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Towards a peace education curriculum.
Democratic education
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Understanding conflict

It is sometimes argued that the larger purpose of all educators is to foster democracy. But what do we mean by democracy and what is involved in a democratic education? Roger Walters looks at the issues.

Democratic education aims to develop real democracy through active participation by all those involved in classrooms and educational institutions. In democratic education students have the power to make decisions about their learning, because power is shared rather than appropriated in advance by a minority of people. Education, in its various forms, is basically authoritarian, since one person, or small groups of people make decisions about ‘what to learn, when to learn, how to learn, how to assess learning, and the nature of the learning environment’. Furthermore such decisions are taken in course planning committees and accreditation boards often before the students have even enrolled on a course or met together as a group.

fostering democracy
Democratic education in the secondary sector presents a particular difficulty because students may have the power to make some, perhaps most, but not all the decisions about their learning.. For example, if you wish to study for a prescribed examination, the syllabus is set, although you may still have some choice of study within it. This can be facilitated by approaches that encourage students to undertake a co-operative learning approach to study through, say a group project. This means that students take on decision making about some content and method. Group work can be flexible enough to avoid being stifled by an externally imposed assessment. Therefore, whilst some current changes in education involve moves to create ever larger institutions, and a closely prescribed curriculum, certain classes may remain small, and group work may still exist. Indeed, with more emphasis on course and project work, for example at GCE Advanced Level, group work may be enhanced.

Democratic education in the primary school encourages a realisation in pupils that they are valued as people, and that they have a positive role to play in creating a caring community within the school. Relationships between pupils and teachers gradually improve as they work democratically together to create a positive environment. At Highfield Junior School in Plymouth (see Peace Matters 18) these aims have been successfully attained precisely through an emphasis on democracy. One of the ‘rules’ - 'resolve conflict peacefully, mediate, negotiate” - can only be kept through another rule, that is, “keep the rules of our democracy, be a contributing citizen'.

relevance to peace
The comments above suggest that some of the consequences of democratic practices closely relate to the aims and objectives of co-operation, conflict resolution and other areas of peace education. Democratic education is likely to develop a sense of community amongst a group of students and a partnership between teachers and learners based on mutual trust in the capability and creative ability of all those involved in a particular learning process.

Moreover, the movement to promote real participatory democracy through the medium of education involves important procedural values. These include tolerance of diversity, mutual respect between individuals and groups, a respect for evidence in forming opinions, a willingness to be open to the possibility of changing one's mind in the light of such evidence, the possession of a critical stance towards political information and finally, seeing that all people have equal social and political rights as human beings. These relate very closely to some of the aims of peace educators, since building upon the shared aspects of being human and relating toward one another with tolerance and kindness are, arguably, shared objectives. Peace and democracy are mutually inclusive, characterising life and particular relationships. There cannot be a realistic agenda for peace education unless there is an emphasis on reason, open-mindedness and a fairness which the practice of ‘real’ democracy will ensure.

promoting peace education
Peace education focuses on fostering an ability to strive for peace in relationships between individuals and groups; establishing a sense of responsibility for one's decisions and actions; developing an understanding of the interdependence of people. Peace education focuses on the nature and sources of conflict, of justice and welfare within and between individuals, of the nature of power and the way in which power influences individuals, groups and nations.

These aims predicate particular skills and attitudes. For example, the fostering of acquired skills such as analysis, evaluation and critical thinking, co-operative skills, empathy, clear communication, conflict resolution and political literacy.

These skills and attitudes are also found underlying moves to enhance both democratic education and informal education. Like peace education they have developed significantly throughout the 1980s and 990s, and all have an important part to play in questioning common-sense beliefs and attitudes.

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