democratizing educational content

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While it's almost certainly the case that context trumps content in terms of the deep lessons we are teaching our students, it's not entirely the case that the medium is the message. It still matters what we say. In implementing education for democracy, we need to consider how we can better infuse the content of instruction with democratic values and principles. 

In this regard, there are at least three categories of content to consider. The first is content about democracy itself. This is important for students to understand the nature of their political system, their role in it, and how it might be enhanced. The second is content about issues that are of democratic concern. It is in relation to such issues that citizens express themselves politically. The third is “democratized content”, meaning content which students themselves have some role in determining. Each of these will be considered in turn. 

Content About Democracy

Although we make a firm distinction between education about democracy and education for democracy, it should be clear that the former remains an important part of the latter. Effective democratic participation requires that citizens have a thorough understanding of what democracy is, how it works, and their roles, rights, and responsibilities within it. This entails a number of subtopics which should be addressed somewhere within the curriculum in order for citizens to be adequately versed on the topic of democracy, including: 

What is democracy?

How does democracy work?

What are some arguments for and against democracy?

How is a democracy maintained?

How are new democracies cultivated, and how can existing ones be enhanced?

What is the global context of democracy?

It is recognized that decisions about what is formally included in the curriculum are usually made at the national level, and are thus largely outside the control of teachers. Content about democracy and other political systems is typically included in courses on political science, social studies, history, or humanities. Nonetheless, there may be opportunities to reinforce or build upon these contents, to provide students with more opportunities to better understand democracy and democratic systems.

Issues of Concern in a Democracy

While education about democracy, as outlined above, is of fundamental importance, learning "about" democracy on its own is somewhat superficial. Participation in civic life does not come from knowing about democracy as a theoretical topic. Democratic participation is manifested in relation to issues of concern to the people within the democracy. Therefore, the contents of study should include a critical discussion of relevant themes and issues. Such issues are very interrelated, and they are also very context dependent. What is of critical concern in one community may not be the same as what is of concern elsewhere. There is no universal or comprehensive list of issues, and moreover, a long list would place an unnecessary burden on teachers. The idea is not to add something new to the curriculum that needs to be taught in addition to everything else. Rather, the sample issues below are presented to spark thinking about how they may be integrated into existing topics of instruction, to provide opportunities for students to engage in critical thinking and discussion. Such issues include: 

Environment, sustainability, environmental degradation

Human rights

Gender equality

Minorities, marginalization, and discrimination

Poverty and social justice

War, conflict, and violence

Globalization

Migration and immigration, IDPs 

Corruption and abuse of power

Freedom and oppression

What may not be immediately apparent is that none of these issues fit neatly within any of the conventional subject disciplines. These issues, like democracy itself, are crosscutting. They have relevance to all subjects, and could be integrated into any number of different classes. Integrating such issues well often requires teachers to recognize "teachable moments", or opportunities when a question or topic comes up in class that provide a meaningful space in which to discuss these issues. 

“Democratized” Content 

If we truly embrace democracy as an ideal, we need to consider the value in giving up, or at least softening, the top-down control over what gets studied. In practical terms, the democratization of content in the classroom would mean that students would help to determine what they study. There are schools which pride themselves on having a "generative curriculum" which is created in exactly this manner, with topics of study emerging from the curiosity of students. Taken to the extreme, there is a whole category of schools that describe themselves as "democratic free schools". Many democratic free schools have no mandatory classes, and much of the learning that takes place comes from students taking interest in a given topic and recruiting the support of teachers in the school to help them learn more. 

Such extremes are almost inconceivable in most state run schools; however, there is still some scope democratize the content of learning. The simple act of giving students a chance to discuss or ask questions on a topic provides them with opportunities to take the topic in the directions which they find interesting or meaningful. This, of course, requires teachers who are willing to be somewhat flexible, rather than rigidly adhering to a set of lecture notes. Any time students have an opportunity to work on open-ended projects and assignments, their ownership and influence over the content are increased, and that content has been partially democratized.  

Matthew Hiebert 2013-09-11