The purpose of education in a democratic society is to instill the values of cooperation, fairness and justice into the hearts of our students. I would argue that these values are essential to maintaining and improving a functioning democracy in any country. In Canada, our democracy is in serious need of a shake up. We have rising inequality due to an economic system based on competition and profit, we have a Prime Minister who is acting more and more like an authoritarian dictator and we have followed pace with the United States in dismantling the public good over the last forty years.
As a social studies teacher, and a concerned citizen, I often ask myself what do I want my students to be able to contribute to in their lives. Of course I want them to have successful lives in which they are able to follow their passions but I also want them, regardless of their profession, to be able to contribute to our democracy in some way. Democracy is at the heart of my teaching practice as I see my classroom as a microcosm of what our world could be. I want to create the conditions in my classroom where the principles of democracy reign supreme. I want my students to participate in the process of establishing class rules and culture. I want my students to have a voice in how they can demonstrate their knowledge as well as how they are assessed academically. In other words, I want to share the power in the classroom with my students.
Now, for many teachers reading this you may be thinking that I’m crazy to give up “control” in my classroom. But what we have to understand as educators is that our jobs is not to “control” students but to empower them to be critically thinking democratic citizens. Teachers must do away with any form of authoritarian teaching method and embrace a more democratic approach to ensure that our students understand that the work of democracy is important and worth while. We have to understand as teachers that even in democratic spaces we still have the authority to ensure the classroom is a safe space for all students but that we engage in dialogue with our students about the reasons for any decision we make and ask for student feedback on how the classroom is run.
We can’t run our schools and classrooms like a dictatorship and then pretend to think that our students will be prepared to be active citizens participating in our democratic system. We also have to ensure that we present democracy as a system and process that is always happening by being involved in our communities and institutions. Voting every election is only one aspect of being an active democratic citizen. Part of our responsibilities as citizens is to work with others collaboratively to accomplish shared goals and dreams. Any rights or freedoms that have been granted by politicians have rarely come independent of citizens demanding them as part of a larger social movement.
We have a crisis of democracy in Canada and Alberta with low voter turnouts and a lack of community in many areas. In Alberta, as students have began demanding Gay-Straight Alliances over more than the past decade it has made many social-conservatives in the province uneasy to say the least. These students are exercising their democratic voice and this week the province has decided that they will not protect this democratic right as the province has chosen to make the very political decision to strike a “balance” between those advocating for GSA’s and those who wish to suppress the voice of marginalized students in our schools.
Democracy is not for the faint of heart and it is something that must be protected by citizens of any country. Our schools must be places where students have a voice that is heard and they must be able to take action on issues that they care about. If we adults seek to limit or silence student voice in our schools and education system then we are condemning our democracy to further degradation. It’s time we make the shift towards a democratic approach to education in our classrooms and schools. If we don’t, our democracy and all of us will suffer for it.
Democratic Education Resources:
What is Democratic Education