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Democracy in Schools

Over the years, we have accumulated knowledge of practices that can benefit the promotion of democracy in schools. These practices can be beneficial no matter the approach (education about/for/through democracy) we favour or the democratic principle (equality, freedom, inclusivity, diversity, participation, justice, openness) we champion.
Working with the community
Over the years, we have accumulated knowledge of practices that can benefit the promotion of democracy in schools. These practices can be beneficial no matter the approach (education about/for/through democracy) we favour or the democratic principle (equality, freedom, inclusivity, diversity, participation, justice, openness) we champion.
These practices are also beneficial to promote many (if not all!) of the competences for democratic culture. What is very important for us is that these practices can and should be considered by all teachers regardless of their level or specialism. All teachers can contribute by engaging in six democratising practices.

Classroom practices

All teachers can do this in their own classrooms by considering the first three democratising classroom practices:
  • Integrating democratic competences in subject areas. On some occasions, schools have a dedicated subject area on citizenship education, political education or civics. Indeed, whilst some countries have a relatively minimal provision for citizenship education in the curriculum, in other countries, citizenship education is present across all compulsory levels. On other occasions, the promotion of democracy is directly considered within other subject areas such as social studies, social science, history or geography. This is the case, for instance, in many other countries such as Norway, Spain or Portugal. Research suggests that formal learning about citizenship might facilitate that students embrace a democratic culture. You can harbour learning activities that teach the values, attitudes, skills, and knowledge and critical understanding that learners need to be able to contribute to a democratic culture. This can be done in specialist subjects but also more widely. For instance, in mathematics, teachers may convey the historical significance of contributions from different civilisations. In language and literature, teachers can select texts that tackle social and political issues such as race and gender discrimination. We will see other possibilities later in this course.
  • Considering the teaching and assessment methods you use in your classroom. Some teaching and assessment practices (e.g. cooperative learning, peer-assessment) are much better placed than others (e.g. traditional ‘master classes’, tests) to promote democracy and facilitate that children and young people learn democratic competences. We will explore these methods further later in the course.
  • Addressing the hidden curriculum. Research has largely shown that, in schools, children and young people learn not only from what they are directly taught but also from the way they are ‘treated’. The hidden curriculum can be defined as the messages we learn from our educational experiences that are not directly explicit in the contents we learn (or the official curriculum). The hidden curriculum includes issues such as adults being more important than children or Western knowledge being more valid than others. Students who experience an open classroom climate where they are listened to and feel valued are more likely to embrace democratic perspectives. In contrast, no matter the explicit curriculum, teachers or schools who discriminate against their students or who take authoritarian stances are not promoting democracy. Teachers are role models. It is not only about educating about democracy – democracy needs to be practised.

Whole school approach

Teachers can work in cooperation with others to democratise wider school practices:
  • Using cross-curricular approaches. Co-operation between teachers across different specialisms can be very beneficial. Either in the context of the same classroom (team teaching) or the whole school, teachers can organise learning activities to investigate transversal topics relevant to democracy such as human rights, sustainable development or linguistic diversity. For instance, in England, many schools participate in the Black History month where students have an opportunity to examine Black History from different disciplinary perspectives (e.g. History, English, Art, Science).
  • Democratic governance. Schools are somehow mini-societies where different people with different interests coexist. As with many other types of communities, schools also have structures of governance in place. Whether or not these structures are democratic has a major impact on the way children and young people learn about democracy. Students who are directly involved in the school decision-making are more likely to develop democratic competences. Schools with participative decision-making structures and procedures, including powers for teachers, students and parents, are better placed to promote democracy. The Council of Europe supports schools around Europe committed to facilitating democratic structures of governance through the Democratic Schools Network. Examples of activities undertaken by these schools can be found here: Campaign free to speak safe to learn
  • Working with the community. As educators, we often feel that learning finishes in schools, but this is not the case. Children and young people do not leave their lives in a compartmentalised way. Instead, all of their experiences do sum up in terms of whether or not they will become advocates of democracy. Teachers can very rarely control what happens outside the school, but they can co-operate with students’ communities in several ways that can benefit more holistic learning. For instance, in Portugal, the school alliance Visconde de Juromenha (Municipality of Sintra, in the outskirts of Lisbon) works with a network of local agents in order to strengthen the involvement of community partners in the educational project of its schools. In a context of cultural diversity, this School Grouping works with Sintra’s Luso Caboverdiana Association and the Islamic Community from Tapada das Mercês and Mem Martins, for the purpose of facilitating the school-family relationship and increasing the potential of cultural diversity.
Teachers committed to promoting democracy should consider all these six democratising classroom and school practices in an integrated way. Indeed, whilst we acknowledge this is very complex and it is not a one-day/one-person job, all these practices need to be considered if we want to offer a rewarding and coherent democratic education for children and young people.

References

Council of Europe. Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture [Internet]. 2018 [cited 01 September 2021]; 3 Guidance for implementation. Available from http://rm.coe.int/prems-008518-gbr-2508-reference-framework-of-competences-vol-3-8575-co/16807bc66e
Keating, A. Educating Tomorrow’s Citizens. Teaching Citizenship Journal [Internet]. 2014. [cited 22 September 2021]; 40, 36-39. Available from https://issuu.com/associationforcitizenshipteaching/docs/tc_issue_40_-_autumn_2014_-_final_v
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Promoting Democracy in the Classroom: A Practical Guide for Teachers

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