Learning democracy – teaching practices in focus | Skolforskningsinstitutet

Learning democracy – teaching practices in focus

The aim of the Swedish education system is to ensure that all students acquire and develop both knowledge and values. According to Swedish law, the education system must convey respect for human rights and democratic values. The purpose of this systematic review is to give teachers an overview of the research about how students learn democracy. The question that the review seeks to answer is:

What teaching practices promote democracy learning?

Democracy learning is defined as learning knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values relating to democracy.

Teaching practices

The review includes studies of teaching with the explicit purpose of promoting democracy learning. Half the studies included in the review are intervention studies that investigate the causal relationship between specific teaching methods and democracy learning. The other half are correlation studies that investigate how the learning environment influences how students learn democracy.

The intervention studies primarily highlight teaching practices that focus on discussions and group work, as well as simulations such as role play and student participation in decision-making processes. Some studies also emphasise the importance of using news media and texts about politics in the classroom, as well as interacting with the surrounding community.

The correlation studies primarily highlight teaching approaches that promote an open classroom environment, which facilitates discussions and encourages students to participate actively in class activities. Some studies emphasise the importance of teacher engagement and leadership.

Democracy learning

The results of the review show that encouraging students to participate actively in teaching also promotes democracy learning in terms of knowledge, skills, attitudes and values. Active participation helps students gain a shared sense of responsibility and gives them opportunities to experience and practice democratic principles and values.
School plays an important role, but should be put in relation to other factors that influence democracy learning. One important conclusion, drawn by multiple researchers, is that teaching practices influence democracy learning but that different teaching methods can benefit different aspects of democracy learning for different students.

Knowledge and skills

The overall picture provided by the research included in this review shows a positive correlation between an open classroom environment and students’ knowledge of democracy. Moreover, an open classroom environment seems to be an important component in strengthening students’ ability to test out their own opinions in discussions with others. Participating in decision-making processes at school can improve the students’ capacity for democratic participation.

Using news media in teaching encourages students to discuss societal issues and can especially benefit students who do not have access to newspapers at home. Informative texts can contribute factual knowledge that students use to form arguments during discussions. Taking responsibility for cooperation and the tone of discussions in small groups can boost student understanding of democratic concepts and principles, with social classroom activities being particularly important for students in younger age groups.

Attitudes and values

School can affect students’ attitudes to participation and political behaviour later in life. An open classroom environment, and inclusive and mutually respectful relationships between teachers and students promote higher future participation in elections and other democratic processes. Cooperation exercises in the form of groupwork also promote a higher participation rate in elections as adults. For upper-secondary school students, there is a link between an open classroom environment and democratic values. Involving students in simulations allows them to develop a nuanced image of the opportunities and challenges associated with democracy.

Teachers can promote all students’ willingness to participate in democracy by being aware of minority perspectives in class and highlighting critical perspectives. Group discussions and the use of news media can increase students’ confidence in their own capacity to participate in democracy and promote positive attitudes towards future political participation. Visiting external exhibitions and other ways of interacting with the surrounding community can strengthen students’ support for political equality and contribute to equity in education by giving students of all backgrounds access to such opportunities for learning.

A multifaceted mission

We chose to include research about different aspects of democracy learning. However, we have been careful to ensure that the studies included in the review clearly and unambiguously relate to the concept of democracy, so several closely related areas were not included.

The review does not include research about how to prevent violence, bullying and extremism, or about how to promote attendance, motivation and health. Nor does the review cover research about the students’ development of prosocial behaviour. We have also excluded research with a specific focus on education about human rights and anti-racism, anti-extremism, equality, LGTBQ+, sustainable development and global and social justice. Research about ethics and morality and how students relate to concepts such as love, tolerance, justice and freedom has also been excluded. Finally, research about critical thinking and source criticism has been excluded, as has research about civics and citizenship education that is not specifically related to democracy.

Selection of research

This systematic overview is based on 32 studies conducted in eleven countries. The studies evaluate teaching that aims to promote democracy learning in various subjects from primary school to adult education. However, most of the research included is focused on teaching in social studies in primary school and high school.
The review includes empirical studies where democracy learning is evaluated by comparisons between students or over time. All the included studies have been published in peer-reviewed sources.

The systematic review is available as summary, information sheet and full report (in Swedish).

Project group

The project team consists of external researchers (specialists in the field) and staff at the Swedish Institute for Educational Research.

External researchers

Maria Olson, PhD, professor of Subject Didactics, Stockholm University and guest professor of Pedagogy at Dalarna University

Mikael Persson, PhD, professor of Political Science, University of Gothenburg

From the Institute for Educational Research

Pontus Wallin, PhD, project manager

Ilana Manneh, PhD, assistant project manager

Lisa Jonsson, information specialist

Catarina Melin, project assistant