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Teaching Elections and Democracy during a Pandemic

| Democracy, Educational resources, Election

With the ongoing talk of a federal election this year and the unveiling of a historic spring budget, Elections Canada’s Pedagogical Advisor Rachel Collishaw discusses how teachers can maintain good inquiry-based learning practices in a pandemic setting to engage students in conversations about elections and democracy.

Inquiry-based learning, collaboration, student voice, clear learning goals and curricular relevance: these are the hallmarks of good pedagogy. Depending on their location, teachers have been maintaining these key features during school building shutdowns in the face of COVID-19. We don’t know when the next federal election will be, but the civic education team at Elections Canada will continue to support teachers and students through these challenging times.

In 2017, when I joined Elections Canada as an education consultant, the agency was looking to renew its civic education program with an important mandate: to give future voters the knowledge and interest needed to participate in our democracy. I brought my 20 years of experience as a classroom teacher, resource writer, and instructional coach to the task, and the principles of classroom inquiry and collaboration guided our work.

In 2018, we launched our series of free resources designed primarily for inquiry-based learning, collaboration and student voice. After establishing an Advisory Circle of Educators and pilot-testing the resources in classrooms across Canada, we heard again and again that teachers and students appreciated the hands-on classroom learning materials for small group activities. These materials enabled students to engage in meaningful in-person conversations that developed their knowledge and interest in our democracy. 

Adapting to the new reality

With the advent of emergency distance learning, we began imagining how we could adapt our hands-on resources in a relevant manner and maintain the integrity of our inquiry-based learning experiences.  By April 2020, we published simple adaptations of our resources for distance learning, using some online components such as our videos and fact sheets while leaving the activity boards and card sets aside. Each resource was pared down to meet the needs of at-home learning, while keeping as many elements of critical thinking, student voice and collaboration as possible.

In addition to our adapted resources, teachers continue to use the wealth of classroom-friendly information about Canada’s elections that is available on the Elections and Democracy website. Access to reliable information is key to successful inquiry-based learning, especially about political or electoral topics. Teachers need background information for themselves and sources with accessible language for their students in order to investigate critical questions. Whether classrooms are online, in person, or in a blended learning environment, we are pleased to provide teachers and students with accurate, non-partisan information about our elections and democracy. 

Supporting teachers virtually

In September 2020, we launched our suite of blended learning tools that present ways to combine both online and in-person learning strategies. Blended pedagogy is a new type learning framework for many teachers but the goals remain the same. Teachers want to help students collaborate, discuss and inquire online and in person. 

While the resources themselves involve classroom-ready activities, their pedagogical strategies can go well beyond one class period. For example, each activity includes a key inquiry question such as How inclusive is our democracy? or Does Voting Matter? These questions are carefully designed to engage students in exploring the information in the resource and beyond. 

While we have not physically attended teacher conferences this year, we now offer virtual PD sessions for groups of teachers across Canada. We have also created a series of professional learning videos that teachers can access anytime. Each video includes an overview of one of our resources, tips for engaging students, and our own stories from the classroom. We are dedicated to supporting teachers virtually and to continuing to engage students in conversations about elections and democracy.

Despite the pandemic, our team has been busy releasing new tools to better support teachers. I am especially proud of our robust curriculum connections tool. With hundreds of citizenship-related courses offered across Canada in both official languages, understanding where a federal resource intersects with a provincial or territorial curriculum is a challenge! Using a simple search tool, teachers can now look up resources by province and course name based on their specific needs. We know that engaging future voters is about informing and inspiring students not just in social studies or citizenship class but across the curriculum. Teachers will find that our resources have connections to language arts, mathematics, and information technology courses throughout the secondary years.

I am fortunate to work with a team that understands that supporting teachers is one of the best ways to reach future voters and, in turn, strengthen our elections and democracy. While I miss the relationships with my students in the classroom, I have built relationships with teachers across Canada that have affirmed my belief in teacher dedication and professionalism, no matter the circumstances. I look forward to providing new kinds of virtual support, as education continues to shift in response to the public health crisis. Elections Canada is ready with adaptable tools to increase educators’ confidence in teaching about Canada’s elections and democracy.

Rachel CollishawPedagogical AdvisorElections Canada