The view from here - Canada - Taking democracy into the classroom

Erin Millar

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a student. You have been plucked from your school and dropped in a new classroom in an unknown country. Would you be able to tell, from the pedagogy, whether you are in a democratic or a totalitarian state? The answer, of course, is that unless there is a large picture of a mustachioed gentleman on the wall, you may not be able to immediately make the right call.

In Alberta, this concept has given rise to a school-based movement that has won many admirers, despite risking reinforcing all sorts of cliches about woolly liberal Canada. The phenomenon was born a few years ago when community activist Julia Dalman heard Dr Joel Westheimer, a University of Ottawa researcher, describe the thought experiment above.

Student political apathy is not to blame for a lack of engagement or low election turnout among younger voters, Ms Dalman decided. Rather, students are being excluded by the authoritarian way schools are run.

Sure, students are taught facts about democracy in an effort to prepare them to be citizens, she later told a panel organised by the Alberta Teachers' Association, but this instruction occurs in an institution that is not remotely democratic. Students are required to listen quietly to authority figures, stay in their seat until the bell rings and complete their homework on time. "What kind of citizens are we creating if we are not modelling our schools after democracies, not allowing any student ownership over the way they learn?" she asked.

This rhetoric electrified her audience. Indeed, Jean Stiles, principal of Jasper Place High School in Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, offered Ms Dalman a job on the spot. One of her first initiatives after taking up the offer was to launch the Global Cafe in an effort to create a space at Jasper Place that students truly owned - and to draw them away from a coffee chain outlet across the street. "Students control the profits from the cafe," Ms Dalman explained. "They can put the money towards different projects proposed by students and teachers. It gives them a voice in the direction of the school."

Next, Ms Dalman and her colleagues took on the curriculum, starting with a pilot project that attempted to give students power over their own learning. In place of a standard set of lessons, assignments and exams, students were asked to design community-based projects that would achieve the same outcomes. It was judged so successful that the school is launching a larger project called Insight Education next year.

The work at Jasper Place is just one example of how Dr Westheimer's ideas are being adopted across the country. In his paper No Child Left Thinking, the academic urges schools to move away from teaching the facts of "good citizenship" and instead kindle critical thought. "'Good citizenship' to many educators means listening to authority figures, dressing neatly, being nice to neighbours and helping out at a soup kitchen," he wrote.

While this philosophy may risk bolstering international perceptions of Canada as America's long-lost social democratic twin, in a quiet and oh-so-liberal way it is exceptionally radical. Just ask the pupils of Jasper Place High School.

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Erin Millar

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