The Democratic Classroom

The skills required for developing a generation that prioritizes sustainable development and respects the values of global citizenship can be honed in classrooms if students are encouraged to challenge their assumptions writes Carolyn Nash

The bedrock tradition of organized education, whether formal, informal, or non-formal, begins with a student-teacher relationship. This is true whether the teacher is a certified instructor, a coach, a mentor, or a peer. Learning is interactive, founded on communication skills, listening skills, and power sharing.


But this critical relationship receives marginal attention at best from most education systems. A strong student-teacher bond might receive passing praise, while a weak relationship is viewed primarily as an obstacle to be overcome – and then ignored – as quickly as possible.


Many education systems, including America’s, refer to this relationship as “classroom management,” an unwelcome burden teachers must overcome before they can move on to the “real” work of instruction. In many Asian cultures, a student’s critical engagement is limited by the view that any challenge to a teacher is inherently disruptive and disrespectful.


But efforts to neutralize and ignore these relationships deny students opportunities to develop the skills required of global citizens. The communication, listening, and power-sharing skills that positive teacher-student relationships require are the same skills that will support the development of young adults whose personal and professional decisions demonstrate respect for their peers and their world. Classrooms are the most widely accessible place to cultivate social, personal, and environmental responsibility in young people.


The skills required for developing a generation that prioritizes sustainable development and respects the values of global citizenship are not complex. They are the skills that govern how we relate to our friends, our foes, and our community. They are the skills of critical engagement: how we communicate our wants and needs, how we listen to the needs of others, and how we reconcile two sets of fundamentally opposing ideas without resorting to anger, frustration, or violence.


When a student throws something in a classroom, taunts another student, refuses to do homework, or insults a teacher, something in this triad of social skills has broken down. These classroom management conflicts should be our greatest teaching moments. But teachers are far too often instructed by their education systems to minimize outbursts and to truncate incidents as quickly as possible.


Instead, we need to encourage and support teachers in recognizing the opportunity they have when they see a weakness or struggle in these areas. At the heart of lashing out is a fear of being unable to communicate, unable to understand, or unable to reconcile new, challenging information with their own identity. By shutting students down, teachers tacitly acknowledge the fear that, in the face of a challenge, their world becomes smaller, less safe, less free.


Our classrooms should be places where students are encouraged to see a challenge to their assumptions not as a threat to their identity but as a broadening of the world they live in. The most powerful instruction dismantles the fear that a person cannot be heard and that their needs cannot be included. Classroom management is not a distraction from something more important. It’s the delicate and complex work of building civic engagement skills in young people.


The greatest exercise in developing responsible, civic-minded young people is a conversation and debate that moves towards a decision in which all parties participate – although not all parties will necessarily agree. Participating in collective decision-making is the ultimate testament that your voice is heard, even when your wishes are not granted.


Democratic exchanges teachers us the power of our own voice and the value of opposition. It’s how we learn what it means to be part of a majority and part of a minority, and it’s how we cultivate respect for each group, even when we belong to the other. Classrooms should be a place where young people learn that their opinions can sway the votes of others, that the needs of their peers is sometimes powerful enough to change their own beliefs, and that those moments of irreconcilably differences are not the ultimate determinant in our human bond – that we move forward, together, with greater responsibility for our shared global destiny and greater respect for the facets of our individual diversity.

Carolyn Nash is the Director of the Myanmar Center for Civic Leadership ( You can reach her at




*The views reflected in this post are those of the author and do not reflect the views of UNESCO MGIEP.

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