implementing education for democracy


With the understanding that democratic citizenship is cultivated through experience, the operational question becomes one of how to create this experience. To embrace democracy in this manner is not to subjugate adult authority in the school to the masses of children surrounding them. Rather, it is to provide students, each passing year, with incrementally more sophisticated opportunities to apply their knowledge and skills and cultivate their character and dispositions, through appropriate activities, with adult supervision and guidance. 

With reflection, it is possible to see opportunities for mainstreaming democratic principles into students' daily experiences in school. This section provides a number of potentially high impact entry points for infusing democracy into school life. Other possibilities abound, as almost all contextual factors affecting students' experiences--from school policies, to social norms, to the physical arrangement of the classroom--have the potential to be re-envisioned to better embody democratic principles. 

Pedagogical Approaches

When planning a lesson and selecting instructional strategies, we need to ask not only what approach is appropriate for the intended content learning, but also what tacit learning will take place through that approach. We need to ask not just what students will be learning, but also, what they will be practicing. In thinking about teaching and instruction, it's far too easy to envision a teacher standing at the front of the class lecturing while the students are conditioned into quiet complacency. The development of democratic citizens is a process of cultivation, not instruction. 

Democratic classrooms need to challenge students to become more critical, and condition students to become engaged, active thinkers, who connect their learning with their lives outside of school, and have both the capacity and the inclination to act on their values. Students are in a good position to develop these dispositions when they spend their days in classrooms where they are actively engaged in inquiry activities, integrated projects, and other student centered or collaborative tasks.

Of course, there is always a role for teachers to provide instruction. However, when planning a lesson where there is new content or skills to be introduced, it may be useful for teachers to plan that lesson around key questions. Rather than planning a lecture, teachers can identify a sequence of questions, readings, discussions, and mini-lectures which will guide students towards the intended learning while giving them a far more active role in the process. 

Measurement/ Evaluation

In most education systems, the testing of students plays a very prominent role. Standardized testing in particular has a way of taking over educational agendas in ways which are generally not conducive to EfD. However, at the school level there is still much that can be done to reorient what is assessed, and how it is assessed, to support EfD. 

Learning that is formally assessed is perceived to be important. It therefore takes an a special status, and naturally becomes a focus of attention for both teachers and learners. For EfD, consideration should be given to whether we are assessing and reporting on things which are really important to the development of democratic citizens, and if not, how we might reorient assessment--even in the content areas--to better reinforce things that are important. At the micro level, this might mean including more critical thinking questions rather than rote memorization on a test. At the macro level, it might mean reshaping report cards to include more emphasis on social conduct and participation. 

If our goals in education include the development of active engagement, critical thinking, and autonomy in our students, consideration should also be given to how students can be better involved in the assessment process. Student involvement through self-, peer- , and joint assessment can contribute to their critical thinking and sense of ownership. In addition, the use of clear and transparent assessment criteria through which students can identify their strengths and weaknesses, and understand their scores, helps them to develop standards of judgment, and creates conditions favorable to the development of a sense of justice. 

Role of Textbooks

Countries, schools, and classrooms differ in the extent to which textbooks guide teaching and learning processes. For students to become critically literate, it is important that textbooks are not perceived to be the immutable source of knowledge and truth, but rather, that they are positioned of one among many sources of information on which to base perspectives and actions. Critical literacy involves understanding that any source of information, even textbooks, are the work of authors, each of whom makes decisions about what information is included, what is not, and how the information is portrayed--as fact theory, as good or bad, as normal or deviant etc. Furthermore, textbooks need to be read in an openly critical manner, in which assumptions, viewpoints, and stereotypes are openly exposed. 

Classroom Curriculum

The concept of curriculum is interpreted differently indifferent education systems. In some cases it refers to a syllabus or a set of standards, in others, a textbook or set of readings may comprise a de facto curriculum. However, these curricula are all explicit. In EfD, equal if not greater attention must also be given to hidden curricula--the unspoken and often unintentional factors that condition students into certain perspectives and patterns of behaviour. Hidden curricula are taught and learned tacitly, and can be reoriented to support EfD by making subtle adjustments to the various factors which comprise the context of students' daily experience. 

Apart from these "hidden" curricula, there is clearly also a role of explicit learning in EfD. Students need to understand political and legal structures, they need to be aware of and engage with democratic issues etc. In some systems, much of this learning is taken up in "civics" or "social studies" courses; however, it is important to understand that democracy is cross-cutting, and that EfD is not confined to a particular subject. EfD is not a unit or course of study. While curricular integration around democratic themes and issues may be feasible in some schools, in others it may not. In pursuit of a robust EfD, existing subject areas should be reconsidered. Literacy, for example, should involve media literacy and critical literacy, just as data literacy is an important aspect of math. Within all subject areas there is scope to connect learning in the classroom with life in the community, and to engage students in higher level thinking about how content learning and skills are relevant to important issues. 

Community Connections

At the heart of EfD is the idea that schools are not isolated from society, but rather, are an integral part of a healthy functioning democracy. For EfD to be effective, students need to be able to make connections between their learning in the classroom and the world outside it. 

Community connections can take many forms. Partnerships between home and school, and the various forms of parental involvement with school life, are an important starting point. But for students to better understand the connection between their learning in school and their lives outside of school, it is also important to make the boundaries permeable--to give students experiences in the community, and to invite community members into the school. 

Discipline Systems/ Rules

School discipline is an important consideration in EfD because--perhaps more than any other area--it can be seen to represent the role of adult authority over children, and repression in general. However, healthy democracies are not lawless free-for-alls, and what is important in the school context is that students understand the role to rules and discipline play in creating a context where everyone can live and learn together amicably. It is also important to their concepts of justice that they see rules being applied fairly and that they understand how and why judgments are made. Students should understand the logic and rationale for rules, what ideals they are based on, and how they are adjusted, interpreted, and implemented. 

When they are established thoughtfully and implemented fairly and transparently, discipline systems can be an effective way of raising students' awareness about rights and responsibilities, and the political nature of all behaviour. However, this aspect of school life can jeopardize EfD because of the role that adult authority can play in it. Those who are interested in democratizing school discipline as a tool to support EfD should give consideration to how students can participate appropriately, in formulating rules and standards, in exerting positive peer pressure, and perhaps even as members of committees reviewing infractions and determining appropriate responses. 

Role of Teachers

Teachers, of course, have a very central role in EfD. Apart from teachers' roles in determining the content, instruction and assessment approaches , teachers are also role models. Whether positive or not, inspiring or not, teachers have an influence on the students who are with them day after day. Factors directly related include: teachers' own democratic engagement; the specific language used in vocabulary to discuss relevant topics; willingness to welcome debate and questions in the classroom; and ability to engage students' interest in important topics and help to link learning up with the worlds outside the classroom. 

However, beyond these points, there is something more fundamental about the way in which the teacher manifests their role in the classroom. There is something fundamentally undemocratic about the teacher who is perceived to be the all-knowing expert, the final judge, and ultimate authority on everything in the classroom. While teachers must at times take up these roles, it is also important to create spaces in the classroom which are more dialogical, in which students participate in decision-making, and in which the collective matters more than any one individual. 

School Governance

It doesn't make sense that we would try to educate for democracy in an institution which itself does not embrace democratic principles. While the influence may not be direct or even obvious, students growing up in a democratically run school will be subtly aware and influenced by the living democracy around them. Perhaps even more importantly, however, is that those involved directly in the democratic governance of the school are themselves embracing democratic ideals, which reflects and reinforces their commitment. 

Democratic school governance can take many forms, but depends heavily on the commitment of school leadership to making school management more participatory and transparent. Dimensions of democratic school governance include the involvement of teachers, parents and community members, and students, in deliberative processes and relevant aspects of planning, management, and monitoring. Characteristic structures include action planning teams, parent councils, student councils, and committees which may be made up of representatives from multiple stakeholder groups. 

Whole School Approaches

There is no single approach to implementing EfD, no body of content that equals EfD, and no technique which, if carried out, means that EfD is being practiced. Rather, EfD is effectively implemented only as a constellation of efforts to align the way we practice education with democratic principles. Students are immersed each day in the context of their school. Hour after hour, day after month after year, students are conditioned and socialized by that context. In this way, the schooling process is immensely political, and there is nothing neutral about it. EfD involves bringing intentionality to the many aspects of schooling which have been determined previously by other factors.