Educating for Democracy

Defining democratic purposes

All democratic forums and institutions rely on some form of collaborative decision-making or knowledge-construction process. While it is critical that all children in a democracy be taught the academic content needed to establish secure and satisfying lives, it is equally critical that prospective citizens gain a command of the interpersonal and intellectual processes required to make sense of the world in conversation with others. 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 themselves 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 encouraged to think creatively and systematically. Yet it is those students who feel most alienated from the claims schools make on their lives who most need opportunities to position their own understandings into relationship with academic concepts and with the broader social purposes schools represent.

As common pedagogical forms have not been crafted 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 dry 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:

Gutmann, A., (1999). Democratic Education. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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.

Mayer, S.J., (2006). “Getting it Right: Keeping it Complicated.” Journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Curriculum Studies, 2.