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Students' Knowledge and Attitudes Regarding Canada

A Survey of Grade Twelve Students
Robert M. Anderson
Volume 13 Number 2

The purpose of this report is to highlight an examination (conducted by Kirkwood, Anderson and Khan, 1984) of the level of general knowledge and attitudes towards Canada of students in grade 1'. The study was a replication of a 198' study. The sample included 3,230 students. The students were drawn from a selection of public school boards in Canada. Both English and French-speaking students representing the ten provinces and two territories were included.

The instruments used in this survey consisted of two sections. The first section contained statements that attempted to elicit students' opinions and feelings about issues related to Canada. This part contained forty Likert-type items. The second section consisted of sixty items that purported to evaluate the level of knowledge about Canada. The sixty items were divided into four subscales: the Canadian environment, the Canadian economic system, specific Canadian issues and concerns, and the Canadian political system. The analysis included item evaluation and descriptive statistics.

Among the questions were:

1. What level of general knowledge do students in grade 12 possess regarding Canada?
2. What attitudes and opinions do students hold toward various Canadian issues and problems?


Rationale for the Selection of Issues and Concerns

There are undoubtedly a multitude of issues and concerns that affect, in some manner, the life of almost every Canadian. A concern was the need to be selective. This realization led to the development of some criteria that were used as a basis for the selection of issues and areas of concern in the 1982 study of grade 7 and 10 students by Kirkwood and Nediger.

The first criterion was that of relevance. Was an issue or concern relevant in the Canadian context? In other words, was it a problem or issue that has been the topic of discussion and debate in national media and other public forums'? The second criterion was pervasiveness. Noting that the survey instrument would be administered across Canada, issues and concerns that were national in scope and presumably touched the lives of a majority of Canadians were chosen. The third criterion was relative durability. If an issue was only temporary and transitory in nature and was more likely not to remain an issue in a few weeks' time, it was not chosen.

By applying these criteria, the political process was chosen as the area of concern that was relevant, pervasive in its effects and continuous. Although one might reasonably view everything that affects the lives of Canadians as an outcome of the political process, this overall process might be manifested in different, though not exclusive subprocesses. These subprocesses, among others, could include environmental issues, economic issues, special issues and concerns, and political issues. These subprocesses are also the four broad areas of an ideal Canada studies program identified by Hodgetts and Gallagher in Teaching Canada for '80s (1978). This selection procedure resulted in the development of a psychometrically-sound instrument. This instrument was, therefore, used again to assess student knowledge and attitudes regarding Canada.

Population and Sample

The population for the present study included students enrolled in grade 12 in 1983. The same list of schools selected by Kirkwood and Nediger (1982) was utilized. From this list, school districts that contained senior secondary schools were identified. Once a school board or district was chosen, then a single school that contained grade 12 classes was invited to participate. A total of fifty-one school boards from across Canada were approached and forty (78 per cent) agreed to participate.


Opinion Scale

Table I includes the seventeen opinion statements and the frequencies of responses of the grade 12 students. It can be seen that there is agreement on the issues that industries should not be allowed to dump their waste products in Canadian rivers (90 per cent), governments should direct more money to education (74 per cent) and Canadians should have more control of companies operating in Canada (80 per cent). A considerable number of students were not sure about their feelings on issues such as the abolition of the monarchy; the American pressures on Canada and the energy sector; and the fairness of the Canadian justice system. Thought-provoking is the finding that there is only a moderate agreement on the usefulness of the metric system. There was also a moderate agreement concerning such statements as political leaders do not care what people want, foreigners should not be able to own large amounts of property in Canada and Canada should gain ownership of the oil industry.

Canadian Identity Scale

The responses to the Canadian Identity scale are presented in Table 2.
Four items elicited strong support. The items I'm proud to be Canadian and We are fortunate to be living in Canada enjoyed the greatest support (88 per cent in both cases). Students felt it was not a waste of money to celebrate Canada Day (74 per cent). Similarly 74 per cent did not want any part of Canada to separate. Sixty-two per cent of the students felt there was a need to bring the Constitution to Canada. Interestingly, 64 per cent noted that everyone should know the words of O Canada! while 71 per cent indicated everyone should stand at attention when O Canada! is played. However, only 43 per cent stated that O Canada! should be played before the beginning of every public function. What is of particular note is the fact that on the statement, Canadians are the finest people in the world, 34 per cent were not sure. Clearly, even though students believe that they are proud to be Canadian and fortunate to be living in Canada, they are ambivalent about Canadians in relation to citizens of other countries.

Special Issues Scale

The responses to the Special Issues scale are presented in Table 2. An examination of the table reveals that students responded positively to the majority of the items. However, less than half of the students felt that everyone should be able to speak both English and French. There exists a strong support for mobility within Canada, free speech, the right to criticize the government and equal pay for equal work.

Knowledge Scale

Summarized in Table 4 are the means, standard deviations, reliability coefficients and the average percentage correct for the knowledge subscales.

The items that the grade 12 students found the easiest dealt with the identification of the continent on which Canada is situated (96 per cent correct response), Canada's official languages (89 per cent) and the fact that inflation in recent years has been a worldwide problem (89 per cent). Most students could not locate the border between Canada and the United States using the North Pole and the equator as points of reference (37 per cent correct response). They were unable to identify the province with the highest income (33 per cent), nor could they determine whether the resources were privately or state-owned (34 per cent).


Judging from the responses on the various scales in this survey, it is possible to make the general overall observation that students in grade 12 had positive attitudes and possessed a good basic level of knowledge about Canada. However, since two broad research questions were posited, it appears appropriate to restate each question and to respond to each query based on the data collected.

Question I
What level of general knowledge do students in grade 12 possess regarding Canada'? The results indicate that the average grade 12 student scored 36 out of 60 on the knowledge scale.

Question 2
What attitudes and opinions do the students hold toward various Canadian issues and problems? On the opinion statements, the grade 12 students felt strongest about industries dumping their waste products in Canadian rivers. In addition, the majority felt that we should have more control of foreign companies operating in Canada. They were most ambivalent on issues such as abolishing the monarchy, Canadian ownership of the petroleum industry and whether or not the Canadian system of justice was fair.

In terms of the identity scale, the grade 12 students indicated that they were proud to be Canadian and felt fortunate to be living in Canada. With regard to the special issues scale, the students felt strongly that Canadians should be able to work or live in any province of Canada, and that there should be equal pay for equal work regardless of sex . Bilingualism was favoured by approximately one-half of the students.

A mean score of 36 (60 per cent) on the knowledge scale is the basis for the observation that Canadian grade 12 students possess a good basic level of knowledge about Canada. This contrasts with averages of 55 per cent and 42 per cent for the grades 10 and 7 students respectively in the Kirkwood and Nediger study. A study of optional and compulsory Canadian studies courses across the country leads to the generalization that the formal study of Canada occurs primarily in the intermediate grades (grades 7 to 10). If relatively little Canadian content is studied after grade 10, the score of the grade 12 students would indicate that general knowledge is being retained. As well, it appears that some knowledge of Canada is being obtained outside the formal educational classroom.

The remarkable similarity in student performance on the four knowledge subscales is encouraging. The percentage of correct responses ranged from 59 per cent to 62 per cent for the subscales identified as environmental, economic, political, and special issues. These were broad categories, however. Any complacency concerning the grade 12 students' knowledge disappeared when specific items were studied. A study of responses to individual items revealed many important topics and issues about which students should be better informed. For example, only 34 per cent of the respondents knew that "the money, materials, machinery and factories necessary for producing goods in Canada are mostly privately owned." The fact that 40 per cent of the students responded "approximately half private and half government owned" to the question of ownership demonstrates the impact of the publicity connected with the recent increase in government involvement in industry. Only 36 per cent of the students demonstrated a knowledge of Telidon and only 42 per cent correctly identified leaders in the Canadian women's rights movement. Given the importance of these subjects, the responses would indicate that these topics could be more greatly emphasized. One item, in particular, would appear to demonstrate the power of perception. Fifty-eight per cent of the students incorrectly identified Alberta as the province with the highest per capita yearly income. Only 33 per cent responded with the correct answer: Ontario.

The findings concerning the attitudes of grade 12 students toward Canada and issues concerning Canada were heartening. The grade 12 students, like their grade 7 and 10 counterparts demonstrated very positive attitudes.

The research findings cited by Hodgetts and Gallagher (1978) concerning attitudes and their implications differ from the results in the current study. The reasons for the difference can be explained by several factors. First, it seems that educators have made a concerted and successful effort in improving the quality of social studies in schools. Second, in many provinces, Canadian studies are mandatory for secondary school graduation. This has exposed a great number of students to Canadian studies. Third organizations such as the Canada Studies Foundation, the Canadian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, and the Canadian Foundation for Economic Education appear to have made a positive contribution toward enhancing the state of Canadian studies by providing materials and other resources. Fourth, the contribution of various government agencies, both provincial and federal, must not be overlooked. Providing funds and other resources to various individuals or organizations has offered the opportunities to advance the cause of Canadian studies. As a result of these factors and others, there appears to have been a dramatic shift in the attitude and knowledge level of students since the Hodgetts and Gallagher publication.

Individual items from the attitude and opinion scales also reveal specific data that diverge from the general positive impression of opinions and attitudes held by grade 12 students. For example, 44 per cent of the students did not like to watch Canadian television programs; another 21 per cent were not sure if they like to watch the programs. When this result is compared with a finding from the knowledge scale that 86 per cent of the grade 12 students could discriminate between American and Canadian television series, a vivid message is communicated. One other fact is particularly thought-provoking. Sixty per cent of the respondents agreed that more than one language should be learned in school. Only 24 per cent of grade 12 students disagreed with this statement. Yet when this question was asked in a more specific form, there was far less agreement. Thirty-seven per cent of the students did not think that it was important for Canadians to be able to speak both French and English, and 48 per cent of the respondents believed that it was important. In other words, students were comfortable with the concept of two languages when it was presented in the abstract, but when the languages were specified, the students were far less supportive.

A Comparative Analysis

In this section, a comparative analysis is provided of the results of the current grade 12 study and the previous study by Kirkwood and Nediger that dealt with students in grades 7 and 10. Recall that the same instruments were administered to the students in the three grades. A total of 14,051 students participated in the combined surveys. The most striking observation is the similarity in student responses across grades on the opinion statements, the identity scale and the special issues scale.

In terms of the opinions, the students were in complete agreement on not polluting,l rivers (grade 7, 89 per cent; grade 10, 92 per cent; grade 12, 90 per cent). Two other. examples of the remarkable agreement among all the students are: Canadians should have more control of companies operating in Canada (grade 7, 74 per cent; grade 10, 84 per cent; grade 12, 80 per cent); and, governments should direct more money to our educational systems (grade 7,75 per cent; grade 10,73 per cent; grade 12,74 per cent). Clearly, whatever opinions students have formulated in grade 7 do not differ significantly from the opinions students hold in grades 10 and 12.

With regard to the identity and special issues scales, there is little difference in the means among the grades. Figure I graphically depicts the means and standard deviations for the identity scale. For this scale, there are very small differences over the three grades. Similarly, on the special issues scale, only .12 separates the highest mean of 39.19 (grade 7) and the lowest means of 39.07 (grade 12). Figure 2 provides a graphic comparison of the means and standard deviations for the three grades. It seems that there are two plausible explanations for this phenomenon. First, it may well be that there are no significant differences among students on constructs such as national identity, language rights, and multiculturalism. Whatever views and attitudes the students hold towards Canada in grade 7 do not differ from the attitudes held by students in either grade 10 or grade 12. Second, the instruments may not have been sensitive enough to detect differences among the three grades. It would be interesting to survey the opinions and attitudes of students in earlier grades to determine when they start crystallizing their opinions and attitudes about relevant Canadian issues and concerns.

Presented in Figure 3 are the means and standard deviations for the three grades for the knowledge scale. A monotonic trend has emerged as indicated by the increase in means over the three grades: grade 7, 24.88; grade 10,32.76; grade 12,36.10 (all being significantly different from each other). These results show that the level of knowledge about Canada increases with increased schooling. This scale must be contrasted with the two affective scales where there were only minute differences across the grades. In summary, the striking similarities of the results for the three grade levels indicate a consistent pattern of thinking about Canadian issues and concerns. The similarities further show that confidence can be placed in the results of the two studies for decision-making with regard to Canadian studies programs.

In order to complete the full cycle, it would be worthwhile to conduct similar studies with the lower-elementary level (grade 4), at the post-secondary level (community-college and university) and the public at large. In addition, further research efforts should be directed toward the development and testing of an item pool in the area of Canadian studies. This pool would be a valuable asset as a teaching and evaluation tool for Canadian studies programs.


Hodgetts, A.B. and P. Gallagher. Teaching Canada for the '80s. Toronto, OISE Press, 1978

Kirkwood, K.J. and W.G. Nediger. A Survey of Elementary and Secondary Pupils. Their Knowledge and Attitudes Regarding Canada. London, University of Western Ontario, 1982.

Kirkwood K.J., R.M. Anderson, and S.B. Khan. A Survey of Secondary Pupils: Their Knowledge and Attitudes Regarding Canada. Toronto, Canada Studies Foundation, 1984.

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