Academic Exchange Quarterly      Winter   2007    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  11, Issue  4

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Teaching Democracy Democratically


Robert M. Press, University of Southern Mississippi

Press, PhD. is an Assistant Professor of Political Science, International Development and International Affairs.



Teachers often teach about American democracy in an autocratic way: they lecture and tell students what to read, what to do, and when to do it. This article examines an innovative, alternative pedagogical model that involves both democratic practices in the classroom and off-campus community service requirements to help students relate democratic theory to reality. Advantages and disadvantages are presented for this teaching method, which builds on literature that stresses the benefits of active, student-centered and participatory learning over passive learning.


A student bounding up the steps asks his teacher in American Government 101: “What are we going to do today?” The teacher’s reply, “You never know” is more honest than the student realized [1]. Teaching democracy democratically involves planning; it also involves flexibility and spontaneity and making mistakes. In the normal classroom setting, things are more certain – and often more authoritarian. Students seldom leave the classroom; teachers often are the sole  authority and assume the role, through their lectures, of primary source of knowledge.


 The thesis of this article is that one way to teach democracy, building on literature that questions the authoritarian model, is to teach it democratically. This involves trusting students in the classroom by sharing authority with them, and trusting them to go into the community to discover for themselves some of the needs of society and the strengths and weakness of our democratic system in meeting those needs [2].


Relevant themes from the literature

Learning, according to educational pioneer Dewey (1933), involves understanding, not just the storing of knowledge in memory and the ability to reproduce it on demand. Eyler and Giles ( 1999, pp. 64-65) cite the case of Richard Feynman, a Nobel laureate physicist, who found that university students could recall information only when questions were phrased the way they were in the classroom text – but without really understanding the information and without being able to apply it to new situations. Feynman (1985, p. 213) wrote: “They could pass examinations and ‘learn’ all this stuff and not know [emphasis in original] anything at all.”


The late Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1990) suggested that teaching should not involve an attempt by the teacher to pour learning into the empty mind of a student, like filling a glass with water [3]. This means moving beyond the usual lecture model, not just for the sake of innovation but for sound pedagogical reasons. “There is near consensus among the researchers that effective learning, particularly concerning emotional and higher-order intellectual development, requires interactive and participatory strategies” (Herman 1996, p. 56). Gregory Markus, a political scientist at the University of Michigan noted: “One way to do this in teaching American government is to teach democracy democratically.”


This can involve the teacher giving up some of the usual role as the main source of classroom wisdom and providing an atmosphere for students to express their own ideas more freely. Classrooms, however, including many of today’s technologically equipped ones, still emphasize the role of the teacher as the fount of most knowledge. “It is difficult to imagine that individuals can develop their capacities as public citizens via a pedagogy in which students passively acquire knowledge dispensed from the expert at the front of the room. Instead, the classroom model must model the practices it intends to teach“ (Markus 1997, p. 77).


The literature on teaching democratically is rather sparse. There are two possible reasons for this: lack of interest, and the additional work and risks involved. The lecture model is still quite common, though variations on it allow for significant classroom discussions and other participation. “Those who are interested [in teaching democratically] must engage in an extremely time-consuming, energy-sapping experience. It is not surprising, therefore, that there is not a surfeit of actual democratic classroom experimentation” (Becker and Couto 1996, p. 26).


McKeachie, in his popular book on teaching methods, suggests that students involved in structuring their material can recall it and use it better (McKeachie 1994, p. 280). But he offers several cautions useful for anyone trying a more democratic approach in the classroom. First, on the issue of student independence v. teacher control, in what he terms “experiential learning,” giving students the freedom to “make and learn from mistakes” is useful. But if students lose too much time adjusting to the new teaching methods, they lose motivation. A teacher should offer initial “support and guidance…encouraging more independence as the student surmounts initial problems.” Second, although research suggests people enjoy new stimuli, if the stimuli or methods are “totally incongruous or very strange, students develop anxiety instead of curiosity” (pp. 141; 350).



Democracy in the classroom

Teaching democracy democratically involves practicing democracy in the classroom. The degree of democratization depends on the willingness of the teacher to try new pedagogical methods. Some teachers gradually turn over more and more decision-making authority to students during a term (Caspary and Herman 1996). Another teacher allowed students to craft and vote on a  “syllabus-constitution” which left the teacher in an executive role but gave students legislative and Supreme Court functions; and he allowed students to re-design course content and evaluation procedures (Mattern 1996).


My classrooms are a mix of democracy and the more traditional methods. About half the class time is still devoted to informal lectures. But the aim even during the lectures is to create a town hall meeting atmosphere where students are encouraged to ask questions and make comments. The teacher can walk around the classroom, including between aisles where possible, frequently soliciting answers, reactions, opinions, from the students, while still staying close to the text theme of the week and using illustrative stories and examples to make government and democracy come more alive. With the teacher still fully in charge, this is not the most democratic element in the course.


The rest of the time can be devoted to greater student participation and involvement, including, a voice in choosing which topics to debate or present. One student called this power sharing with students not just an innovation but also a "revolution." Students also vote on whether to do the presentations. One semester, however, students barely voted to have a voice in preparing presentations for the class, viewing it as additional work and not additional learning opportunities.


Beyond the democratic freedom to choose some of the topics to focus on, students are also given freedom to choose pedagogical methods. As if to underscore their preferences for innovative learning/teaching methods, few student-led presentations have involve lectures, though some students do revert to reading portions of the text or their summary of it. My charge to the students is: (1) keep the presentations related to the text theme of the week; (2) be sure there is learning going on in the classroom.  It is sometimes hard to determine when the latter is occurring, however.


Class elections for President and Vice President allow students to choose their own leaders. The class officers can be consulted by the teacher for their views on scheduling and presentations among other points. They also relieve the teacher of making some of the class announcements and they come up with suggestions on the course, which we sometimes put to a vote. One semester we had frequent class votes; on some non-critical issues I was outvoted. Some students complained of having too many votes that cut into class time, while others pointed out that democracy is not a speedy process.


Elections for officers are learning tools because we hold them according to the historical circumstances of the period we are studying. A number of students said the class elections were the first time they realized how unjust American society and government were toward women and blacks throughout much of nation’s history. One student said early in the class:  “I don’t have anything to do with politics.” But she was later nominated by the class and elected Vice President. 


Role-playing can bring a sense of democracy in the classroom. Using simulations printed out from the software of a publisher, students assume such roles as judges, mayors, police, or lobbyists. They divide into groups of usually five to seven students [4].  Their preparation has been the lecture and class discussion of the theme with which the simulation deals. Near the end of the class students are asked to select a representative of their team to come forward and explain why they made the choices they made. This has the added advantage of putting students, including shy ones, on their feet in front of the class, helping them gain speaking confidence.


A key element of democracy is gaining a better understanding of what it means to be a good citizen. Dankwart Rustow (1999, p. 37) argues that democracy involves not only consensus but “dissension and conciliation,” the ability of people to take different positions but still get along. Debates in the classroom on ‘hot’ topics such as abortion and gay marriage, when structured with advance assigned readings, can help a class learn the art of conciliation. At a minimum, especially if students have to argue both sides of an issue, debates can help the student learn to listen to opposing arguments as well as to shape their own more effectively. (By keeping my own views out of the classroom as much as possible, students are freer to express their own.)


Students vote on the topics they want to debate.  My pedagogical guideline to them is to base their arguments on facts, not emotion or unsupported views. As an experiment, after students had voted to debate gay marriage, I allowed an initial debate in groups with no research preparation. The discussion was lively but also quite emotional at times. Some students voiced their views loudly with little indication that they had listened to the opposite side.


Then I assigned a one-page paper on the pros and cons of the issue. When they brought these to the next class, our class President explained basic debating rules. The students broke into their usual groups of five or six. Mid-way through the debate, I asked them to switch sides. Some found it awkward, but they proceeded, often arguing against their personal beliefs but at least voicing the alternative arguments. The results were impressive: calm deliberations based on facts.


Students and democracy outside the classroom

A community service assignment can help s student learn more about issues and problems in their community and assess how well either the private sector or government is addressing those problems. My students are required to complete ten hours of community service, an initiative possible even in larger classes by inviting community organization representatives to the classroom to give students a variety of choices, which reduces the teacher’s administrative time on the project [5]. 


Students have visited nursing home patients, served meals in a shelter for the homeless, helped rebuild homes damaged by hurricane Katrina, worked in an animal shelter, city hall departments including the police, and in many other activities, including ones they find themselves for which they have obtained my approval.  Students are required to write a policy paper analyzing the issues they have observed and local, state or federal government actions (or lack of them) to address the issues. Though the literature on community service learning emphasizes reflection of their service in terms of journals and classroom discussions, so far my students have not been required to keep journals; and reflective discussions in class have been limited. These are points to be considered in future classes.


One student who worked in the local city urban planning department wrote: “I think I might be interested in a government career and this project gave me some valuable insights into a few aspects of city government.” Another, who worked in the city public relations office and secured ten donations from companies for a United Way program, said she gained a “sense of professionalism” from this informal internship. She also complained at not being allowed to do more important work. Some students end up observing more than actually carrying out specific tasks. One student, for example, was assigned to a local city council member, who took her along to observe working conditions of city sanitation employees and to sit in on a city council meeting. But the student called this a “good learning experience.” Though some students complained of the time involved, especially since most have outside jobs, almost all students each term recommend keeping the community service requirement.


Many students feel estranged from government, as if it is something alien to them and beyond their understanding. So in addition to community service, my students are required to attend one city or county council meeting or attend a court session and write a short paper on the experience.  One of the disadvantages of assigning these outside activities is the extra papers to grade.



Teaching democracy democratically has both advantages and disadvantages. It involves students more, a feature the literature recognizes as positive. The experience of more democracy in the classroom and encounters with community realities also provide new insights into the way democracy does – or does not – work in America. The creative pedagogy can also enliven student interest in American government.


A student campus leader in one of my ‘democratic’ classrooms wrote: “It was great that this class pushed me out of my [university] world and brought the city…and its issues to my attention…This entire class including this project [the city council visit], the community service, and the in-class discussions have opened my mind to a political world that I thought was so distant.” Another said that creating a democratic classroom was a good way to learn democracy. Yet another student who was very active in the class had this to say in an e-mail after the class ended: “I have learned so much…The debates, skits, and other class activities always made me want to come to class and learn more.”


But there are also disadvantages in teaching democratically. Time devoted to discussions among students on how to assume a greater voice in the classroom can lead to frustration among some students and reduces time for impartation of factual and conceptual information by the teacher on the history and politics of American government. Lectures do cover more ground. Keeping classroom discussions about outside assignments focused on the larger themes of government can also be a challenge. There is also additional paperwork involved.


There are few models on how to teach democratically and thus little in the way of conclusive evidence on the effects. Despite whatever plans the teacher has in mind, many of the day-to-day teaching moments are bound to be spontaneous. Mistakes are inevitable, though mistakes by the teacher may well help students overcome their traditional reluctance toward class participation for fear of making mistakes themselves. The spontaneous aspects of teaching democratically will attract some teachers and put off others who prefer the order and content of a good lecture. But classrooms can become more democratic while still involving lectures. On balance, teaching democracy democratically not only makes for a livelier student experience, it makes for a livelier teaching experience.




[1] This was an exchange between the author and one of his students.


[2] None of the separate pedagogical methods described in this article are unique; the author has simply attempted to combine a number of them to help students break through a certain apathy regarding government and even democracy, to not only read about democracy and its problems, but to experience them both inside and outside of the classroom.


[3] Freire was working initially with illiterate Brazilian rubber tapers. 


[4] There are much more complicated role playing techniques in use elsewhere but this rather bare bones method allows for sessions short enough to fit a single class period without a lot of preparation time. Most of my American government classes, which draw students from across the campus as one of the core requirement options, number between 40 and 50 students, with a maximum of about 60. Most are not political science majors.


[5] When I made community service as a substitute for their mid-term, few students took the option. Now in classes usually ranging from 40-50, I require it. Students turn in a time sheet signed by their supervisor with a phone number for verification, though so far I have not felt it necessary to make such investigations.




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Feynman, R. (1985). Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. New York: Norton.

Freire, Paulo. (1990). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum. 

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