Pre-service teachers’ understanding of citizenship

Thumbnail Image



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


University of New Brunswick


A key tenet of the so-called “cognitive revolution” is that learners’ prior knowledge, or cognitive frames, shape new learning in important ways. There is a growing body of work in a number of fields examining the prior understandings of both students and teachers. There remains, however, a limited amount of research about the particular ways that pre-service teachers in Canada understand citizenship, a key component in social studies curricula. This phenomenographic study of 20 pre-service teachers at one Northern Ontario university was designed to uncover the specific conceptions that these pre-service teachers have of citizenship. The study was framed through a civic republican lens “with its emphasis on public education, civic involvement, and achieving the common good through civic virtue” (Babcock, 2009, p. 517) and also draws on constructivist learning theory, which emphasizes how individuals come to every learning situation with their own prior knowledge. Some of this prior knowledge might be accurate, but it is also evident that sometimes students may have, and uphold, naive conceptions or misunderstandings about various concepts (Driver & Easley, 1978). Pre-service teachers in this study had weak conceptions of citizenship. The overarching theme of their conceptions related to the concept of privilege. Along with privilege, five sub-themes were uncovered. The pre-service teachers held conceptions related to: 1) Place as an important concept of citizenship, 2) Legal dimensions of citizenship, 3) Socio-Cultural dimensions of citizenship, 4) Civic Engagement, and 5) Civic Orientation. These themes represented their understanding of citizenship in Social Studies in a pre-service program. A hierarchy of these categories was developed by examining both the frequency and group resonance that emerged. Knowing that many pre-service teachers have a limited understanding of the conceptions of citizenship that they are required to teach, teacher educators can develop and implement specific strategies to attend to the pre-service teachers’ conceptions of privilege, to enhance their understanding of rights for minority groups, and to promote civic engagement. It is important for pre-service teachers to develop complex conceptual knowledge about citizenship, as the richness of their conceptions relates to their beliefs and their instructional actions in a professional context