Since the 2016 presidential election, the internet has been abuzz with calls for more and better education: more philosophy, more civics, more history, more media literacy, to list a few. Looking at the history of American public education, such calls make sense. Americans have long viewed public schools as the primary site of moral and cultural development—the institution that cures social ills, protects public health and safety, and ensures the transition of our democratic republic from one generation to the next. Yet, despite the calls for philosophy, civics, history and the liberal arts more generally, the most desperate need of all in our schools is democratic education.
As the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA) describes it, democratic education incorporates the “values of meaningful participation, personal initiative, and equality and justice for all” into the classroom. People have been calling for democratic education in the United States since at least the early 20th century. Under the impression that democratic behavior is not necessarily natural behavior, educational scholars such as John Dewey explained that learning isolated facts and bits of knowledge was a form of mental captivity. In such a system, students were made to perform rote tasks that were socially important, but not necessarily relevant or interesting to students. Dewey knew that such passive learning would not be enough to prepare students for the rigorous duties of democratic life, and he called upon schools to engage students in active, democratic practices.
Michael Apple and James Beane explain in Democratic Schools: Lessons in Powerful Education that democracy in present-day schools “has fallen on hard times.” While schools may teach about democracy—for example, the three branches of government or the line of succession to the presidency, topics often tucked away in civics and government classes—schools rarely engage students in democracy.
Dewey’s calls for democratic education were made at a distinctly different time with vastly different concerns and constraints. It begs the question, “What might democratic practice look like in a 21st-century classroom characterized by standardized testing and high-stakes accountability?” Indeed, if we find Dewey’s ideas compelling, it is worth exploring how we might define democratic education for a new era.
Such a definition might begin with the assumption that a democratic classroom requires scaffolding by a skilled and knowledgeable teacher who plays a critical role in guiding students to the best possible choices. Students and teachers in a democratic classroom must constantly negotiate the complexities of democratic life. As a result, democratic classrooms should be participatory—characterized by student choice, action, and deliberation. Deliberative classrooms promote discussion and generally see difference as a virtue. While democratic classrooms are deliberative and thus open to various perspectives, they are also, in scholar Amy Gutmann’s terms, nonrepressive and nondiscriminatory. These principles set limits on individual liberty and the “tyranny of the majority” by considering any suggested policy, statement or action that would repress a student’s potential participation to be outside the bounds of democratic discourse.
Because of this emphasis on nondiscrimination, democratic classrooms are moral. They reinforce the democratic values of diversity, liberty, justice and equality. They are also empathetic, as empathy is necessary for the promotion of the common good and is key to democratic deliberation and collaboration. Lastly, democratic classrooms are critical: They promote a type of thinking that encourages students to question their worldviews, to think critically about their opinions and to realize that their ways of thinking and living are not predetermined, neutral or natural, but rather culturally and historically constituted.
In our deeply divided political environment, democratic classrooms are necessary to engage future civic participants in the processes of a democracy. Resources to begin making the elementary classroom more democratic can be found across the web. These resources include ways to co-create classroom rules with students, develop democratic classroom meetings and establish responsive classrooms. Books such as Civic Education in the Elementary Grades: Promoting Student Engagement in an Era of Accountability and Black Ants and Buddhists: Thinking Critically and Teaching Differently in the Primary Grades offer portraits of democratic practice in the classroom. Teaching Tolerance’s Social Justice Standards and curricular tool, Perspectives for a Diverse America, are two examples for grades K–12.
Many educators have likely wondered how to proceed in this new era, and many will settle into summer planning for the next school year soon enough. My hope is that they will incorporate democratic education into their classroom procedures and curricula. In the words of Isaac Graves, “To create a more just, sustainable and democratic world, we need democratic education.” And we need it now more than ever.
Schroeder is a doctoral candidate in curriculum, teaching and teacher education at the University of Florida and is a former secondary English and social studies teacher. She is researching democratic education, the social context of education and pre-service social studies education.
Editor’s note: This post is part six of a series on teaching and learning how to know in 2017. Find part one, a discussion of key terms from cognitive science and media literacy, here. Find part two, a classroom example of teaching about confirmation bias, here. Find part three, a window into a classroom discussion on trust and knowledge, here. Find part four, a review of how students learn how to know, also known as epistemological development, here. Find part five, a discussion of skepticism and bias, here.
Concerns about teachers “brainwashing” students are as old as the teaching profession itself, but they reach a fever pitch in moments of extreme political polarization. This is due in part to the strong connection between a polarized public and distrust—of fellow citizens, of the media and of institutions like school. It’s harder to teach students how to know now because polarization has made it more difficult to agree on a set of facts, priorities and strategies while also raising the stakes and scrutiny of what happens in classrooms.
Teaching students about ideology and ideological diversity is one strategy for cutting through this tension. Although many educators are skillfully teaching about socioeconomic, racial, ethnic and religious diversity, teaching about the variety of viewpoints, perspectives and ideologies present within a community doesn’t get the same attention.
Viewpoint diversity is important because teaching in what Paula McAvoy and Diana E. Hess refer to as “like-minded schools” is increasingly common—and may only become more so. Classrooms and schools can be echo chambers in much the same way as other communities and social media channels. Teaching diverse ideologies or viewpoints doesn’t mean always presenting two sides of every issue or presenting ideas without criticism, however. It’s important for teachers to not fall into false equivalences when there is no legitimate disagreement.
Teaching about various viewpoints means assessing the perspectives that might already be represented in your classroom. During the 2016 presidential campaign, many teachers did this by having students take quizzes available online to assess their political stances. It is similarly important for teachers to scrutinize their curricula and lessons for viewpoint uniformity. This post by school librarian Tasha Bergson-Michelson highlights how she tackled her media blind spots and biases.
Once teachers identify these aspects, they can take steps to bring in additional perspectives or ideologies, provided they meet classroom standards and are shared with students in developmentally appropriate ways. It’s vital that teachers make this process transparent and open to students.
Lessons like this one from The Choices Program (and their whole approach) and this one from The New York Times’ Learning Network encourage students to wade into complex issues with an eye toward enhancing their thinking, questioning existing assumptions and understanding others’ perspectives. News sources like All Sides or ProCon, which aim to present diverse viewpoints, are two other resources.
There is even compelling new research supporting the idea that teachers can boost critical thinking by having students imagine a dialogue between supporting and opposing sides of an argument. (There are clear limits to this type of exercise; students should never, for example, be asked to defend atrocities such as slavery and genocide or engage in activities that disparage or demean identity groups.)
For students, learning within an environment that reflects diverse viewpoints is as much about understanding others’ perspectives as it is about understanding their own. It involves interrogating assumptions, ideas and biases, as well as gaining familiarity with opposing and supporting views on an issue. It doesn’t mean blindly accepting everything as true or collapsing ideas into weak-kneed relativism. But it does mean broadening their knowledge landscape, ultimately learning how they know and what they believe in.
Mainstreaming of Hate
If polarization makes it difficult to teach about diverse perspectives, the challenge is only increasing due to the mainstreaming of hateful ideologies. For example, rising Islamophobia means educators have a heightened responsibility when working to counter it and when teaching about Islam. Similarly, the prevalence of climate change denial, in spite of scientific consensus about its imminence and effects, changes the way we have to teach about it.
In the classroom, teachers cannot simply rely on a model of presenting supporting and opposing views on issues. The views of Islamophobes, for example, do not deserve equal consideration, but on issues on which there is legitimate or high-profile disagreement, teachers have a responsibility to present and unpack a variety of viewpoints. Determining that line is perhaps the most challenging part of teaching in today’s political climate. For example, even though we wouldn’t want to promote a false equivalence between climate change denial and climate change acceptance, we also can’t pretend that denial doesn’t exist.
Just as the content we choose can promote diverse perspectives and key values, so can the skills we seek to foster in students. So, when students in a Boston high school classroom were introduced to the ideas of the “alt-right,” they brought to their learning a well-honed toolkit of critical literacy skills and the values of inclusivity and tolerance. Their teachers could trust that the students would see this movement for what it is. The planned setting of a scaffolded curriculum is exactly the right place to learn how to separate viable, inclusive ideology from bigotry, conspiracy theories and paranoia.
It’s a challenging time to be a teacher. Yet, if we really want students to think and know well, we have to help them cultivate the values of empathy, humanism and inclusivity. That means helping them consider the broadest possible set of viable ideas and helping them develop the tools to construct their belief systems. They need our guidance to craft the skills to identify how various viewpoints and ideologies are shaping the world around them.
Gold is a seventh- and eighth-grade history teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island. You can reach him on Twitter @jonnyskoal.
It’s that time of year, when many high school seniors are making a choice that will significantly shape their futures: Where to attend college? Increasingly, another decision is having even more of an impact on future hopes and dreams: How to pay for it?
Debt from higher learning has been steadily rising over the past two decades. According to Money magazine, about half of bachelor’s degree recipients graduated with an average of $10,000 in debt 20 years ago. In 2016, more than two-thirds of graduates left school in debt, averaging a whopping $35,000.
That’s why some free-tuition advocates hailed the agreement announced recently between New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislative leaders. In the plan, the state would cover tuition costs at the City University of New York and State University of New York systems for families earning up to $125,000. The plan will be phased in over three years beginning this fall, and Cuomo estimates 940,000 families will benefit once fully established.
There are provisions: Graduates must live and work in New York for as long as they receive free tuition. Students must also be enrolled full time and maintain minimum grade point averages. Additionally, the plan establishes a grant program for students who attend private colleges in New York, as long as the college matches it.
Some proponents of tuition-free college say that New York’s plan doesn’t go far enough: It doesn’t cover non-tuition costs such as living expenses or allow for part-time or interrupted studies, contexts that many low-income students find themselves in.
At the federal level, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Pramila Jayapal recently introduced legislation called the College for All Act. The bill proposes making all public colleges and universities free to families with incomes up to $125,000, making tuition free for all in-state students at community colleges and cutting student loan interest rates in half.
According to The Washington Post, there are also at least 85 initiatives at municipal and state levels to provide tuition-free education at community colleges; Tennessee, Oregon and Minnesota already offer it.
Proponents argue that a tuition-free college education, particularly given modern workforce expectations, should be a right similar to secondary education. Free-tuition plans such as New York’s would increase access to higher learning for low-income students and students of color. Without the crushing burden of debt, more students would have the economic freedom to pursue further education, make employment choices based on passion rather than solely on income, and build their financial stability.
There are many reasons why tuition has risen so dramatically, including the increase in the number of people attending college and the amount of money states spend per pupil. But it is clear that these tuition-free proposals are shifting people’s attitudes about college degrees and the right for all people to have the opportunity to earn one, as well as the potential for community colleges in particular to play an important role.
If there was any question about how deeply college debt is affecting graduates, it was answered recently by lawsuits filed in Illinois and Washington. These states contend that one of the nation’s largest student loan companies engaged in predatory lending. Using practices similar to those which led to the mortgage crisis, Navient (a spinoff of lending giant Sallie Mae) allegedly used subprime loans knowing that many of its customers would be unable to repay those loans. Navient is also being charged with sloppy accounting and misleading tactics that have left thousands of people even further in debt.
Perhaps a generation from now, high school students will be able to focus solely on their futures, not their future debt.
This blog was produced in partnership with the anti-hate news project 500 Pens.
Applegate is a journalist, editor and storyteller who focuses on youth, family and social justice issues.
The two sides of the climate-change debate—supporters of the scientific consensus on the role of human activity and those who deny this consensus—are ramping up their messages these days. That leaves science teachers with a major dilemma when it comes to how to address the topic in the classroom. But the science is clear, and this issue is too urgent to be mishandled with students.
Scientists are in near-unanimous agreement about the scale of climate change and the impact human activity has on rising global temperatures. In its 2014 assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported, “Multiple lines of evidence indicate a strong, consistent, almost linear relationship between cumulative CO2 emissions and projected global temperature change to the year 2100.” An analysis published in January 2017 by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration pointed out that 2016 was “the third year in a row to set a new record for global average surface temperatures.”
Many of the phenomena linked to climate change (e.g., extreme weather patterns, melting polar ice caps) could potentially displace whole communities, lower agricultural yields and increase the spread of mosquito-borne diseases (though climate change is one of many factors linked to such increases).
On Saturday, April 29, people from across the country will gather in Washington, D.C., to promote the necessity of doing something about these dire environmental realities. The Peoples Climate March is organized by the Peoples Climate Movement, an advocacy group dedicated to mobilizing communities around climate justice. Along with more than 200 sister marches across the country, this demonstration will bring together tens of thousands of people, including educators, to amplify a shared message: Climate change is one of the greatest threats facing humanity today.
At the same time, forces in opposition to the scientific consensus on these matters are launching major assaults on efforts to turn things around, including actual policy decisions—like the planned budget cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency and the approval of a vocal climate-change denier as its head. And, despite the scientific consensus, Americans’ beliefs about the impact of human activity on climate change and what should be done to address it do vary widely, often along partisan lines.
Another such force driving the opposition to climate science is the Heartland Institute, an Illinois-based libertarian think tank. In mid-March, the organization sent nearly 25,000 K–12 science teachers copies of the book Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming and plans to ensure that every K–12 science teacher in the country receives one. The book came with a letter from Lennie Jarratt, project manager of Heartland’s Center for Transforming Education, that included this passage: “A recent survey found that most K–12 science teachers who address climate change in their classrooms treat the science as ‘settled.’ ... I am writing to ask you to consider the possibility that the science in fact is not ‘settled.’”
“The educators who’ve contacted us are well aware that this is not science and not appropriate for the classroom,” says Ann Reid, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland-based nonprofit dedicated to defending science education against ideological influence. “Often, the first inclination is to produce a point-by-point rebuttal. We think that is arguably counterproductive, as it suggests there is actually something to debate and all of their points have already been thoroughly debunked elsewhere.”
While it would be easy to classify the activism and ongoing policy debates around climate change as another example of the “red versus blue” quagmire, the key task that lies ahead—for marchers and for all concerned parties—is to find more effective ways to create sustainable, engaging and welcoming spaces for people across the political spectrum to engage with science. That’s where educators can play a key role.
The fact that tens of thousands of people are preparing to march on Washington this weekend offers a gateway to teach about the science of climate change and about the social justice and activism questions that surround it. Consider grounding a discussion of climate change within the four domains of Teaching Tolerance’s Social Justice Standards:
- Identity: “How does my identity influence my carbon footprint?”
- Diversity: “Who is most vulnerable to climate change?”
- Justice: “How do power and privilege influence our ability to influence climate change?”
- Action: “What can I do to help mitigate climate change?”
The most important thing, says Reid, is that “the message needs to be relentlessly positive and inclusive. Science serves everyone.” She hopes this message can extend the current discussion beyond party affiliations to focus on a shared human commitment and using science as a tool to create a better world.
“We really don’t want science to become any more partisan than it already is,” Reid explains. “I hope a main message of the climate marches will be that everyone wants to leave a better world to their children and we all need to work together to make that happen.”
This blog was produced in partnership with the anti-hate news project 500 Pens.
Guidry is a novelist, essayist, poet, science writer and librettist from Boston. Her work focuses on medicine, climate science, socioeconomics, healthcare policy, medical anthropology, political philosophy and bioethics.
The Atlantic: “Education is not simply another commodity to buy and sell on a market. It is a shared good.”
Education Week: “In a rapidly changing political and environmental landscape, focusing on the development of global competency seems urgent.”
The Greater Good Science Center: “While stories about the impact of [social and emotional learning] may feel hopeful and uplifting to educators, parents, and others, they can also convey subtle messages that harm students inside and outside of the classroom.”
The Huffington Post: “Reading LGBTQ inclusive stories is a way to validate what [students] may be already be thinking around gender and gender roles. We are planting the seed at young ages for people to think about gender.”
The Huffington Post: “Compared to their male counterparts, high-functioning girls on the spectrum are often misdiagnosed with social ‘difficulties’ instead of ‘disabilities.’”
KQED: “The type of chest pain [this student] felt, along with shortness of breath and other physical symptoms of anxiety, are complaints some Bay Area pediatricians said they’re seeing more of in immigrant and Muslim populations.”
National Public Radio: “With Islam estimated to be the fastest growing religion in the country, private Islamic institutions are gaining the same acceptance in American education that other religious schools have long enjoyed.”
National Women’s Law Center: “Every year, thousands of girls are pushed out of school as a result of a variety of often overlapping educational barriers, including homelessness, family instability, discriminatory discipline practices, society’s collective failure to prevent or adequately address harassment and sexual violence, and the failure of schools to recognize and properly respond to trauma.”
The New York Times: “The fact that my skin color matches that of my students doesn’t give me any superpowers as an educator. But it does give me the ability to see them in a way that’s untarnished by the stereotypes, biases and cultural disconnects that fuel inequality and injustice.”
Southern California Public Radio: “[U.C. Santa Barbara education researcher Michael Gottfried] found that 12 percent of the children who took the school bus were chronically absent, two percent lower than kindergarteners who didn’t take the bus.”
The Washington Post: “The number of minority teachers more than doubled in the United States over a 25-year period but still represent less than 20 percent of the country’s elementary and secondary school teaching force.”
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