Arguing that teachers do not do politics, and should therefore not concern themselves with democracy and human rights, is like arguing that teachers do not teach. Our pedagogy is not neutral, and the way we choose to do things in the classroom has a direct impact on the world of tomorrow. The approach we choose to take towards Education for Democracy will also make a difference and it is extremely important for teachers to be aware of the different approaches and their possible consequences. Each approach is linked to a cosmovision/weltanschauung, that expresses a particular philosophy or view of life – the worldview of an individual or group. The goal of this article is to raise awareness of the different approaches and their advantages and shortcomings in order for you as a teacher to decide which one is the most useful for your aims and your specific context.
Before designing or agreeing on a particular approach and potential changes in the school curriculum it is crucial to know how to negotiate meanings about Education for Democracy and its contents. All education stakeholders should remember to clarify what they mean exactly before any proposals are made and agreements are reached in this respect. If we fall into the trap of agreeing without negotiating meaning, we might run into unpleasant surprises emerging from a different understanding of the basic concepts.
Education about Democracy
The classical approach to education about democracy is based on the rightful assumption that one cannot appreciate what is not known. Knowledge about democracy is transmitted in order to help students learn the structures of democratic systems. Through the acquisition of knowledge about their political institutions, students are expected get to know how a democracy works.
This is perhaps the oldest and most conservative approach to education that supposedly aims to foster democratic competences. However, such an approach is in fact limited to describing democracy. While some contexts may call for teaching about democracy, teachers and school leaders who limit themselves to this type of education about democracy, will eventually fail in their mission to educate citizens for democracy. The mere transmission of knowledge about democracy is not enough. Simply learning about democracy does little to empower students to bring about change if and when change is called for. Not to mention how credible preaching about democracy in a largely authoritarian classroom will sound. Our lectures about democracy in such a context can even backfire.
Education through Democracy
Democracy can only be built by democratic people. The focus of this approach is to help students learn how to develop democratic competences in order to contribute to a better democratic culture. Considering the crucial role that each of us plays or can play in democratic environments, students should understand that training in competences for democracy begins with the self. If we agree that each of us has a definitive role to play in any democratic system, we also have to agree on the fact that omitting this aspect from our school curricula means neglecting a real education for democracy in the deep sense.
Teachers and educational leaders need to understand the importance of this approach in educating students and managing educational institutions. It is vital for teachers to develop a sense of democracy within their own classrooms. The example they set serves as a model for their students. Initial teacher education and teachers’ professional development need to focus on the development of attitudes, skills, knowledge and values for democracy. The nurturing of such competences calls for self-reflection and reflection about how we teach and learn to acquire these competences. It is a question of learning through democracy, or rather through competences for democracy. No doubt, this is a more progressive approach than the one described above, but it still focuses on an individual’s strengths and weaknesses rather than the collective potential of a truly democratic culture, a kind of SWOT Analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) which can be a very useful starting point but is in many ways reminiscent of individualism and capitalism.
Building Democracy Together (BDT)
The third approach focuses on building democracy together, with an emphasis on the word ‘together’. It places us at the core of democracy, because we, the people, are its main institution. We are its framework. We are the democratic citizens who can sustain a democratic system, who can protest against its detractors and defend it from its enemies. If we have experienced this, then we know that we are not alone and that we should not be merely working for our own benefit at an individual level and on a private basis, but rather be busy expanding our circles to work for democracy in all contexts in solidarity with others. This sense of belonging is vital, because without it, change cannot happen. We must come together as a group in order to work for the betterment of society.
What does “Building Democracy Together” entail? Without a community, we focus on issues that have poor solutions or even no solution. Together, however, we can promote civil courage, respectful communication, speaking up for others, education and health for all, social rights and sustainability, collective intelligence and cooperative structures at school and in society at large. We can discuss strategies and advocate together for our interests, including learning how to defend public goods and how not to contribute to the criminalisation of social protests. We can also learn how to nurture feelings of belonging to a community with the responsibility to actively participate in discussions and decision-making not only when there are elections in our school, local community or country but on a daily basis.
Other vital aspects of this approach include using creativity to foster participation in the community and developing solidarity among us. It is also important to discuss real strategies to learn about our right of resistance and occupying spaces without any discrimination for any reason. Gender and ecology also appear at the top of the agenda together with many others which are usually addressed by the majority of advocacy groups and social movements.