Citizenship Education: Definitions

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Civic engagement, as an idea, is based on normative aspects. Education that enables people to engage fosters those skills that enable people to become active, responsible citizens in a society that respects the rights and commitment of its individuals and fundamental democratic values.

The definitions have great overlap and differ at the same time. This is because states, organizations or the EU promote their idea of a concise definition from their context.[1] Those who follow the idea that education should contribute to democratic development link the mission of citizenship educationto democracy and rights, such as the Council of Europe:

Definition: Education for democratic citizenship (CoE)

"Education for democratic citizenship means education, training, awareness-raising, information, practices, and activities which aim, by equipping learners with knowledge, skills and understanding and developing their attitudes and behaviour, to empower them to exercise and defend their democratic rights and responsibilities in society, to value diversity and to play an active part in democratic life, with a view to the promotion and protection of democracy and the rule of law." (Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education)[2]

The Council of Europe treats the from this definition derived concept of Competence for Democratic Culture as the main subject of Human Rights and Democratic Citizenship Education. The competence model itself sets is goal as enabling "citizens to participate effectively in a culture of democracy."[3]

The set of competences can be described in the following way: "The heart of the Framework is a model of the competences that need to be acquired by learners if they are to participate effectively in a culture of democracy and live peacefully together with others in culturally diverse democratic societies."[4]

Key Competences for Lifelong Learning (European Union)

The EU Key Competences for lifelong learning define citizenship competence in the 2018 revision as "the ability to act as responsible citizens and to fully participate in civic and social life, based on understanding of social, economic, legal and political concepts and structures, as well as global developments and sustainability."[5]

This marks a shift from a more knowledge-centered understanding of citizenship education ("Civic competence, and particularly knowledge of social and political concepts and structures")[6] in the first version from 2006 toward the concept of active citizenship. The document is covering in the further description of citizenship competence explicetly aspects such as "respect for human rights as a basis for democracy", political information, diversity awraeness, critical thinking or participation.

In particular, the definition of the Council of Europe emphasizes the unconditional connection of the idea of citizenship with democratic principles and rights. Put simply, this distinguishes a democratic notion of the competences for engagement and co-creation from an authoritarian regime's or an undemocratic organization's notion of the "active citizen".

  • Citizenship education is enabling and empowering people.
  • It is linked to participation and co-determination.
  • It recognizes pluralism.
  • It is inclusive for all - not only for people with the legal status "citizen".
  • It is respecting and promoting democratic values and human rights of all.
  • It includes a perspective looking beyond political borders and is not limited to a nation or national interests.

In the following, we point out other concepts, some of which contain elements that are very important for democratic CE, but which do not explicitly and systematically integrate democracy and human rights.

OECD Transformative Competences and Global Competence

OECD uses the term 21st century skills. Grounding the work in key competencies that lead to the foundations of the PISA studies, the OECD is providing in Future of Education and Skills 2030 the term as a meta-category of competences.[7] These support the learners in taking action, reflecting and anticipating. The three transformative competencies are

  • Reconciling tensions and dilemmas;
  • Creating new value;
  • Taking responsibility.

Citizenship and civic competences are not explicitely referred to. In the first conceptual work on key competences (DESECO) these were included implicitely as values: "These values imply both that individuals should be able to achieve their potential and that they should respect others and contribute to producing an equitable society." [8]

In the current PISA Global Competence framework this was further elaborated as "young people’s role as active and responsible members of society, and refers to individuals’ readiness to respond to a given local, global or intercultural issue or situation." [9]

UNESCO: Inclusive and equitable quality education for all

UNESCO is strongly emphasizing on the need of quality education for all.

It is introducing education as a human right inline with the SDG Goal 4[10]. UNESCO puts emphasis on access, inclusion and equity, gender equality, quality, and lifelong learning opportunities, like expressed in the Incheon Declaration[11]

The citizenship and democracy aspects are more referred to in the Global Citizenship Education approach: It describes an overall "sense of belonging" but not a legal status (bound to citizen rights) or a very concrete underlying specific value framework (rather searching for commonalities between the very different meanings of citizenship on a global scale): "It is also a way of understanding, acting and relating oneself to others and the environment in space and in time, based on universal values, through respect for diversity and pluralism". [12].

For our context is also the Convention against Discrimination in Education relevant, stressing here explicitely the need of respect for fundamental freedoms and Human Rights[13].

Active Citizenship - promoting participation or proactivity

An overall term emphasizing on the intersection between civic education and civil engagement or proactivity. From this perspective and following a definition coined by Hoskins in 2006 active citizenship education facilitates the competences necessary for...

Participation in civil society, community and/or political life, characterised by mutual respect and non-violence and in accordance with human rights and democracy.[14]

  • The Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education refers also to this aspect with the statement that citizens should "play an active part in democratic life".
  • OECD/PISA's Global Competence Model refers to it also with the section "Take action for collective well-being and sustainable development."
  • Become informed! Be consulted! Participate! is the idea of European Economic and Social Committee's European Democracy Passport.[15]
  • It is also close to a broader definition of Entrepreneurship Education how promoted by the EU EntreComp framework: "Entrepreneurship is when you act upon opportunities and ideas and transform them into value for others. The value that is created can be financial, cultural, or social."[16]

Human rights education

Education, training, awareness raising, information, practices and activities which aim, by equipping learners with knowledge, skills and understanding and developing their attitudes and behaviour, to empower learners to contribute to the building and defence of a universal culture of human rights in society, with a view to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

CoE: Charter of Education for Democratic Citizenship/Human Rights Education [2]

This definition refers to Human Rights Education as an active approach (empowering learners to co-create the civic culture), as a cognitive learning (understanding Human Rights) and a reflective learning (regarding their attitudes/behaviour related to Human Rights). Human Rights Education includes:

  • Learning about human rights, knowledge about human rights, what they are, and how they are safeguarded or protected;
  • Learning through human rights, recognising that the context and the way human rights learning is organised and imparted has to be consistent with human rights values (e.g. participation, freedom of thought and expression, etc.) and that in human rights education the process of learning is as important as the content of the learning;
  • Learning for human rights, by developing skills, attitudes and values for the learners to apply human rights values in their lives and to take action, alone or with others, for promoting and defending human rights. [17]

Human Rights Education is a Fundamental Right

Furthermore, rights-related education is itself a Human Right, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is clarifying:

Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

UN: Universal Declaration of Human Rights Art. 26 (2)[18]

Clip: How we are teaching citizenship?



  1. NECE network: The Making of Citizens in Europe and North Africa, Section: Citizenship Education by Comparison
  2. 2.0 2.1 Council of Europe: Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education
  3. Council of Europe:Competences for Democratic Culture]; p. 17
  4. Council of Europe: Competences for a Democratic Culture - Volume 1 Context, concepts and model
  5. Council Recommendation of 22 May 2018 on key competences for lifelong learning; ST/9009/2018/INIT; OJ C 189, 4.6.2018, p. 1–13
  6. European Union: Key competences for lifelong learning (old version from 2006).
  7. OECD (2019). OECD Learning Compass 2030. Future of Education and Skills 2030 Concept Note
  8. Organization for Economic and Cultural Development: The Definition and Selection of Key Competencies
  9. OECD: Preparing our youth for an inclusive and sustianable world. The OECD PISA global competence framework; p.11
  10. The 17 SDG Goals. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Sustainable Development.
  11. UNESCO (2016).[ Education 2030: Incheon Declaration and Framework for Action for the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. ED-2016/WS/28, Paris.
  12. UNESCO (2014a). Global Citizenship Education: Preparing learners for the challenges of the 21st century, UNESCO,Paris, p.14
  13. Convention against Discrimination in Education
  14. Hoskins, B. (2006) in: Hoskins, Bryony & Jesinghaus, Jochen & Mascherini, Massimiliano & Munda, Giuseppe & Nardo, Michela & Saisana, Michaela & Nijlen, Daniël & Vidoni, Daniele & Villalba, Ernesto. (2006). Measuring Active Citizenship in Europe
  15. European Economic and Social Committee: European Democracy Passport (2020). EESC Visits and Publications” Unit, EESC-2020-50-EN.
  16. Bacigalupo, M., Kampylis, P., Punie, Y., Van den Brande, G. (2016). EntreComp: The Entrepreneurship Competence Framework. Luxembourg: Publication Office of the European Union; EUR 27939 EN;
  17. Council of Europe. Introducing human rights education in Compass: Manual for Human Rights Education with Young People
  18. United Nations: Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Art. 26 (2)

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Editor of Competendo. Coordinator of the project DIGIT-AL Digital Transformation in Adult Learning for Active Citizenship. Network Secretary of the DARE network. Topics: active citizenship, civil society, digital transformation, non-formal and lifelong learning, capacity building. Blogs here: Blog: Civil Resilience. Email: