Democratic citizenship education during corona crisis

To what extent is being and learning together in a shared space necessary for democratic citizenship education?

people sitting in a circle discussing

A good classroom climate is important for participation in different forms of classroom dialogue. Illustration photo: Colourbox.

As the world is trying to come to terms with the impact of the pandemic situation on the society as a whole, education researchers are looking into the effects of the global home schooling. Surveys and reflections are streaming in, and while there are many different experiences and views to consider, one thing seems clear; it is likely to take time and a lot more research to fully understand the long-term implications of this to teaching quality. As QUINT researcher Nikolaj Elf points out, the consequences also vary depending on the subject.

Missing school community 

Much of the instruction during home schooling relied on individual tasks and screen based learning, leaving many other aspects of teaching out. QUINT Researcher Ane Qvortrup’s research from Denmark showed that there were some kids who did not meet as a group in online teaching at all. Not being able to engage in a community could be seen as a big problem, especially as one of the things valued as quality teaching in Danish school culture is being part of a community, engaging in dialogue, and engaging in a democracy, as Qvorturp emphasised in her interview. Findings from a large survey with parents in Norway also suggested that teachers, especially in the lower grades, did not use digital tools to enable real-time discussions.

The importance of engaging in a democracy is a shared value in all of the Nordic societies, and this raises the question to what extent democratic citizenship education depends on being and learning together in the same space. I have asked two of our QUINT PhD candidates specialising in social science education to reflect further on this topic in order to draw from existing knowledge and to find ways to start thinking about this in relation to teaching quality.

Democracy means different things

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Peter Aashamar is a QUINT PhD student based at the University of Oslo. He starts by reminding us that democracy is a contested concept.

Most agree that ‘democracy’ means some sort of ‘rule by the people’, where the people have a say in the common decision-making in a society. Different theories of democracy focus on democracy as rational and informed voting, participation in society and different communities, public deliberation, agonism (peaceful political conflicts that are beneficial for society), and so on.

Young people learn and experience democracy and citizenship in various spaces. Assuming that some of these spaces are schools and classrooms, we should keep in mind that because democracy might mean different things to different people, citizenship education needs to be aware of and engage with different aspects of civic learning.

For example, young people need to learn civic knowledge, skills and dispositions to enact citizenship within a democracy. Education should also play a role in socializing students into norms and values related to democracy.

Additionally, education ought to develop student’s democratic identity and agency and provide them with opportunities to think critically about society. Does the Coronavirus crisis constrain these goals? Aashamar questions.

Democracy and citizenship are central in social studies, maybe even more so than other subjects, because the concepts are highly embedded in the content, activities and purpose of social studies. Aashamar points out that democracy and citizenship are not only relevant in social studies as opposed to other subjects.

Democracy and citizenship are for example considered a cross-curricular theme in the new Norwegian curriculum. Although social studies in particular was given responsibility for the theme, citizenship education may, and ought to be, enacted in different subjects.

Facilitating dialogical teaching online

Aashamar thinks that the Coronavirus crisis may emphasise the complex relationship between education, democracy and learning.

One question emerging from the crisis is whether good citizenship education is possible online through remote schooling. The answer has to be ‘it depends’.

Image may contain: Clothing, Hair, Face, Chin, Forehead.Jonas Heneu Teglbjærg, a QUINT PhD student based at the University of Southern Denmark, highlights that deliberations can happen digitally.

–  Although online teaching might in practice imply less dialogue, dialogical online teaching is possible, and it might be just a question of getting used to teaching dialogically online. In fact, studies of online deliberation show that democratic deliberation online can sometimes be fruitful for citizens - and hence it might also sometimes be fruitful for students.

Aashamar adds that there are also some studies that illustrate the potential of online teaching for citizenship education, for example participating in online discussions. Some teachers might facilitate ‘democratic discussions’ online in a good way, but this might vary a lot between teachers and schools. The extent to which the teachers are used to using digital technologies for facilitating online discussions might also be a factor, and this is something QUINT project Connected Classrooms is looking into.

Deliberation is, however, merely one way to learn and experience democracy and citizenship, and not all students might be as comfortable partaking in deliberations in online, as in actual classrooms.

There is also quite a bit of evidence that a good classroom climate is pivotal for participation in different forms of classroom dialogue, including deliberations.

This raises the question whether Coronavirus crisis affects the emotional climate among students and teachers. Given that some students only saw their teachers and fellow students once a week when the schools where closed, and that students report that they are missing their fellow classmates, I think there are grounds for concern, Aashamar says.

Lived democracy in time of crisis

As proposed by Dewey, democracy can be considered as ‘a way of life’. If the spaces of schools and classrooms are replaced by digital arenas, we also lose some of the everyday interactions and communal practices that happen in schools, for example joint decision-making and resolving of conflicts through dialogue, Aashamar points out. 

The responsibility for this form of ‘lived democracy’ is to a large extent moved to the home and local community during this crisis. The scope of it was in many ways individualised and privatised. This can be problematic. For example, while some students might have experienced as much, or even more agency, at home than at school, others might not. Moreover, some families have discussions of social issues and news over dinner, but this is not true for all families.

Aashamar fears that the Coronavirus crisis and the closing of schools might have contributed to enlarged social differences in regard to citizenship education.

Students might also have experienced less plurality and difference in their daily life than usual during the crisis, an important dimension of citizenship education.

Remote schooling might enact some aspects of citizenship education, for example civic learning in the form of acquiring knowledge, and to some extent by engaging in online discussions. On the other hand, Aashamar thinks that the Coronavirus Crisis may have constrained other types of citizenship learning, for example the informal socialisation that happens in schools and classrooms, as there has been a lack of opportunities to enact their citizenship in the school community as a plural and public space. For example, through joint decision making, conflict solving, and more spontaneous and unplanned discussions both in and outside of class.

Still, young people might have engaged in different forms of civic learning during the crisis. They might, for example, have gained awareness about the importance of being concerned with others when they are in public places and the importance of public services.

- There is also the possibility that the crisis may have given young people an opportunity to explore and envision society in new ways, Aashamar concludes.

By Larissa Lily, QUINT/UiO
Published June 16, 2020 10:11 AM - Last modified June 16, 2020 11:08 AM