‘Healthy skepticism’: democracy, deliberation in elementary classrooms

Fourth-grade students demonstrate a ‘healthy skepticism for authority’ in classroom simulations of participatory deliberations find researchers at the University of Texas, Austin.

Katherina Ann Payne, James V. Hoffman, and Samuel DeJulio, in ‘Doing democracy through simulation, deliberation, and inquiry with elementary students’, argue that opportunities for critique and agency in schools can support democratic capabilities.  As part of a teacher education project, students experienced tensions of democracy firsthand as they grappled with ethical dilemmas in classroom simulations. Students were not only capable of participating in deliberations, they also recognized the complexity of making democratic decisions that affected the wellbeing of others.

Built around Jill Paton Walsh‘s The Green Book, the simulation provided students with opportunities for critique and discussion of ethical and social themes. Choices made by students led to self-directed inquiry, demonstrated research, analysis, and presentation capabilities, highlighting their potential as engaged citizens.

Exploring deliberation as a tool for democratic education, the authors suggest themed learning outcomes for the students: critique and distrust of authority, deliberation and difficulty, and agency and inquiry. Chronicling student’s actions and responses, the authors propose a model of inquiry-based learning that explores social studies, critical literacy and democratic education in the elementary classroom. They observe that elementary classrooms offer ways to understand democracy through:

  • acquiring knowledge through learning about government structures;
  • developing democratic skills through discussion; and,
  • learning democratic dispositions through norms and behaviors.

The deliberations illustrated student values around honesty, justice, and loyalty that emerged from conversations – and highlighted student recognition of the challenges of deliberating across different values and points of view, demonstrating the importance of giving students more control of their learning process.

Katherine Ann Payne is Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas at Austin. James V. Hoffman is Professor of Language and Literacy Studies in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas at Austin. Samuel DeJulio is a doctoral student of Language and Literacy in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas at Austin.

Photo: Megan Soule/Unsplash/cc

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