Social Education 57(2), 1993, pp. 80
1993 National Council for the Social Studies
Teaching for Democratic Action in a Deliberative Democracy
Lynden J. Leppard
National Issues Forums represents politics in action. The belief underlying public politics is that the public has the responsibility to make choices about policy direction. This is not a new position; rather, it is the basic perspective of democracy in the United States. Current research (Harwood Group 1991) and political phenomena such as Ross Perot's presidential campaign support NIF's position that citizens want the opportunity to make those choices. Their lack of involvement is not the result of apathy or lack of wisdom, but a result of lack of opportunity in the current business-as-usual climate.
Citizens want to work toward a common ground and they are prepared to make judgments about difficult choices and to work on refining the skills and mind-sets necessary to move from egocentric opinion through public deliberation to a sense of public will (McAfee et al. 1991). The methodology and core concepts of NIF spring from particular beliefs about the nature of politics in a democracy. These democratic processes and principles are based on particular views about how people learn, the characteristics of effective teaching, and the nature of knowledge.
A healthy democracy made up of capable and committed citizens depends on a particular type of teaching and learning relationship. These characteristics are based on the following generalizations.
Student citizens learn a great deal about the how of democratic action through their daily life in the classroom. Through the interactions that take place in the classroom, students as citizens learn by experiencing a realistic decision-making process. Although learning may not come from what we deliberately plan to teach, we cannot underestimate the significance of the symbols and messages of everyday classroom life-they are far more powerful than the content of textbooks. It is those symbols and messages that form the foundations on which our students base their adult actions and beliefs.
- Classrooms are the nurseries of democracy-the places where individuals find out about their public relationships, freedom, power, authority, and justice. Society builds schools and funds classrooms to offer its children public space for learning. No other public spaces exist for the kind of learning that takes place in classrooms-how students discover their public selves and the nature of society in the company of others struggling with the same issues.
Building Deliberative, Choice-Making Classrooms
- Democracy in action is more a knowledge of how and why than what. Our democratic experiences and skills are far more important to maintaining and developing democracy than the facts we may remember about it.
- Democracy is made up of individuals' beliefs and actions. Democracy is what we make it by our activities and our inactivities. Democracy is a living, changing phenomenon depending for its long-term existence on the working relationships between individuals and groups. We decide those relationships and the way we handle them by the beliefs and actions we learn as children using teachers and other authority figures as models.
Classrooms must model for students attitudes and dispositions essential for deliberative democracy, for example:
What Are the Characteristics of Teaching and Learning through NIF?
- a commitment to designing the future.
- a sense of shared ownership and mutual responsibility.
- a disposition toward personal action.
- confidence in their own intellectual processes.
- being comfortable with uncertainty and evolving rightness.
- a sense of consequence.
- courage to ask questions.
- a sense of being part of authority and power.
- respect for rational and creative thought.
- empathy and acceptance of emotion, difference, and alternatives.
Learners in NIF are actively engaged in the process of learning because they are involved in a process of making difficult choices for which they can find no expert, textbook answers. They must have deliberate conversations with other people and the group must deliberate on the consequences and values of conflicting opinion. Learners must move from their private opinions to an informed public judgment.
The learning environment described above is realistic and achievable if the teacher acts on certain principles and beliefs including the following.
"What would you find if you dug a hole in the earth?" Getting no response, he repeated the question. Again he obtained nothing but silence. The teacher chided Dr. Dewey, "You're asking the wrong question." Turning to the class, she asked, "What is the site of the center of the earth?" The class replied in unison, "Igneous fusion." (Paul 430)
- The teacher and the curriculum are not the essential ingredients for learning although the structure of schooling and the nature of testing suggests that they are. The learner is the center of learning and if a student has not learned, the teacher has not taught. Learning begins and ends with learners and their beliefs, priorities, skills, and knowledge. Teachers must begin with the learners' readiness for learning to take place.
- Recall is not knowledge. Knowledge is the act of having a clear and justifiable grasp of what is so or of how to do something. Knowledge is the result of rational thought in which learners must engage their experiences. The ability to recall information does not mean that learners can use the information for action and further learning. Knowledge cannot be divorced from the thinking that engages learners in making useful sense of information (Paul 1990, 558).
- Knowledge can rarely be transmitted from one to another as verbal statements in lecture form. Learners must engage with each other to gain knowledge and insight.
- Learners must take increasing responsibility for their learning. Teacher and learner are in partnership and the learner cannot expect to play a passive role.
- One cannot offer knowledge and let students think about it later. Knowledge is an achievement requiring rational deliberation about information provided in a relevant context (Paul 190, 426). Correct answers to questions do not necessarily indicate understanding. Does the capacity to recall the names of the presidents and describe the workings of Congress mean that students know anything about the essential nature of democracy? An example is a story Dewey told about a classroom experience.
What Does This Mean in the Classroom? What Happens in a Deliberate Classroom?
- Learning means uncertainty, intellectual conflict, tension, and confusion. We can either view these conditions as necessary, desirable, and exciting signs of growth or we can avoid and discourage them.
- Learning means asking questions of yourself and others. Doubt and questioning strengthen understanding; they represent a struggle toward understanding.
- Rational thought is not the same as linear, logical thinking. Those characteristics are part of the picture but creative, nonlinear approaches are effective and necessary in solving new problems.
- Intuition, emotion, and deeply held values are real, inescapable, and essential elements of what it is to be human.
- Learners actively construct prejudice, bias, and misconceptions. People have positive reasons for their beliefs and values. Telling people they are wrong and bad does not change those beliefs and values. People must have opportunities to reconstruct their knowledge and beliefs.
- Having expert information and having a lot of information does not equal understanding an issue. Specialist knowledge is a resource for making decisions about important issues, but is not an answer itself. Experts are not necessarily better than anyone else in making value judgments and seeing the connections and consequences of their choices.
- Significant issues like poverty, world hunger, racism, pollution, violence, and energy have not been solved by experts and the collection of information because no expert answer is available. The actions necessary to overcome these human problems are based on the deliberate choices of the public. Solutions do not exist in any expert and singular intellectual discipline.
- Knowledge of action choices in the real world cannot be divided into disciplines. Although the separation and artificial constructs of disciplines may lead to pieces of useful insight, breaking knowledge down into smaller elements does not lead to action. Useful knowledge and quality choices come from seeing the whole of an issue and the connections and interactions between the parts and consequences as those parts are affected.
- Students value the talking they do as essential to learning.
- Students recognize the value of uncertainty and the danger of simple truths.
If students do not value these things and they do not behave in these ways, it is because they have been expected to behave in other ways and value other things.
- Students do not expect to find the right answer and a single unique solution quickly. They know that they will always struggle to identify a preferred pathway of action and understanding.
- Students value the points of view and experiences of other people because they know that no single vantage point shows the whole picture.
- Students value the fact that others are different from them and they know that people have other opinions for good reasons, not because they are bad or stupid.
- Students identify the difference between opinion and judgment. They know that some of their opinions are unformed, unexamined, and inconsistent with other views they hold. Rather than defend these superficial opinions, they use deliberation with others to develop these opinions through testing their consistency with what they value and whether they are prepared to live with the consequences of their views. Rather than having their opinions and defending them blindly, they develop them into judgments through a process of rational public talk.
- Students search for strategic information necessary to making quality choices. They know that experts and textbooks do not contain the answers but that central, pivotal, and crucial information is necessary to the process of informed decision making. No single source has that information so it is necessary to gather it from people who have a different understanding of the issue in question.
- Students know that they must think their way through an issue and that their reasoning will lead to understanding. Gathering and remembering information is not enough.
- Students value their own knowledge and experience and the knowledge and experience of their peers. They see knowledge as a living, changing phenomenon represented by other human minds rather than static, inert truths captured between the covers of a book. The valuable insights and information provided through various media is value laden and only part of the picture.
As teachers, we must ask ourselves how we demonstrate what we value. Teachers, of course, cannot take responsibility for the values and social environments of their students. Teachers must realistically reflect on their actions and refine them to fit closely with what they believe to be important. Some serious questions from which refinement can develop include: If we are battling with students to get them to learn, how do our behaviors contribute to that problem? Why do some students feel no ownership and personal responsibility for their learning? If students want the right answer where there is none, where did that unrealistic expectation come from? People do not enjoy failure and destructive conflict. People do mind feeling stupid and powerless. They do care if their experience-their world-is irrelevant in the workplace and the classroom.
When businesses, managers, politicians, and teachers work consciously from the truth that everyone wants to be valued, respected, successful, and effective, they can consider what actions can be taken to build on those needs.
Business and corporate management principles now have a firm basis in beliefs similar to those presented here as important to democracy and effective learning. Profit and quality service and products, effective learning environments, and deliberative public politics share a foundation of beliefs about human motivation and the necessary conditions of a healthy society.
We will explore these elements in detail in three subsequent articles, one of which, "Classrooms: The Confluence of Essential Social Streams," follows directly.
"Designing Our Futures by Choice" will appear in the March 1993 Social Education and "Common Ground for Business and Social Studies" will appear in April/May 1993.
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Boyett, Joseph, and Henry Conn. Workplace 2000: The Revolution Reshaping American Business. New York: Penguin, 1992.Byham, William C. Zapp! The Lightning of Empowerment. New York: Harmony Books, 1988.Covey, Stephen R. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.Harrington, H. James. The Improvement Process: How America's Leading Companies Improve Quality. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987.Kanter, Rosabeth M. When Giants Learn to Dance. New York: Touchstone Books, 1990.Leppard, Lynden J. "Assessment: A Window on Democracy." National Issues Forums in the Classroom (February 1992): 6-8._____. "Classrooms as Democracies." National Issues Forums in the Classroom (September 1991): 3-4, 7.Mathews, David. What Is Politics and Who Owns It? Dayton, Ohio: Kettering Foundation, 1992.Townsend, Patrick L. Commit to Quality. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1990.Yankelovich, Daniel. Coming to Public Judgment: Making Democracy Work in a Complex World. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1991.Lynden J. Leppard was a visiting Australian scholar at the Kettering Foundation during the summer of 1992. He has been a teacher of social studies and humanities and his current position is Principal Curriculum Officer for Social Education in the Tasmanian Department of Education and the Arts at 71 Letitia Street, North Hobart, Tasmania, Australia 7000.