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Equity & Diversity Opinion

Learning Across Borders: 8 Lessons for Teaching Civics and Democracy

By Karen Murphy — September 26, 2016 5 min read
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Educational curricula, systems, and approaches differ among cities, provinces, and countries around the world. Yet, educators struggle with some similar issues. Facing History and Ourselves, a global educational nonprofit, whose mission is to engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice, and anti-Semitism in order to promote the development of a more humane and informed citizenry, recently facilitated a week-long Advanced International Seminar hosted by North Country Day School to explore these issues. Karen Murphy, International Director for Facing History and Ourselves, shares the lessons they learned.

Join Facing History on #GlobalEdChat this Thursday, September 29, 2016 at 8pm ET on Twitter to discuss teaching civics and this election cycle.

Bringing together a broad range of educators from around the world, (Northern Ireland, South Africa, England, Mexico, France, Chicago Public Schools, and North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka, Illinois), created an opportunity to explore some of education’s key challenges as well as best practices in teaching civic education. The seminar was guided by several questions including:


  • How do we guide the development of civic actors who have the skills, knowledge, and dispositions to support and nurture democracy?
  • How do we help young people navigate the complex historical legacies they have inherited and understand the ways that identity is powerfully implicated in this process?
  • And, how do we, as educators, confront these issues ourselves, recognizing the power of our roles and the implications of the narratives we construct for our students in terms of what we teach and don’t; how we teach; what we see and don’t see; connections we make and don’t make?

Here are a few of the lessons we learned through our discussions:


  • Community building is not a one-off effort.
    Creating a challenging, safe, reflective, and inclusive space requires ongoing effort. Students need opportunities to work alone, in pairs, in small groups, and in big circles where they can see each other and sit side by side. They also need opportunities to have fun together and work on common projects and goals. We need to be explicit about these efforts, what we are doing and why, and provide opportunities for students to imagine their own community building processes. We also need to address things when they don’t go well, when we miss the mark in some way.

  • Create time and space for new knowledge to challenge existing narratives and assumptions. Help students to first recognize that they see things a certain way, then allow them the time to think about their beliefs when new knowledge and perspectives are introduced.

  • Help young people better understand and navigate their complex civic and historical inheritance. Identity and membership are inextricably bound in these legacies and must be made visible. Acknowledgment of a violent past is an essential component for creating the conditions for reconciliation in divided societies. Avoiding this work or cloaking it in silence to protect young people from it will not help them in their work as citizens. It will hamstring them, obstruct relationship building, and the creation of inclusive communities. Too often it’s the victims of violence, hatred, and prejudice who bear the burden of making history visible and providing evidence of ongoing violations.

  • Provide students with positive examples of human behavior and decision making. Young people need imaginable, accessible, and inspiring models. Integrate these stories throughout your curricula. Students need to see these efforts and the persistence and patience they require. They also need hope.

  • Democracy and inclusive, just civil societies require critical knowledge, skills, and behaviors. An example of a skill is deliberation. It’s the ability to articulate one’s ideas based on evidence and engage in a considered conversation on a controversial or difficult issue, listening to different points of view and weighing them. Sometimes it means sitting with these competing perspectives and coming to an understanding that you will not resolve your differences but you can find a way forward. Negotiation takes practice and can begin in small ways by discussing topics with lower stakes. Democratic citizenship is not a zero sum game.

  • Border crossing is essential. Segregation persists in many societies, especially those with identity-based divisions and conflicts. Identity based isolation weakens democracies and makes them more fragile. Relationship building takes time and has to happen in light of historical events, not in spite of them. Physical engagement might not always be possible. If virtual exchanges are the only possibility, they must be thoughtful and well facilitated.

  • Mass violence and terrorism are real, but not normal. Young people are coming of age in a time of war, genocide, terrorism, and, in some places, regular violence within their communities. Avoiding these events does not help our students to manage them. We can help them cope by allowing them to share their thoughts and feelings; by helping them to recognize misinformation and misperceptions; by allowing them to learn about and mourn the victims; and by helping them to recognize stereotyping and other forms of prejudice that have often accompanied these events. We need to simultaneously help students cope while rejecting mass violence and terrorism as “the way things are.”

  • Acknowledge democratic and civil practices when you see, hear, and feel them. Becoming an ethical civic actor with the capacities to protect and nurture democracy is learned. It does not trickle down. When your students do this work, acknowledge it and encourage them to acknowledge each other. You might cultivate this practice among your colleagues as well. Democracy is not something that we master. We’ve got to work on it all the time and value it when we see it in action.

By the end of the seminar, we had begun to create a vibrant, trusting, and reflective community. It was both challenging and revitalizing. We modeled together what we hope to create—in our classrooms, communities, and our societies. The more we reach across borders and share what we know—or the challenges we face—the more we can continue to build upon that community.

Connect with Facing History and the Center for Global Education at Asia Society on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Facing History and Ourselves.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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