• superiority of subject-based knowledge;

• under-valuing of practical knowledge;

priority given to written knowledge as opposed to other forms of presenting


superiority of knowledge acquired by individuals over that developed by groups of

pupils working together.

Hart (1992) offers us a way of understanding this process of becoming part of a

community. Hart outlines a model of community participation that he calls the

‘participation ladder’. In sum it may be described as:

(a) pupils understand the community project they are involved in and know its purpose;

(b) pupils know why they are involved,

(c) pupils have a meaningful role within the project,

  1. pupils have made a free choice to be so involved.

Hart concludes that (a), (b) and (c) are necessary before (d) can be reached.

The action competent pupil is able and ready to participate and can argue, reflect

critically and relate his or her opinions and actions to a values framework. Holden and

Clough describe this as a values-based participation in community, but do not provide us

with how these values are formed in any depth.

A good community participation programme will address the issue of academic relevance

by connecting knowledge, skills, and concepts with accomplishing a meaningful purpose

in the school and/or community. As such, experiential learning becomes an integral part

of school improvement and contributes to this by ensuring that knowledge is gained by

the pupil through guided interaction with the community and local environment. It should

develop critical thinking skills that help pupils make evaluations and judgements since

community issues and problems cannot always be neatly defined and solved so pupils

will also develop problem-solving skills. This should in turn assist pupils to think across

the boundaries of traditional curriculum subjects which should help them become more

adept at integrating and applying what they are learning. Experiential learning, well

planned and executed, allows pupils from a variety of backgrounds and abilities to work

together on real problems that provide unity and purpose beyond the classroom. This

facilitates inclusion, promotes equity and fosters appreciation of cultural diversity by

assisting pupils to relate to others from a wide range of backgrounds and life situations. It

will help pupils to value and understand the differences among individuals and

communities. The school community itself will change by creating new relationships

with the local community that will be viewed increasingly as a positive learning

environment that benefits the school. As all members of staff and pupils become

participants in the process of experiential learning they develop a personal and collective

stake in making something positive happen beyond the walls of the school.

National Curriculum

The Report of the National Advisory groups on Personal, Social and Health Education

Therefore, any school beginning to develop a model service learning in the

community needs first to be clear about how it will construct its model.

Will the school develop a model based upon:

the community of the school?

the community in the school?


the school in the community?

What will be the underlying purposes of service learning? Will the school attempt to

develop in pupils, understandings that will result from:

learning for service?

learning about service?


learning from service?

The Community Service Volunteers organisation has extensive experience in the area of

community involvement and has listed five citizenship competencies for experiential

learning that are worth listing here. They are to:

• work in a variety of group settings;

• identify ad evaluate the values and ethics of self and others in the community;

• recognise, appreciate and support vital elements of the local community;

• gather and evaluate date necessary to effect positive change;

• implement effective decision making and problem solving strategies.


Community service projects may originate in a number of ways. Pupils conducting

research on their community may identify community needs.


Action as part of community service needs to be a learning experience. ‘Experience’ as

described here will not only take the form of direct involvement, but may also result from

reading, writing or discussion with peers, teachers, community members or others.


Arguably, for community service experience to be worthwhile, pupils need to see the

connection between service and learning. The experience needs to be ‘made visible’ to



Finally, it is important that there is recognition not only of service, but also of the

learning that has taken place

Experiential learning in the community provides pupils with concrete

opportunities to participate with others in serving the public. It presents schools with a

powerful way of enhancing their pupils learning by developing an effective range of

social skills. The progress of pupils in citizenship needs to be recorded through a variety

of means and they will need to learn how to gather their own evidence of progress

However, we believe that experiential learning in the community is more likely to

inculcate and develop altruism, philanthropy, self-reliance and personal social virtues

than is a classroom-based, ‘delivered’ course of citizenship education. The social

dimension of the curriculum must be about acting and doing in real contexts – learning

from service – not simply a cognitive activity – learning about service.