on education for democracy

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While the importance of education in a democratic society is quite obviously, the specifics of an education that contributes to the development of a healthy democracy are subtler. We immediately recognize that citizens need a sound and meaningful education to be able to participate effectively in democratic life. But, when we think about what learning is required, we soon realize that this can’t be entirely described by knowledge and skills—the way we usually think about educational outcomes. What’s more, much of the learning required for active democratic citizenship does not really fit within the framework of existing subject disciplines. How, within our current curricula, are we expected to cultivate civic virtues such as autonomy, justice, and mutual respect? Where, within the context math, or science, or even social studies, do we meaningfully contribute to students’ engagement with civic life? 

EfD and Educational Reform

Education for democracy is entirely compatible with the kinds of quality- and access-oriented reforms that many countries are pursuing. In terms of educational outcomes, the learning of knowledge and skills is strengthened when students are given opportunities to critically engage with content and make linkages between subjects, and between learning in school and life outside of school. The associated pedagogical reforms focus on making learning more active and student centered. This takes students from a passive and complacent role in the classroom, to a more active and engaged role. This is good for the development of democratic citizens, and it is good for learning. Other common reforms, such as those related to school leadership and instructional supervision, not only help to create more effective education systems, but also create a context with higher levels of engagement from educational stakeholders, which is naturally relevant to democracy. Reforms aimed at increasing educational access, or those targeting marginalized groups, are inherently relevant to social justice, and hence democracy. There is, quite simply, no compromise in advocating for EfD alongside education reforms to enhance educational quality and access.  

Education About, By, and For Democracy

Most democracies already have democracy included in their curricula. Why then would a new curriculum framework on EfD be of value? Typically, democracy in the school context is treated as a topic. It gets included in curricula, usually within the context of a social studies or humanities class. But democracy is a cross cutting issue. It does not fit neatly within a single subject or unit, and has relevance to all subject areas. More importantly, however, as much of teaching continues to be focused on content, the teaching of democracy often amounts to filling students’ heads with information about democracy. Students can learn a great deal about democracy and related issues, without ever becoming engaged with those issues. Therefore, the implementation of education for democracy focuses more on the development of democratic citizenship characteristics than on any particular body of content. 

Distinguishing it from education about democracy, much of the focus in education for democracy is on the development of democratic dispositions—including values and assumptions, ways of thinking, perspectives, and patterns of behavior. These dispositions are taught and learned but not in the way that we normally think about teaching and learning. They are not, at least not entirely, imparted directly or explicitly by teachers. The learning of dispositions takes place at a deeper level, often tacitly, through students' experiences in school. These experiences are the results of a great number of contextual factors—some of which are within the direct control of teachers, and others which are not. Day after day, and year after year, these factors serve to shape and condition students. Through this process, students gradually internalize the values, practices, and policies of the school. 

Therefore, to implement EfD, it is necessary to consider the many factors that comprise students’ experiences in school, and consider how these factors might be reoriented to better reflect democratic values. For example, children learning in autocratic classrooms are conditioned to become passive, complacent, and even apathetic, whereas children learning in more participatory and inquiry-oriented classrooms develop a much more engaged and active disposition. Socialization into democratic citizenship requires that students be immersed in a school and classroom context which upholds democratic principles, models democratic processes, and provides students with experiences doing democracy in a safe environment where they can learn without serious risk. 

EfD Through Content and Context

Reflecting on the factors involved, it is clear that only a small number refer to content of direct instruction. The majority of factors impacting students’ experiences in school are contextual. Effective EfD depends on aligning these contextual factors to support the development of democratic dispositions and inclinations. Content, while relevant to EfD, is secondary to the educational context. Ultimately, while explicit content is important, the primary mode of education for democracy is environmental—tacit teaching, through the careful preparation of the educative context. This approach is best understood systemically. Decisions made at the national and provincial levels have an impact on the school and classroom levels. Just as national curricula set parameters for classroom curricula, so do high level educational policies and initiatives shape operations and practices at the school level.