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 recognized terms and to listen to others with care can one participate fully within the processes.

Schools can nurture the needed self-possession, clarity of thought, and social skill by apprenticing their students into the work of framing and justifying various sorts of claims themselves. In learning to make sense of meaningful challenges from different academic fields in their own terms, students can 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 historians, scientific explorers, or poets do and become able to interact with and represent the world in these diverse ways.

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 access into the workings and resources of their minds, while providing students with opportunities to consider 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 prior 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 in terms that resonate personally with them.

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 more troubling those schools in the greatest need of intellectual freedom and renewal are often the same ones where teachers are actively 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.


Mayer, S. J., O’Connor, C., & Lefstein, A., (2019). Distinctively democratic discourse in classrooms, in (eds.) N. Mercer, R. Wegerif, & L. Major, The Routledge International Handbook of Research on Dialogic Education, pp. 196-209. Routledge.

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.