Educating for Democracy

Defining democratic purposes

All democratic forums and institutions rely on some form of collaborative decision-making or knowledge-construction process. Only by learning to think and speak for oneself in ways that can be widely appreciated and to listen to others with care can one achieve full and satisfying social and political participation.

Schools can nurture this quality of discursive fluency by apprenticing their students into the intellectual work of framing and justifying various sorts of claims themselves. In learning to leverage an academic area’s tools to make sense of meaningful challenges, students come to understand and value the processes through which various types of claims are made and justified. They begin to view the world about them as a scientist, or a historian, or a poet would and become able to interact with and represent the world in these diverse ways.

In combination, developmental learning and democratic theory suggest that such learning opportunities should be considered an essential feature of all democratic classrooms. Students learn very differently depending on a complex mix of individual, cultural, and developmental influences. Giving students a chance to frame issues, build upon each others’ insights, and evaluate contrasting possibilities provides a teacher with necessary insights into the workings of their minds, while providing students with opportunities to share and to advance their existing understandings.

Persisting inequities

Classroom research has demonstrated that the availability of this form of intellectually serious and collaborative learning experience remains more systematically linked to students’ socio-economic status and previous school performance than to any defensible pedagogical rationale. Students whose academic success is expected are more likely to be invited to think creatively and systematically and to express themselves in ways that make sense to them. Yet it is arguably those students who feel most alienated from the claims schools make on their lives who most need such opportunities to grapple with school content meaningfully and on their own terms.

As pedagogical practices are not generally designed with the foregoing issues and understandings in mind, most practitioners require continued support in this under-theorized and demanding practice area. Sadly, such support has diminished considerably in response to the institutional demands of high-stakes testing. Even worse, those schools in the greatest need of intellectual renewal are often the ones where teachers are most seriously constrained by rote and prescriptive curricula.

Only a teacher’s nuanced responsiveness is likely to inspire a disaffected student or generate real intellectual excitement in a classroom. Commitments to established findings regarding the learning process and to fundamental democratic purposes must therefore be claimed within the context of the current, test-driven reform calculus, particularly in under-performing schools.

Read more:

Mayer, S. J., (2012). Classroom Discourse and Democracy: Making Meanings Together. New York: Peter Lang.

Mayer, S. J., (2008). Dewey’s Dynamic Integration of Vygotsky and Piaget. Education and Culture. , 24(2), 6-24

Mayer, S. J., (2007). The Ideal as Real: John Dewey and the Social Construction of Moral Coherence. Journal of Curriculum & Pedagogy, (4)2, 176-186.