The notion of community is central to any conception of community organising, and it is also central to the earlier definition of ITE 3.0, but that does not mean it is amenable to easy definition. In the context of this project, students and staff conceived of themselves as members of the university community and the Shoreditch Citizens network; they also discussed their professional identities within a broader community of practice and student teachers began to appreciate their roles within the school communities where they taught and in the broader communities the schools served. Community in these senses slips between an imagined polity, a professional network, a neighbourhood, an ethnic, cultural, religious or class bond, and a deliberate project to build social capital between people so they come to see themselves in community with others. The rest of this article considers three aspects of the student teachers’ experiences, first their emerging sense of themselves as actors in the political landscape of social policy; second their engagement with the democratic role of citizenship education; and third their sense of themselves as political actors in the micro-politics of school. These combine to create a sense of the impact of this small project, and to illustrate the potential of such community-based collaborations.
3.1. The Teacher as a Political Agent in a Politicised Educational Landscape
Sometimes ITE projects such as this are framed as service learning projects and the challenge is to ensure the service experience contributes to a greater political
understanding, rather than merely being an interesting opportunity to help others [20
]. The assignments produced by these student teachers illustrate how these activities enabled them to engage critically and creatively with policy. Their reflections create the distinct impression that being a citizenship teacher, committed to a transformational and maximal notion of citizenship [21
], provides them with a lens through which to interpret policy. The student teachers are engaging in critical reinterpretations and re-representations of policy to maintain a coherent sense of themselves as citizenship education professionals.
At the time of the project there was much talk of the government’s Big Society agenda, which provided a broader context in which to understand the role of citizenship education. The Big Society project had implications for a range of public services and revolved around the central idea that civil society should take on a more active role in providing for a range of social needs, which would allow a diminished role for the (inefficient) state, and create a greater sense of social solidarity and mutual responsibility. On a positive reading, this policy aimed to generate new capacity for citizen action through cooperative and community organisations but it was seen by critics as conservative cover for budget cuts and a diminution of the state [23
]. It clearly had implications for how the government (and the student teachers) came to see the role of citizenship education.
One student teacher, David, identified this as an opportunity:
It could be said that for the Big Society to succeed at a local level, then citizenship education would be vital. Not only does the Big Society have links with active citizenship, but it can also be said to have links to the concept of community cohesion, which is part of one of the key concepts on the citizenship programme of study [the national curriculum] (David).
However, the students’ responses were not entirely opportunistic, seizing the policy as a justification for their subject. Charlotte, for example, engaged more critically, identifying the possibility that the Big Society could be:
Merely a tokenistic promotion of communitarian visions… [which] may fall short of its ambitious aims to transform people to change their society (Charlotte).
Reflecting the broader political debates about this policy initiative, Charlotte went on to point out that the government’s advocacy of the Big Society in the place of Big Government, may be a cover for cuts.
However, these critical engagements with the policy context went beyond mere scepticism that a centre-right party would genuinely embrace communitarian ideas, and students explored the ideas embodied in the notion of the Big Society in further detail. Charlotte discussed a book by a Conservative Member of Parliament Jesse Norman [24
] which attempted to identify a Conservative philosophical tradition in which the Big Society could be rooted. She cited Edmund Burke’s (1790) [25
] description of the “little platoons” in society, which maintain an ordered civil society, and related this idea to the community and faith groups she had encountered through Shoreditch Citizens. This was valuable in that it showed how confidently she was able to use competing philosophical accounts of her experiences to explore the complementary dimensions within what are often seen as contrasting philosophical traditions (in this case contrasting Burke and Alinsky and finding common ground).
The students began to develop a personal vision of themselves as citizenship teachers which was informed by a political sense of the role and the nature of citizenship education, not just by narrow notions of personal commitment or teacher professionalism. As such, they were beginning to locate their personal vision in broader ideological models of citizenship, developing what Kelchterman’s has called a “personal interpretative framework” through which teachers come to understand and give meaning to their work [26
]. Comparing these diverse philosophical influences was also useful in helping them to articulate the tensions in such free and easy borrowing across political beliefs, and this exploration of tensions led the students to discuss the difference between conceptions of the “good” citizen (compliant) and the “active” citizen (politically informed and critical). This reflects a distinction introduced by Crick [27
], who was influential in establishing citizenship education in England. Echoing his analysis, the student teachers frequently argued that the Conservative interpretation tended towards notions of the “good” citizen, with an expectation of social conformity, personal responsibility, philanthropy and charity in one’s local community. There was an understanding that the Alinsky tradition embraced a much more radical model of “active” citizenship, in which the more overt focus on power and leadership could “potentially create a powerful political movement that could challenge the state” (Charlotte). This was a recurrent theme in the assignments, as the student teachers advocated a “transformational” [21
] approach to citizenship education in which it is not enough for young people to participate—they should also be “aware of the political significance of their engagement with their local communities” (Charlotte). In clarifying this distinction David argued for a transformational model of genuine active citizenship, informed by Freire [28
] (arguing against the banking model of education), Alinsky [18
] (arguing for community action rooted in real-life problem solving) and Hart [29
] (arguing against tokenistic forms of participation) and contrasted this with the Big Society rhetoric where “simply giving people the chance to volunteer and ‘do good’ is not sufficient” (David).
Seeing oneself as an agent of change in Fullan’s terms requires, to some extent, a sense of the teacher as a political agent, and these reflections illustrate how the student teachers were able to see their role as teachers within a broader political project, and to draw critically on a range of theoretical perspectives to frame their own responses. This is a powerful dimension to the learning linked to this experiential learning project.
3.2. The Teacher as an Agent to Promote Democracy
The student teachers borrowed across from the practices of community organising to the different context of school-based citizenship education to clarify their thinking about the relationship between the ends (enhanced democracy) and the means (experiential learning). The assumption which allowed them to do so was that the underlying commitment of both is to promote transformational and active citizenship. In these assignments, there is evidence that the student teachers engaged in a reflexive process, in which they were willing to reflect critically on the balance between teacher authority and student autonomy in the pursuit of active citizenship education.
Several students wrote about the relationship between democratic action and learning about democracy and this theme emerged clearly in David’s work, where he wrote at length about involvement in direct action with Shoreditch Citizens. David reflected on this as a positive example of the organisers setting manageable and achievable goals which enabled participants to achieve some short term success, and he also reflected on how that contributed to a “feeling of power and community cohesion.” This exemplifies the value of the experiential dimension to this project for the student teachers. David had already spoken about community cohesion as a curriculum concept, but here he was able to say what it felt like to experience it, and later to discuss how he could transfer this learning to his own teaching. In his conclusions he returned to the discussion of the affective dimension, and asserted how important it was that his students “feel they had some ownership over the project.”
There can be a tendency in citizenship textbooks to present a slightly abstracted and simplified account of active citizenship. In textbooks letters to MPs are read and have an influence on decisions; petitions elicit responses; and charities achieve their aims. By contrast, the student teachers’ real participation in a community organisation enabled them to reflect on more realistic strategies that might form part of an education programme for active citizenship. David, for example, argued for a full-scale appropriation of the community organising training model by citizenship teachers when developing active citizenship with school students, whilst Charlotte chose to look on Alinsky as a source of ideas for her own selection of strategies. This included the use of small “stunts” to maintain pressure; using a variety of tactics to keep attention; fighting local, winnable battles; and finding small achievable goals to help increase the motivation of community members.
Another student, Dean, explored the methods advocated by Alinsky in a little more detail, and quotes Alinsky in the following extract form his assignment:
The organiser is to develop skills in the manipulative technique of asking ‘loaded questions’ designed to elicit particular responses and to steer the organisation’s decision-making process in the direction which the organiser prefers
] (p. 91).
This issue of the precise balance of power between the participants and the community organiser mirrors the balance that needs to be struck between the agency of the student and the teacher. Unlike community organisers, however, teachers start this relationship with the assumption of authority over their students. This is a perennial issue in all forms of democratic education, namely the problematic balance between the teacher’s desire to cede authority whilst maintaining a measure of classroom control [31
]. The risk arises that well-intentioned teachers create the illusion of pupil control, whilst in reality indulging in manipulation and tokenism [32
]. The student teachers grappled with these issues and took some subtly different approaches. On the one hand Charlotte noted that some level of manipulation or coercion would be necessary at all levels:
[The Prime Minister] will have to consider the possibility that people will not desire involvement with their community, and that motivation may have to be cultivated, and competency enhanced to encourage further participation in society.
On the other hand, David saw his experiences in school as confirming that those children who chose a project to work on felt empowered and subsequently were more motivated. Both Charlotte and David reflected on how the degree of choice seemed to be related to the level of student motivation. They saw the participants’ free choice of issues for attention as a positive dimension to community organisation, which teachers should strive to replicate in their teaching. However, Dean identified this as a problematic area within Alinsky’s methodology, and thus argued that this is a clear area where the teacher must reject Alinsky’s model in favour of more genuinely democratic models.
This highlights issues around finding the right balance between the teacher’s authority and the learner’s autonomy. The balance between these two factors depends on the context and the teacher’s understanding of that context, and this opens up the possibility that even relatively inexperienced student teachers can begin to critique prevailing assumptions and shift the balance in favour of developing students’ agency [33
]. It also reflects McCowan’s [34
] discussion of citizenship education as “prefigurative” in the sense that it does not create democratic practices in society at large, but it acts as an induction into forms of democratic participation which are better than those generally available in society, and which prefigure a more democratic future. In this sense the teacher is helping to ensure young people feel what it is like to participate in active citizenship projects, in the hope that it will encourage them to seek (or create) further opportunities, and enable them to engage with those opportunities when they do arise. This is subtler than simply assuming a direct causal relationship between citizenship education and citizenship as a social practice.
This section has illustrated how the project provided the student teachers with an opportunity to engage with the complicated and contentious debates about the objectives of citizenship education in a democracy, and to develop constructive approaches towards outlining an appropriate pedagogy. It has also demonstrated how, despite sharing the same experiences in Shoreditch Citizens and in school, the students developed their own understanding of their role and the nature of citizenship education. This furthers the argument that the project enabled them to develop their own vision and sense of professional identity.
3.3. The Tacher as a Political Agent in the Micro-Politics of School
Finally, the student teachers used the project to make sense of their practice within schools as complex institutions. It is important for student teachers, especially those qualifying to teach citizenship, to understand how schools do and do not promote citizenship education in its broadest sense. A mantra that has accompanied the development of citizenship in English schools is that it is a “subject and more than a subject” [2
] and several authors have addressed the ways in which school processes often undermine the very objectives promoted in citizenship classes, for example by marginalising student voice, or promoting tokenistic forms of participation [32
]. In addition, a large-scale evaluation of citizenship in England’s schools has concluded that issues such as timetable time, rigorous assessment, and the employment of subject specialists are the biggest determining factors of the success of the subject [35
]. This implies that new teachers need to understand the whole school dimension, and seek to influence whole school decisions, if they are going to genuinely promote high quality citizenship education.
The assignments indicated critical awareness of the intrinsic link between managerial decisions over curriculum provision and the impact on pedagogy and outcomes. Rachel, another student teacher, highlighted the impact that the lack of curriculum time and subject expertise had on high quality outcomes at her placement school, suggesting that “it is difficult to develop and maintain a strategy when they have little interaction and guidance from their teacher” (Rachel). However, there was also recognition that discrete time for citizenship did not automatically improve student engagement and outcomes, particularly when pedagogic decisions may lead to students being confused about the link between actively participating in society and learning citizenship. In this regard the student teachers all highlighted and critiqued the use of the Youth and Philanthropy Initiative [36
] as a key mechanism for delivering active citizenship in another school:
My fellow researchers shared concerns that the majority of pupils in both workshops were not engaged in YPI and failed to see how it could help them contribute to their community. This could be in part due to the fact that YPI focuses on charity and raising awareness… rather than considering how the skills they are developing could be extended to tackling issues in their community (Rachel).
The student teachers recognized that effective citizenship education can only be achieved when teachers are able to maximize the links between the practices of active engagement and the development of essential conceptual and contextual knowledge. This also highlights their understanding that grand policy and curriculum objectives rely ultimately on interpretation by the school, the department and finally by the classroom teacher; itself a process fraught with difficulties in which policy is distorted, reinterpreted or misinterpreted [1