Tuesday, October 26, 2010

What Is Democracy In Education

Posted to the UNESCO OER discussion, October 26, 2010.

On Tue, 26 Oct 2010 15:01:28 +0200, "Kizito, Rita"

Dear Anuradha, I love your quote " Learning should be democratised in practice, there should be openness in the field of education!" The question is how do we begin getting to this point pragmatically without theorising too much around what needs to be done ?

Democracy is typically represented as a system of voting and representation, or as instantiated through a set of rights, such as 'freedom of speech', etc. To my mind, though, these represent an emphasis on process rather than underlying principle.

At it's core, democracy represents a fair and equitable distribution of power in society. A society is more democratic when a person has more power to govern his or her own life as he or she sees fit. Or as I say on my home page:

"a system of society and learning where each person is able to rise to his or her fullest potential without social or financial encumberance, where they may express themselves fully and without reservation through art, writing, athletics, invention, or even through their avocations or lifestyle.

"Where they are able to form networks of meaningful and rewarding relationships with their peers, with people who share the same interests or hobbies, the same political or religious affiliations - or different interests or affiliations, as the case may be."

The answer to the practical question, "how do we begin getting to this point pragmatically," leads to a need to enumerate the principles and practices that will lead to this result. To my find, there are four such principles, each with wide-ranging and practical implications.

- Autonomy - the system of education and educational resources should be structured so as to maximize autonomy. Wherever possible, learners should be guided, and able to guide themselves, according to their own goals, purposes, objectives or values. It is a recognition that, insofar as a person shares values with other members of a community, and associates with those members, it is a sharing freely undertaken, of their own volition, based on the evidence, reason and beliefs they find appropriate.

- Diversity - the system of education and educational resources should be structured so as to maximize autonomy. The intent and design of such a system should not be to in some way make everybody the same, but rather to foster creativity and diversity among its members, so that each person in a society instantiates, and represents, a unique perspective, based on personal experience and insight, constituting a valuable contribution to the whole.

- Openness - the system of education and educational resources should be structured so as to maximize openness. People should be able to freely enter and leave the system, and there ought to be a free flow of ideas and artifacts within the system. This is not to preclude the possibility of privacy, not to preclude the possibility that groups may wish to set themselves apart from the whole; openness works both ways, and one ought to be able to opt out as well as in. But it is rather to say that the structure of the system does not impede openness, and that people are not by some barrier shut out from the system as a whole.

- Interactivity - the system of education and educational resources should be structured so as to maximize interactivity. This is a recognition both that learning results from a process of immersion in a community or society, and second that the knowledge of that community or society, even that resulting from individual insight, is a product of the cumulative interactions of the society as a whole. Jut as a language represents the collective wisdom of a society, so also an insight represented in that language is based on that collective insight.

These four principles, in my mind, constitute a concrete guide to action. When faced with, for example, a software selection decision, these four principles enable a mechanism for deciding: does the software support individual autonomy, or must the individual 'see'; the world a certain way to use it; does the software foster diversity, or must the person use standardized operating systems, applications, or data formats; does the software foster openness, or is access locked down behind a series of logins and other restrictions; does the software promote interactivity, or do users work alone or depend on centralized facilities for communication?

In a similar manner, a consideration of pedagogies and educational strategies is also informed by these criteria. Comparing the lecture with a cooperative activity, for example, we see that the lecture tends to foster less autonomy (everyone must attend) and less diversity (everyone must watch and listen). But a lecture, under certain circumstances, may offer increased interactivity, and an open lecture (which people can leave!) enables autonomy. So we have a guide, not only as to whether to offer a lecture, but also how to improve lectures.

I hope these considerations are useful.


  1. I think you are missing one thing. That is that (learning) networks need nurturing. You can't just connect and take. The model requires sharing and contribution. Learning is enhanced when you treat others as you would want and expect to be treated. In a civic republican model, this is called "responsibility". But your network model does not force us into the communitarian frame that you and many others are averse to.

  2. Ron, I think you are overlaying a political philosophy on top of learning theory, and the two aren't a very good fit.

    Network theory itself is agnostic about 'responsibility'. It recognizes that, in order to be in a network at all, there must be at least the capacity, if not the overt action, to send and receive signals.

    Also, there is no overt, or even implicit, supposition of reciprocity. Outputs are often different in form, and directed toward different recipients, on quite different conditions.

    The civic republican model is broken insofar as it attempts to ascribe the same sort of duties on all participants. From some participants in society we want ideas, from others inventions, from others, social change, and from others, nothing more than to act as a repository and progenitor of human genetic material.

    The supposition of 'responsibility' is that some external agent (presumably an authority?) can assign some specific contribution to a person in society. But even welfare recipients who do nothing but have children are participating in the network. It's the form of participation you find objectionable, but the objection is based in ideology, not science.

    The only person who is truly outside the community is a hermit who dies along with no progeny. And even then, society can tolerate a certain number of them, as even the idea of them plays a useful role in the rest of society.

  3. Hi Stephen

    Lucas from Namibian College of Open learning & Kago from Botswana College of Distance and Open Learning.

    We understand that for democracy to be realized everyone involved, in teaching and learning processes should part and parcel in formulation of policies or guidelines on how learning should take place(strategies). We agree with principles mentioned, however we must take cognicence of the fact that they should be flexibility to resort what is appropriate at the moment. Learners should be independent thinkers in order to meaningfully partake in a democratic manner.

  4. We are two distance educators one from Namibia and the other from Botswana

    We agree with you Downes on the four principles of democracy in education. We do agree that openess has to be maximised but there is a question mark on the issue of free in free out structure. Would this not encourage learners to do a little bit of this and that and in the end they have not acquired any skill?

  5. Lets not forget that all the above-mentioned points for democracy in learning are dependent on learners being skilled in planning and managing their own learning. From our experience in Southern Africa, the mindset and attitude of the learner is a very important determinant of the principles to be effected in the learning process.

  6. I do not deny that this approach requires some degree of focus, motivation and skill on the part of the learner.

    But these are attributes required in a democracy in any case. Even if I represented democracy more traditionally - supporting free elections, freedom of speech, etc. - it is apparent that some degree of skill is required by the people in order for democracy to function.

    My point is that we cannot advance democracy by suppressing the need for, and practice in, those skills. Having a pedagogy that requires those skills is the first step in the encouraging of their development.

  7. Democracy in Education while 'having a pedagogy that requires those skills is the first step in encouraging of their development'is more of an implication to me to divide the learning process into its formal stages and resource requirements(chiefly, intellectual requirements). After doing this division, an analysis of the attributes of democracy that relate to each stage should then be done not forgetting how democracy is going to affect each stage. The above article seems to be giving democracy in learning a 'hand-up' but it does not touch on the its implications to the provision of learning. Its implications on learning will determine if there really is need for democracy in learning, if it is achievable and would it not compromise the quality of graduands we are going to produce, etc.
    I do hope I have put my point across in an understandable manner.

  8. Sort of. Your concerns may be answered in my longer article, An Introduction to Connective Knowledge. http://www.downes.ca/post/33034

  9. How would you define democracy in education in an african pespective

  10. that is a new and a wonderful take on the philosophy of education


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