The role of teachers in developing democratic competence

Cards for Democracy
Published on
February 07, 2022
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The role of teachers in developing democratic competence

Licht, A.; Pateraki, I.; Scimeca, S. (2019). If not in Schools, where?Learn and practice Democracy with eTwinning.
Central Support Service of eTwinningEurope Schoolnet, Brussels.

  • Building democratic school environments is the responsibility of all stakeholders

  • Education has an important role to play in countering the challenges of today’s complexities and uncertainties

  • Rethinking education: growing recognition of the importance of teaching and learning active citizenship

  • Enabling teachers to develop 21st century competences

Building democratic school environments is the responsibility of all stakeholders

A democratic school does not just happen, it is an ongoing process, and one that may not run smoothly or be harmonious or devoid of conflicting views and opinions.

A truly democratic environment is one in which individuals can constructively interact with others and where people can agree to disagree on issues within a framework where human rights and the rule of law are upheld and respected.

While the immediate responsibility of establishing a democratic school environment may be that of the school principal or leader, in a democracy, there are other stakeholders who have a vested interest in the success of the school – the students, teachers, parents and the wider community (Bäckman & Trafford, 2007).

Democratic environments are the result of a collective effort.

Education has an important role to play in countering the challenges of today’s complexities and uncertainties

The European policy cooperation framework emphasises that education and training have a crucial role to play in meeting the many socio-economic, demographic, environmental and technological challenges facing Europe and its citizens today and, in the years, ahead.

The primary goal of European cooperation should be to support the education and training systems in the EU Member States, aimed at ensuring: (a) the personal, social and professional fulfilment of all citizens;
(b) sustainable economic prosperity and employability, whilst promoting democratic values, social cohesion, active citizenship, and intercultural dialogue.

These purposes echo the vision of education developed by the Council of Europe (in Recommendation CM/Rec(2007)6), that includes four major purposes:

  1. Developing a broad knowledge base,
  2. Preparing for the labour market,
  3. Preparing for life as active citizens and,
  4. Personal development

The first two areas are largely the ones state schools focus on. Yet, increasingly, perhaps under the pressures of the conditions of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) we live in today, education for democratic citizenship and personal development are receiving more attention.

Shared responsibility for education and deciding what is important for children and teenagers to learn is possible with stakeholders cooperating towards common goals: parents, educational institutions, civil society and young people themselves.

An increasing number of educators experiment within the curriculum to create learning activities that teach values, attitudes, skills and knowledge that learners need to contribute to a democratic culture. They instill democratic processes in learning activities and classroom settings such as democratic classroom management, cooperative learning structures, participative (self- and peer-) assessment, and participation of civil society throughout young people’s education journey. With the growing awareness of education professionals that needs in education are changing, we are entering a ‘ripe moment’.

Rethinking education: growing recognition of the importance of teaching and learning active citizenship

The need for change in education has been widely recognised in recent years. Several international associations and organisations have published important documents to this effect.

In addition to the references provided in the introduction, it is also worth noting that the Council of Europe’s Manifesto: Education for Change – Change for Education (2014) highlights the importance of rethinking education: “The models of schooling we inherited from the past tend to be elitist, hierarchical and exclusive; features which have perhaps softened over the years, but which have not really been challenged by the democratisation of the secondary and tertiary education that many countries have experienced in recent decades” (Council of Europe, 2014, p. 21).

Based on a review of employers’ 21st century expectations of school leavers, we find that: cooperation, complex problem solving, critical thinking, autonomy, creativity, empathy, accountability, emotional intelligence, multiperspectivity, cognitive flexibility, entrepreneurship, ICT literacy and readiness for life-long learning are all vitally important skills.

However, hierarchical relationships in schools and traditional frontal methods of teaching compartmentalised school subjects are unlikely to develop these skills and qualities sufficiently in learners.

The Manifesto points this out very clearly:

“In order to change behaviours and favour the integration of new concepts and values, learners would benefit from experiential learning within a socio-constructivist approach, allowing them to observe, reflect, compare, research, experiment – all activities that are not often integrated sufficiently into traditional choices such as “learning by heart” and frontal approaches where there is one “educator who knows and talks” and a “learner who does not know and listens”

(Council of Europe, 2014, p. 20)

Concluding a project started in 2013, the Council of Europe adopted a Reference Framework of Competences for a Democratic Culture (2017), developing nonprescriptive guidelines that national authorities and education stakeholders can use and adapt as they see fit. The framework provides a comprehensive model of the competences that learners need to acquire if they are to participate effectively in a culture of democracy, with descriptors and guidelines for implementation.

In order for their learners to develop these skills, the role of teachers needs to evolve. “Teachers as facilitators of learning in an interconnected world will be encouraged to develop particular transversal competences in themselves on top of the competences specific to their academic subject” (Council of Europe, 2014, p. 24). This has become all the more important since the Global Competence Framework (OECD-PISA, 2018) was launched. According to the OECD-PISA website “Global competence is the capacity to examine local, global and intercultural issues, to understand and appreciate the perspectives and worldviews of others, to engage in open, appropriate and effective interactions with people from different cultures, and to act for collective well-being and sustainable development” (2018). With these developments the question arises how we can best support teachers to develop these competences in themselves and their learners so they can learn to change and change to learn.

Enabling teachers to develop 21st century competences

Beijard, Meijer, Morine-Dershimer and Tilemma (2005) call for a redefinition of teacher professionalism with an emphasis on improving the quality of teacher thinking and learning in an ever-changing context.

They call for a dynamic approach to teaching and teacher learning, in which the development of the teacher’s identity becomes crucial. This teacher identity requires the development of what Mockler (2011) describes as the teachers’ “political edge”, or their ability to support a critical and reflective education for democracy.

This is work that is never completed: commitment to lifelong learning perspective, and experiential learning are of the essence.

Learn to Change, within a framework of social justice and creative human emancipation, have developed Cards for Democracy for All. A set of 60 cards intended for individuals or groups, to self-reflect on their attitudes, skills, knowledge and understanding so that they can better contribute to creating democratic spaces and improve their own practices and behaviors.

The competences we need for democracy are sought after in changing workplaces: 21st century skills such as adaptability, ability to cooperate with others across borders and complex problem solving are in demand.

The Teachers’ Edition of the Cards for Democracy is designed specifically to help teachers reflect on, examine and improve their attitudes, skills and knowledge in implementing democratic processes and/or experiences in the classroom and improve their own practices.

The cards identify and describe key actions that people who are facilitating learning can develop to promote inclusive and democratic learning environments. Our team has developed a series of activities that use the Cards for Democracy to engage stakeholders.

These activities are available online on our official website (

Some other free resources that support the creation of democratic school environments and the development of democratic competences include:

Compass: a manual on human rights education providing youth leaders, teachers and other educators, concrete ideas and practical activities to engage, involve and motivate young people. If not in Schools, where? Learn and practice Democracy with eTwinning 18
Compasito: provides children, educators, teachers and parents activities and methods to introduce children to human rights in creative and attractive ways.
TASKs for democracy: 60 activities to learn and assess transversal attitudes, skills and knowledge in a handbook for practitioners in formal and non-formal educational settings developed within the Pestalozzi Programme Community of Practice of the Council of Europe. Our hope is that access to such resources will encourage teachers to experiment with new ideas, supported by relevant teacher education opportunities.

The full set of Cards for Democracy in PDF format is available for download to members of Learn to Change.

If you are already a member, click on picture, download and print your own set now!

About the authors

Pascale Mompoint-Gaillard

Teacher educator, Social psychologist, President of Learn to Change, France

Ildikó Lázár

Senior lecturer at the Department of English Language Pedagogy of Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary

Charlot Cassar

Primary school principal, St. Margaret College Zabbar Primary School B, Malta


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