On May 12, 2022, in partnership with Protection Approaches, the Auschwitz Institute for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities (AIPG) and its Warren Educational Policies Program (WEPP) organized the global launch for the report entitled, “Democratic Education Needs Imagination” (DENI). The event was moderated by Dr. Clara Ramírez Barat, Director of AIPG’s WEPP, and Andy Fearn, Co-Executive Director and Head of Learning and Outreach of Protections Approaches. The conversation featured select experts from this initiative, including Olga Lúcia Zárate Mantilla (Ministry of Education, Colombia), Tuija Kasa (University of Helsinki, Finland), Vachararutai Jan Boontinand (Mahidol University, Thailand), and Fernande Raine (History Co:Lab, USA).
‘Democratic Education Needs Imagination’ is a project based on the belief that education is fundamental to addressing and preventing the rise of identity-based violence, mass atrocities, and democratic backsliding. The DENI report builds upon a global online conference in which 25 education experts discussed twelve working papers from professionals, policymakers, and practitioners in the education field worldwide. The final report collects evidence of best practices in democratic teaching, learning, planning, and policy, based on the expertise of diverse local contexts. In doing so, it also outlines those key obstacles which have hindered the development of democratic education thus far, including a lack of shared language, siloed policies and processes, poor accountability systems, and uneven state funding. The four main themes of this initiative are:
- Knowledge, attitude, and skills (competencies)
- Classroom-based strategies and methodologies
- School culture and communities
- Educational policies and planning
During the event, the panelists shared and discussed opportunities within the educational systems to overcome various challenges and promote democratic strength to reduce polarization and lack of intergroup conversation. Applying the experiences of different contexts, the conversation focused on the joint effort to better understand how projects can be implemented more efficiently. Panelists strategized the curricular pedagogies for creating respectful and inclusive communities, which themselves can act as a tool for democratic participation among their members.
Based on her research and experience in Thailand, Dr. Boontinand explained:
It is important to consider young people’s social, cultural, political, and economic context to develop curricular and pedagogical practices that promote a set of core competencies. These include knowledge, attitude, and skills, to enable young people to understand human dignity, human rights, critical thinking, and the ability to disagree respectfully, as well as empathy, curiosity, and respect for oneself and others in the environment, to live in and deal with the complexity of the modern world.
Dr. Boontinand emphasized the need to teach about historically oppressed groups as well as human rights violations that have impacted them, which can sensitize young people to the outcomes of biases and intolerance. She noted that learning should not only focus on content knowledge but also on mutual learning, as education goes beyond schooling.
Another important topic of conversation focused on how to equip and support educators by possibly adopting programs seen in different countries that focus on teacher training in teaching democratic and civic studies. On this matter, Ph.D. researcher Kasa spoke about her work training educators in Finland, highlighting the importance of opening the conversation to students planning to become teachers.
If we want to empower children and young people in school, we need teachers. They are the gatekeepers, hold power, and can be progressive or reproduce the old power structures. We need support for teachers because young people want to learn and understand more about human rights in modern and diverse societies. Schools need to change, and we need to support that change. Schools need space for critical thinking and reflection on diversity.
On the theme of connections with the broader community, Ms. Raine addressed the need for imagination and creativity to forge new strategies for ensuring students’ academic success and curiosity in civil competencies. She posited that this could be achieved by integrating tech companies and other new players like museums, libraries, and community organizations into the academic curriculum. In addition, Ms. Raine emphasized the intergenerational nature of conversations today. Young people are essential to advocate for creativity and democratic education and can engage other people to “break the bold mold.” She explained:
We must develop and provide spaces and experiences that help students understand different conversations. For a living democratic practice in our communities, it is important to incorporate new people and bring in music, artists, technology, and multimedia efforts.
Regarding educational policies and planning, Ms.Zárate Mantillas discussed the importance of including young people in developing public policies together with policymakers. States can commit to democratic education by considering and learning from past policy failures, successes, and lessons learned from policies to better use public resources in developing and designing programs based on experience and evidence. For example, evaluations from Colombia and elsewhere have proven that developing skills such as critical thinking, empathy, emotion regulation, perspective-taking, and emotional management are fundamental to civil society. She said:
Developing skills for democracy and citizenship helps improve learning in mathematics and language. There is evidence in the world that if we contribute to forming more democratic thinking, it helps reduce corruption. When we are older and enter a more productive system and work, it allows us to be more creative and innovative and improve productivity. We must lose our fear and use this evidence to improve the design of public policies.