Educating citizens

published 12 July 2013 updated 10 February 2016
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Table 2. How Important is Politics in your Life?

Similarly, World Values Survey data show that a minority of the population are active members of a political party, of a labor union, of an environmental organization, or of charitable humanitarian organization. There are significant low levels of trust in people who are different in religion or nationality, as show in table 3.

Table 3. How Much Would you Trust…

This lack of trust limits the possibility of engaging as equals in the public sphere, particularly at a time when globalization has significantly increased migration and other opportunities and the need for people of different cultural backgrounds to collaborate. It is particularly interesting that these low levels of civic trust happen even in countries where students have high levels of educational achievement in assessments such as PISA. For example, in Canada, or in Finland, about a quarter of the population would not trust very much or at all someone of a different religion or nationality.

If we are to successfully equip future generations, native born as well as immigrants and their children, with the cultural practices that allow them to effectively contribute to the public sphere, we need to do more than make the case for civic education in our schools. We need to re-examine what kind of civic education effectively contributes to develop the capacity for students to join others, across lines of difference, in taking responsibility to make democracy work in the acts of ordinary citizens. This requires expanding the academic approach to civic education towards project based and experiential learning designed to develop not just knowledge, but the disposition and the capacity to act based on one’s knowledge. We need to empower students by inviting them to take on civic challenges and develop the skills to tackle them in the process of studying them. A twenty first century conception of civic education requires that we simultaneously develop cognitive understandings, along with interpersonal and intrapersonal skills that enable people to act on those understandings. It is in this capacity to learn to govern one self and to work with and lead and influence others that we will prepare the next generation to advance public purposes.

An important challenge of twenty first century civic education is to support the development of cognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies so that students can not only participate in the public sphere, critically engaging with ideas that are important for democracy, such as religious freedom, but to construct social innovations and to collaboratively solve challenges, along with others who are different among the many lines that define our multifaceted identities.

Quality teaching shall be defined as the kind of teaching that contributes to producing the full range of skills and outcomes that are part of this ambitious vision, and not just some of them. Producing such quality teaching is the responsibility of the profession of teachers, a profession that should lead the definition of the mechanisms to produce the necessary improvements to sustain such quality teaching.

These goals should also inform policies and practices that attract candidates to the teaching profession, that support their education and that appraise teaching, providing teachers feedback on their effectiveness in educating empowered citizens. Such appraisal of teaching quality should be multidimensional, in order to do justice to the multidimensional nature of teaching quality, and it will require obtaining data from multiple sources of information and multiple stakeholders.

In advancing efforts to support teachers to educate empowered citizens, citizens who can trust others to collaborate with them to advance social progress, educators and other stakeholders should model the same process of collaboration in building the commons of education. If trust is essential for democracy, it is also indispensable for educational improvement. At the core of educational improvement is learning, learning by students, by teachers, by administrators and by policy makers. No one learns very much when fear rules.

Aligning our efforts to strengthen the teaching profession with the moral vision of educating empowered tolerant citizens would connect us with the core aspirations of public education, and indeed with the core aspirations of democratic government.

Table 1. What are the important qualities in children?

Public Education originated therefore as a way to educate all people to participate in the public sphere in order to help improve society. It was this interplay between ideas about what schools should be about, and ideas about how to make sure that instruction achieved those purposes, combined with the social mobilization, the politics of finding common ground among various social groups, that allowed the creation of public education. In the United States, for example, Horace Mann in the state of Massachusetts, built a coalition for public education anchored in a moral vision for schools, it was a vision of helping people of different cultural origins develop trust and find common ground with one another.  It was in this way that people like Horace Mann and others around the world, gradually created the institutional fabric that made it possible for every child to have a chance at developing skills that would give them access to the written word, to knowledge, to possibilities they might not otherwise had, to become architects of their own lives.  Globally, it was the inclusion of the right to education as one of the thirty rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in the aftermath of World War II, that supported a global movement to expand public education systems and provide all children the opportunity to be educated.

In spite of the remarkable achievement represented in the universal right to education, we need to improve the effectiveness of schools in educating empowered citizens. A number of studies document a decline in the vitality of civic institutions and democratic engagement, decline in social capital, lower levels of trust between and within ethnic groups, lower levels of civic engagement, lower confidence in local government, lower political efficacy and a range of other negative civic outcomes (Robert Putnam (2007). " E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century -- The 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture". Scandinavian Political Studies 30(2): 137–174).

Evidence from the World Values Survey confirms low levels of interest in politics around the world. A large percentage of the population does not consider politics important and is uninterested in them, as seen in table 2.

To align the profession with this ambitious moral vision for public education, leaders of governments, teacher unions, and civil society must craft in each country a shared definition about what the outcomes of education should be. I believe it should be a vision focusing on cognitive, interpersonal and intra-personal outcomes, with a focus on the short as well as the long term consequences of those outcomes. All policies and programmatic initiatives to support educational improvement, including efforts to assess the profession, should be aligned with that shared vision.

Creating the social dialogue necessary to develop this share vision is possible. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to participate in two meetings with just that purpose. The firstwas a meeting in London of leaders of teacher unions whose countries are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Organised in January by Education International (EI) this conference examined the state of education globally. The third International Summit on the Teaching Profession in Amsterdam followed on almost immediately. Uniquely the Summit enabled government ministers and teacher union leaders to sit down together to focus on the broad public purposes of education which should guide teacher preparation and evaluation. The fact that the co-organisers of the Summit were EI, the OECD and the Dutch Government showed that there was a willingness among many countries to engage in dialogue with their teaching professions about the future of education as a public good.

This moral vision is grounded in the very roots of the creation of public education.  The idea of universal education emerged to serve principally the purpose of helping people work out their differences in peaceful ways. It was an idea put forth four hundred years ago by Jan Amos Comenius, a Moravian Minister who lived through thirty years of religious intolerance. Comenius argued that in order to have peaceful coexistence all persons had to be educated.

This idea, that all persons had to be educated, was also product of the Enlightenment, an  intellectual movement in the 17th and 18th centuries which espoused the power of human reason to improve society, and which promoted the use of science to understand the natural world, and the place of humans in the world. The ideas of the enlightenment, particularly the challenges to the abuses of power by the State and Church, and the promotion of tolerance and of social progress as a result of reason and individual freedom, influenced the revolutionary movements for Independence in North and South America, and the emergence of democratic government.

An active civil society, of ordinary citizens that come together in the public sphere to shape, discuss and spread, as equals, political ideas and to collaborate in improving their communities, informed simply by reason, by evidence generated by science, is essential to the democratic experiment. In order to collaborate as equals in the public sphere people need to be tolerant of those who are different, and they need to be equipped to take responsibility. These are two traits highly valued in most countries around the world. Using data collected by the World Values Survey table 1 shows how when asked what are the important qualities in children, the majority of the population selects tolerance and respect for other people. They selected these values to a much greater extent than other traits such as independence, hard work, imagination, thrift, determination, religious faith, unselfishness, or obedience.