America’s foremost educational philosopher, John Dewey, addressed the question “Why do schools exist” in his seminal work “Democracy and Education”. The title of his book reveals his answer to that question for societies “nominally democratic” but hisexcellent argument takes this answer from the realm of the prerogative to what seems to us to be its social imperative. Dewey sees education as a necessity of social life. “Without this communication of ideas, hopes, expectations, standards, opinions, from those members of society who are passing out of the group life to those who are coming into it, social life could not survive” (Dewey, 1996/1916, p. 3).
Most of the education writers who have addressed the broad purposes for schooling have arrivedwith Dewey at the conclusion that “...democracy is the most important among all the possible philosophical and political sources from which public school purpose can be derived” (Raywid, Tesconi & Warren, 1987, p. 16). We are persuaded that the term democracy –though subject to varied definitions and perceptions –best embodies the collected concepts, beliefs, and values of modern western culture that should comprise the processes and content of compulsory public schooling. We wonder, however, how much ofthe imperative of schooling for democracy actually resides in the conscious deliberations and intentional activities of educational practitioners.
We are currently in the formative stages of an international research collaboration designed to observe schools in a number of European and North American communities to inquire into the perceives purposes and the actual practices of these schools in relation to democracy. We are interested in the convergence of the democratic intention and the practice of democracy in schools –society’s most important institution for social transmission. We have been encouraged by the Swedish curriculum for the compulsory school in which democratic assignment is a national objective. This goal embraces the importance of the practice of democracy in schools and classrooms and we think it encourages Swedish schools (municipalities are responsible for schools in Sweden) to go beyond teaching about democracy to become institutions of a fully participatory nature. We think this democratic assignment is crucially important to increased realization of participatory democracy in centuries old political democracies of North America and Western Europe and vital to the transition of former eastern bloc countries.
Our research project is conceived as a qualitative inquiry into the perceptions of educators (principally school leaders, classroom teachers and teacher students) relative to the ideals of the democratic assignment.
We will use both survey and interview methodologies in uncovering perceptions. In addition, we will use participant observation strategies in selected schools and classrooms to explore the application of stated principles to observed practices in schools and classrooms. We hope to conduct our research in severalcompulsory schools in different communities in each of the participating counties (United States, France, Sweden, United Kingdom and maybe also the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Romania).
Our intention is not to draw generalizable conclusions about schools or school systems in participant countries, but rather to better understand the relationship between intention and practice in selected environments. We hope our research will enable educators to look at their own schools in light of the democratic assignment in an effort to improve practices leading to more democratic schools and eventually more democratic, just, and peaceful societies.
The European Conference on Educational Research (ECER), Geneva, Switzerland, 13-16 September, 2006