fostering democracy through education

With the support of the Council for a Community of Democracies, Aroundsquare's Matthew Hiebert recently had the opportunity to participate in a panel presentation on fostering democracy through education, hosted by the International Foundation for Democracy Education. The esteemed panelists included Lee Arbetman, Executive Director of Street Law, Augusta Featherston, Regional Program Officer with IFES, and Romina Kasman, Coordinator of the Inter-American Program on Education for Democratic Values and Practices at the Organization of American States.

A video recording of the webcast for the event, along with links to downloadable materials provided by the speakers, can be found on the IFES website

Speaking notes from Hiebert's presentation are below. 

Good afternoon. I am really honoured to have the chance to speak with you today. I am an education consultant, working mostly in international development. But my specialization is in the area of social transformation. So I focus wherever I can on the role that education can play in democratization, sustainability, social justice, and these kinds of things. And the approach I end up advocating in all of these issues is quite simple. Practice what we preach. If we want to support democracy through education, then we need to look seriously at the extent to which our education systems truly embody democratic values and principles. 

My entry point to this conversation came through some work that I did with the Community of Democracies, during the term of Mongolia's chairmanship of the organization. With support from the Canadian government, we launched a small project working with Canadian and Mongolian experts to develop a curriculum framework on education for democracy. We wanted the framework to be internationally relevant, and so this meant that it could not be too directive, or too heavy on the content side, because each country's context, and its democracy, is quite different. As a result, the work ended up developing more as an approach or conceptual framework for democratizing the schooling process, rather than any kind of conventional curriculum. Essentially, the framework we developed looks at education as a process of enculturation, and problematizes the idea of learning culture in school to explore how we might better infuse democratic values and principles into that process. I believe the document will be made available on the IFES website in conjunction with today's session. This work has been well received, I think, because it tries to takes a somewhat more aggressive appraoch to the issue than what we have seen historically in most civic education programs. It forces some challenging questions about how we practice education.

So, let's talk about that. Before getting into democracy education, it's worth taking an honest look at the realities of mass schooling. And to use the lense of democracy to evaluate the way we practice education. We could talk about this at any level, from the system level, or looking at district boards, school management, right down to the classroom level. For our purposes here, I think it makes the most sense to focus on the experience of the children. So, bear with me while I walk you through a little thought experiment. Imagine a child learning in an authoritarian classroom, versus an open and participatory classroom. The child in the authoritarian classroom spends most of her day sitting, listening to lectures. She learns not to ask questions or stand out. She learns a respect for authority that is largely based on fear, and with this, a discipline which is based on rules and punishments. She learns, over time, to be quiet, obedient, passive, and complacent. The child in the open and participatory classroom, on the other hand, cultivates a very different way of interacting with the world around her. She spends her days actively engaged in asking and answering questions. She is solving problems, working collaboratively, and taking initiative. This has huge consequences for the way that she develops, the extent to which she is willing and able to put forward an opinion, to take initiative, to organize with her peers, and to think and act autonomously. 

Now, having said this, the reality for most students these days, and certainly most in North America is probaby something quite different from either of these scenarios. For many, the schooling experience is characterized by bells, books, and boredom. Although the official timetable has different subjects scheduled, the experience of each subject is remarkably similar. Bell rings, sit down, listen to teacher, take notes, write test, bell rings, get up and leave, repeat, go home do homework, sleep, repeat. Their world is structured in a way that leaves very little space for curiosity, for genuine creativity, for critical reflection, for initiative. Everything is scheduled and scrutinized. The way in which students experience the different subjects throughout the day ends up having far more formative power than the explicit contents of those subjects. It doesn't matter all that much what subjects they are studying officially, because the most powerful lesson taught in school has nothing to do with the subjects. It's the method. When I say method here, I'm not referring only to the instructional strategies of the teacher. I'm talking about the overall approach to education, and with this, all of the many factors that comprise students' daily experiences. 

The educators in the audience will recognize what I am talking about here as the so-called "hidden curriculum". The hidden curriculum is a bit elusive, but it is widely acknowledged, at least in critical circles, to contribute more to the political socilization of students than any aspect of the formal curriculum. The trouble with the hidden curriculum is that it operates beneath the surface . The term is used to refer to the things which students learn and "pick up" in school which are not taught explicitly.  Its nature makes it difficult to pin down and articulate, because it operates largely in the tacit domain. This kind of learning is more akin to what we usually think of as socialization than education in the colloquial sense. And as a result, our educational jargon around teaching processes and learning outcomes don't handle the hidden curriculum very well. While we can readily brainstorm ideas about the factors involved in "teaching" the hidden curriculum, the list quickly becomes so long that it is hard to know how to even approach the project of changing the hidden curriculum. It's just not how we usually think about teaching. I'll come back to this in a minute. I want to first talk a little bit about conventional curricula. 

The conventional approach to curriculum development is to frame a curriculum either around a set of contents to be taught, or around a set of objectives. These two approaches end up being fairly similar, because when objectives are used, the heavy emphasis tends to be on content knowledge. This fits with our colloquial concept of teaching, because content matter feels like something that one party can impart directly to another. All the teacher needs to do is deliver a lecture and the empty vessels in the room will slowly get filled up with that wisdom. Much of what has historically been called civic education is consistent with this approach. This is what I call education "about" democracy. It treats democracy, primarily, as a body of content to be learned. But knowing "about" democracy does not translate directly into engaged democratic citizenship. Even if we successfully teach skills like critical thinking, media literacy, and debate, students may still graduate from school feeling disengaged and disinclined to participate actively in democratic life. 

So, it is clear enough that if we want to go beyond education *about democracy, we need to get past this idea that democracy is just a body of content. If we want to leverage the real power of education to support democratization, then we need to look at the deeper layer of learning and development that I referred to as the hidden curriculum. We have to confront this hidden curriculum and figure out how to reorient it. Since the hidden curriculum is learned experientially, we need to look at the schooling experience much more comprehensively than we usually do. And to do this, we need to start teasing apart the long list of factors which comprise students' daily experiences. Because it is these factors which hammer against students hour after hour, day after day, and year after year. These factors condition students, and students become habituated to them, until slowly they are internalized as assumptions, perspectives, and expecations about what is normal, what is good, and who they themselves are as people. 

We need to ask what values and principles are embodied in the different policies and procedures, in the way we do assessment, in the physical layout of the classroom, in the lunch room, in our discipline systems, in the way the school day is conducted, and so on. And as we do this, we need to keep in mind that every little aspect of the students' daily experience has political importance. If it is not contributing to a democratic political solialization, then it is contributing to some other kind of political socialization. And it doesn't much matter what other kind of political socialization, whether authoritarian, or apathetic, or something else entirely; if it is not democratic, then in some way, it is anti-democratic.

We need to think about schools as being cultural institutions, and primary sites of socialization. These are the main public institutions in which we should be working to establish a culture of democracy. Above all, this means that we need to be providing our students with experience being immersed in a democratic context, creating the relevant kinds of mindsets and expectations.  Schools also need opportunities to practice the kinds of things which we expect citizens to do in a democracy: caring about issues, developing well-reasoned perspectives, taking initiative, thinking and acting autonomously, taking ownership and responsibility, organizing themselves to resolve issues, formulating opinions and discussing them respectfully, and so on. 

In short, we need to start looking at education as a process of "doing democracy". I worked in Egypt for several years, leading up to and following the revolution and the overthrow of Mubarrak. The situation there has been really troubling, and I was talking about it with a good Egyptian friend. He characterized the situation there very well. He said, it all comes down to education. We haven't learned how to disagree with one another, to discuss things and work through our differences, and so simple disagreements regularly deteriorate into violence. This is one of the consequences of an authoritarian education system. You can talk about democracy all you want in a context like that, but until there is space to practice doing democracy in education, and developing skills like debate and deliberation, it's really difficult to have a functional democracy.

As critical as I am about mass schooling in general, I am increasingly optimistic as I learn about the exciting work being done in different pockets of our education systems around the world. It's not surprising that the most exciting work is often being done by civil society, but occasionally, we find inspiration even at the top of the system level. One thing you'll see in all of the practices identified in the best practices manual is a keen attention to aligning the medium and the message in democracy education. In each of them, you'll see work being undertaken on substantive democratic concepts and issues, while at the same time using pedagogical approaches which are themselves democratic. They are examples if doing democracy. 

Nonetheless, this task of reorienting the hidden curriculum to make the educational experience more democratic is very complex. We're talking about changing an entire system, with a huge range of inter-related factors. As inspired as we might be, it is hard to know where to start. So to close, I'd like to come back around to mention once more the curriculum framework which I worked on last year with my colleagues in Mongolia. That framework outlines a systematic approach for identifying the different factors involved, and provides some suggestions for reorienting them. So I would like to encourage anyone who is interested to check it out, and also, to provide us with any feedback you might have about the approach and how we might further refine it. 

Matthew Hiebert 2014-01-30

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