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Student Perceptions of the Good Citizen

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With the renewal of interest in civics and citizenship education arising in the early 1990s, it was found that there was a serious lack of research about young people’s perceptions of citizenship. There was initially a reliance on information from the United States, from surveys such as one reported by Gross and Dynesson (1991). In that survey, students mentioned the following as characteristics of ‘good citizens’:

·         Knowledge of current events;

·         Participation in community or school affairs;

·         Acceptance of an assigned responsibility;

·         Concern for the welfare of others;

·         Moral and ethical behaviour;

·         Ability to question ideas;

·         Ability to make wise decisions;

·         Knowledge of government;

·         Patriotism

(Social Science Association of Australia, 1992, 4-8).

In view of the lack of information within Australia and, in conjunction with the establishment of the Civics Expert Group in 1994, the then Prime Minister commissioned a survey by the Australian National Opinion Poll into the Australian community’s knowledge about citizenship and civic issues. Findings from this survey include the public perceptions of what makes a good citizen, as listed in Table 1.

The findings in Table 1 relate to the community as a whole. Phillips notes that meaningful civic education should be based on an understanding of the viewpoints of Australian young people about citizenship (1995, 20). In 1996, he reported on a Statewide survey of Western Australian students which sought information on a range of citizenship questions. Eight hundred students were surveyed of whom about half were in their final year of primary schooling and about half having just completed their first postcompulsory year of secondary education. Phillips states that, when asked about what they thought were important aspects of being a good citizen, the students gave a low rating to being well informed about Australia’s political system and its Constitution; and also to being informed about Australia’s history and geography (1996, 25). These rankings are set out in Table 2.  As shown in the Table, students gave a high priority to ideals such as respecting and being considerate of the rights and properties of others; to treating people equally regardless of their gender, disabilities, ethnicity, age or religion; and to acting to protect the environment. Middle rankings were given to meeting family responsibilities and being prepared to help neighbours.     

Table 1:  Perceptions of what makes a good citizen


What is a good citizen?

What sorts of things does a good citizen do?



Obey laws


Care and consideration for others, help others, treat others equally, live and let live



Community involvement and activities,               helps in community– 25% voluntary, charity work – 5%



Followed by:





Good character. Be honest, responsible. Have a moral conscience



Pay taxes, bills


Be responsible, family oriented


Be more aware of political/current affairs


Vote responsibly


Be environmentally conscious


Generally do good


Others at 1-2% level



Is vocal, outspoken. Lives by religious, Christian values. Is not racist. Enjoys life. Supports government/government decisions. Makes Australia a better place for future generations


   Source: Civics Expert Group (Appendix 3, 115)

 In an open-ended section of the survey when listing the most important features of good citizenship, students referred most frequently to being considerate and helpful to others, to treating others equally (regardless of race, religion, gender or disability) and being honest and trustworthy. 

The survey asked in what way schools could better prepare students to be good citizens and a majority of students indicated that they wanted to be taught the qualities of good citizenship. They also frequently mentioned teaching students the laws and that teachers should provide good role models, teach students to be loyal Australians and teach students to care for the environment. 

When asked what topics about politics students believed should be taught at school, students gave a high priority to knowing the rights of citizens. They also sought to know more about how the political system works.

Table 2:  Important characteristics of a good citizen as perceived by

Western Australian Year 7 and Year 11 students – in rank order                               ________________________________________________________                          

1                         Respects the rights of others

2                         Respects the property of others

3                         Treats people equally regardless of their gender

4                         Is honest

5                         Treats people equally regardless of disabilities

6                         Treats people equally regardless of race

7                         Drives and rides safely

8                         Acts to protect the environment

9                         Treats people equally regardless of their age

10                      Treats people equally regardless of their religion

11                      Obeys the community’s laws and rules

12                      Meets their responsibilities towards their family

13                      Is prepared to help neighbours

14                      Works hard

15                      Respects the Australian flag

16                      Buys Australian-made goods where possible

17                      Contributes to charity organisations

18                      Is patriotic about Australia

19                      Keeps fit and healthy

20                      Is well informed about Australia’s history

21                      Is well informed about Australia’s geography

22                      Is committed to their religion or faith

23                      Knows all words of Australia’s national anthem

24                      Is well informed about Australia’s Constitution

25                      Is well informed about Australia’s political system

26                      Is successful in their career


                               Source: Phillips (1995, 22)

When asked how schools might better prepare students to be politically aware, their responses could be categorised as follows:

·         Teach politics and government in an interesting way;

·         Visit State Parliament;

·         Encourage students to watch the news; and

·         Give students the opportunity to be leaders, conduct class debates and elections. 

Phillips compared the findings from the student survey to those from a 1992 Western Australian adult survey about the importance of political education. In particular, he points to the low priority given by the students to being well informed about Australia’s Constitution and political system as compared to the 64 per cent of adult respondents who indicated that it was very important to be educated about the political process (1995, 22). He notes also that the adults listed the media and family as their major source of knowledge about politics, with 45 per cent indicating that the school had provided none of their knowledge about politics. 

 Another local survey undertaken in 1996 focused on the sources of information for political socialisation (Phllips and Beresford, 1998). The target population for this survey was young people aged 18 to 25 living in metropolitan Perth. Findings from the survey indicate that the media was by far the most significant source of political information for youth, particularly commercial television. Discussion with friends and family was only sometimes mentioned and school was not regarded as an important source of information. Similarly only 40 per cent of youth indicated that they intended to vote the same way as their parents and nearly 20 per cent did not know how their parents voted. 

Interviews were conducted with three distinct groups of youth (those attending a youth support service for the unemployed, those working in lower level clerical jobs and those undertaking law studies at university). These interviews indicated that for the first two groups, parental influence was insignificant while for the third group the result was more mixed, with some interviewees reporting some discussion of issues at home. On the whole, the research indicates that there has been a lessening of the significance of the family and school for political socialisation and an escalation in the role of the media.  

The earlier student survey described by Phillips was undertaken before the introduction of the new Curriculum Framework. Similarly the youth surveyed in 1996 would have completed their schooling before the new approach was introduced. There were many concerns about the adequacy of the former Social Science Syllabus and, for example, Moroz stated in 1996 that: The vehicle for civic (and political education) and citizenship education has traditionally been social studies, however, it seems that the ‘vehicle’ is in no shape to deliver the goals of citizenship effectively (1996, 64).  

Research overseas and in Australia has indicated that social studies does not rate highly with students. In a 1990, Western Australian study Print found that secondary school students perceived social studies to be less useful than other subjects, and in 1994, Moroz found that primary school students in this State gave a low ranking to social studies in comparison with other subjects, ranking it 12th out of 13 subjects, as indicated in Table 3 (1993, 3). 

Moroz also found that students’ attitudes changed according to year level and that between year 4 and year 7 the decline in attitude towards social studies was greater than the decline for any other subject. Moroz’s research indicates that students’ attitudes towards social studies are influenced by teacher variables rather than content and that the major issue is the instructional practices used in social studies classrooms. These are most frequently teacher-centred, text-book based delivery whereas students prefer more interactive practices. Moroz surmised that teachers use these traditional methods because of a lack in their background and experience in social studies. 



Table 3: WA primary school students’ rankings of school subjects.


Ranks          Subject                                     Mean


1                    Sport                                         4.65

2                    Computing                               4.45

3                    Creative Writing                     3.98

4                    Music                                       3.90

5                    Reading                                    3.88

6                    Science                                     3.82

7                    Library                                      3.75

8                    Mathematics                            3.68

9                    Spelling                                     3.59

10                  Writing                                     3.59

11                  Health                                       3.49

12                   Social Studies                         3.38

13                    Religion                                  3.08


Source: Moroz (1999, 3).

Note: The data above were for metropolitan students. In a separate survey country students indicated a similar ranking.

 The Australian component of an international survey of 14-year-olds in 28 countries, the IEA Civic Education Study (Mellor et al, 2001), provides more recent information on students’ knowledge and beliefs about citizenship and democracy. This survey was undertaken in 1999 when Discovering Democracy initiatives were having some effect, particularly on teachers. However, 1999 is still too early for the initiatives to have had their full effect on student learning.

The IEA Civic Education Study defined civic knowledge as comprising knowledge of content and skills in interpretation. The Ssudy found that Australian students performed comparatively much better on the interpretative skills scale (ranking fourth) than they did on the content knowledge scale (ranking eleventh), suggesting that students have the ability to interpret demanding civic contexts and issues but do not have a deep understanding of theoretical constructs and models of democracy. 

Gender did not appear to have a significant effect on differing levels of civic knowledge for boys and girls. Home literary resources was an important predictor but the most powerful variable was shown to be student expectations about further education. The higher the expectations, the higher the level of civic knowledge. Two other school factors of particular importance were an open-classroom climate (where civics lessons encourage discussion) and participation in school councils. Out-of-school factors were evenings spent outside the home which correlated negatively with level of civic knowledge and likelihood to vote, and frequency of watching TV news which had a positive effect.

Mellor et al note that while the importance of civic knowledge was well established by the study, knowledge itself will be of little relevance if it does not lead to action in the civic sphere (2001, 136). The results indicated that Australian students did not have a desire to be engaged in different aspects of civic life. While they acknowledged the importance of voting and the need to show respect to government representatives, they were not attracted to joining a political party. Australian students were more inclined to be involved in civil society and social movement type activities than in conventional citizenship activities, although they were still not as engaged as students in other countries. Such activities include participation in activities to benefit people, to protect the environment and to promote human rights. This suggests that young Australians might increasingly look for solutions to social problems outside formal structures of government. A majority of students, however, believed that electing student representatives could materially affect schools. The study also indicated that Australian students generally had a positive attitude to the social and economic role of governments and showed commitment to their nation. 

In reviewing this research on students’ perceptions on citizenship, it is interesting to note how, time and time again, the students come so close to identifying participation in the voluntary associations and social groupings of a civil society as being at the heart of active citizenship. 

In view of the significant influence of commercial television news as indicated above, one has to note the symbiotic links between the main political parties and the news media increasingly centralised in Sydney and the almost total exclusion of news about voluntary associations. The ‘globalisation’ of a few male sports by commercial news agencies should serve as a warning. 

The so-called community newspapers have played a role here, but the recent purchase of a major group of such papers by a leading international news corporation, well-known for its ‘advocacy’ journalism, does not augur well for Australia’s future as a liberal, democratic and truly civil society. Who then are these teachers who may be able to help us to maintain and develop all aspects of society?   

Acknowledgement of Country

The Government of Western Australia acknowledges the traditional custodians throughout Western Australia and their continuing connection to the land, waters and community. We pay our respects to all members of the Aboriginal communities and their cultures; and to Elders both past and present.