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Anti-democratic perspectives

To promote democratic values, educators and leaders need not only to teach these values, they need to mirror them. Educational research has long suggested that when promoting democracy it is important to consider an open classroom climate or a “climate in which learners are able to raise issues that are of concern to them, are allowed to discuss controversial issues, are encouraged to express their own opinions and to listen to one another and are allowed to explore a variety of different perspectives” (CoE, 2018, p. 117).
An empty chair in an empty classroom

To promote democratic values, educators and leaders need not only to teach these values, they need to mirror them. Educational research has long suggested that when promoting democracy it is important to consider an open classroom climate or a “climate in which learners are able to raise issues that are of concern to them, are allowed to discuss controversial issues, are encouraged to express their own opinions and to listen to one another and are allowed to explore a variety of different perspectives” (CoE, 2018, p. 117).

In classrooms with an open classroom climate, students feel the classroom is a safe, participatory, respectful and inclusive space, where all perspectives are welcome. In an open classroom climate, the teacher models democratic attitudes and behaviours and facilitates democratic and participatory processes. This is contrary to authoritarian methods where the teacher’s perspective always prevails.

Anti-democracy in the digital space

 

The digital space offers a new set of opportunities but also challenges for teachers. It allows teachers to facilitate the development of digital literacy skills and to explore new controversial issues. However, the digital space has also facilitated the spread of a range of conspiracy theories and fake news and teachers might need to address them in some way. For instance, teachers can open up topics as controversies but can also close down discussions if these are to cause more harm than good.

An un-democratic response

 

Regardless of whether we are in the context of the classroom or in a digital platform, one of the main fears we all have is, “How do we respond to anti-democratic comments in our classroom?” Indeed, if we discuss controversial issues it is very likely that some of our students have perspectives we do not agree with and even without discussing controversies, our students might, on occasion, manifest anti-democratic viewpoints. The question here for many teachers is, “How do I respond to anti-democratic opinions in such a way that I promote democracy? Can I/should I be neutral about this?” The reality is that teachers and students are influenced by their opinions, experiences and feelings when they discuss relevant issues. Teachers are never neutral when promoting democracy.

Whilst it is very difficult (if not impossible!) to provide a recipe for all, there are some questions that teachers can consider when facing these difficult situations.

Caring responsibilities

 

First, there are questions related to our caring responsibility. As teachers, we care about our students and we have an educational responsibility to safeguard their wellbeing. In this respect, teachers need to consider how their actions impact on students. The relations of ‘care’ in a classroom are highly dependent on who our students are, who we are, and where we are. Thus, each of you is in a better position to know to what extent your actions will benefit or undermine your students’ wellbeing.

Democratic responsibilities

 

Secondly, there are questions related to our democratic responsibility. An open classroom climate requires tolerance of others’ perspectives and beliefs. But there are limits to tolerance. Anti-democratic perspectives (e.g. racism, misogyny, homophobia) perpetuate anti-democratic structures and can result in some students feeling further marginalised. It is the responsibility of teachers, particularly of those wishing to promote democracy, to tackle situations that reproduce anti-democratic structures. Teachers can respond to this responsibility in different ways. But it is often advised that, on such occasions, teachers should stop the class and focus on the anti-democratic issue as a topic of discussion in such a way that we do not undermine our caring responsibility, particularly towards those students who are harassed.

Educational responsibilities

 

Thirdly, there are questions related to our educational responsibilities. As educators, we are not only supposed to protect and fight for those who are marginalised, but also to help students who defend anti-democratic perspectives to have access to alternative more ethical viewpoints.

The academics Professor Megan Boler and Professor Michalinos Zembylas have for a long time theorised how ‘pedagogies of discomfort and empathy’ could help to respond to this challenge. According to these authors, challenging students’ anti-democratic perspectives only at the level of knowledge is likely to be unsuccessful.

Anti-democratic viewpoints are often part of students’ emotional commitments and these commitments are produced and reproduced in their life experiences, many of which happen outside the classroom. If young people feel blamed for openly manifesting their opinions, they will likely be reinforced in such opinions. Instead, students are more likely to listen if they experience a certain level of empathy from their teachers.

Strategic empathy

 

If teachers take sides too early, this might lead students to reject their teachers’ perspectives. Instead, teachers can consider the use of strategic empathy. Zembylas identifies different examples of teachers who effectively use this strategic empathy. For instance, teachers have taken a ‘naïve’ approach and sought further explanations of students’ perspectives. Other teachers have used reflective questions to help students better understand their beliefs. Other teachers have attempted to first gain students’ sympathy (by acknowledging their viewpoints) to later question some of their claims. As Zembylas explains, empathy “involves recognizing the other’s complex point of view, it does not require adopting the other’s point of view” (Zembylas, 2012, p. 122).

To challenge anti-democratic perspectives, teachers need to work out a balance between our caring, democratic, and educational responsibilities. Finding out the ‘right’ balance does not happen overnight. It requires time, effort and situations in which teachers will experience discomfort.

References

Boler M. Pedagogies of Discomfort: Inviting Emotions and Affect into Educational Change. Discomfort Zones: Negotiating Tensions and Cultivating Belonging in Diverse College Classrooms in Québec, Montréal. 2017.

Council of Europe. Living with Controversy – Teaching Controversial Issues Through Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights (EDC/HRE) – Training Pack for Teachers. Available from https://edoc.coe.int/en/human-rights-democratic-citizenship-and-interculturalism/7738-teaching-controversial-issues.html [Accessed 20th October 2021]

Sant E. Political Education in Times of Populism: Towards a Radical Democratic Education. Springer Nature; 2021.

Zembylas M. Pedagogies of strategic empathy: Navigating through the emotional complexities of anti-racism in higher education. Teaching in Higher Education. 2012 Apr 1;17(2):113-25.

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Promoting Democracy in the Classroom: A Practical Guide for Teachers

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