Renewed interest in promoting citizenship has drawn attention to the need for approaches to learning citizenship that can be tested and evaluated in practice. Adult education for citizenship, which has a long and diverse history, has not been emphasised much in current thinking on citizenship and rights. Likewise, research advances in understanding how people learn have not been linked with the citizenship education discussions.
This paper integrates three, often disparate, threads of research and practice: on citizenship itself, and what active citizenship entails and requires; on adult education for citizenship; and on learning. Within the first theme, citizenship is defined as more than a set of legal rights, but as an active practice requiring both citizen initiative and state responsibilities to facilitate citizen action. What is needed in order to exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, and how can the necessary attributes of citizens be developed?
The paper then reviews some of the ways in which citizen attributes are learned and developed: through socialisation into political cultures, indirect learning through participation in community groups and social movements, and education for democracy including both popular adult education and civic education by the state and formal institutions. The final strand of research considered is on how people learn. In the last 20 years in particular there have been significant advances in understanding how the brain works, and the dynamics of ‘socially situated’ learning.
We have a much better understanding (from psychology, anthropology, cognitive science, neuroscience) of the importance of the social context for learning, the role of experience and action, and how the brain manages knowledge. Whist this research has not directly addressed citizenship learning, it could contribute efforts to promote active citizenship. In a final section the paper poses questions and challenges for education efforts to promote active citizenship.