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Teaching for citizenship

Sep 11,2014 - Last updated at Sep 11,2014

In a recent discussion paper, His Majesty King Abdullah II called for the renewal of political life in Jordan and the promotion, throughout society, of what he called “active citizenship”.

As the school year commences in the Kingdom and students return to classes, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider how schools — and teachers — can best promote civic engagement and constructive political debate.

As His Majesty notes, active citizenship goes well beyond the act of voting, as important as that is and as much as it should be encouraged.

Active citizenship is a quality of mind and a discreet body of intellectual skills that include, notes His Majesty, “showing respect, engaging actively, [and] embracing dialogue”.

I would add to this list the ability to listen to others and fairly summarise their views; to think critically about evidence; to work collaboratively in teams with “thinking partners”; to ask questions; and to adjudicate between conflicting points of view.

These capacities of mind are the foundation of a democratic culture and an essential precondition for all political progress.

But where do such skills come from? And, most importantly, how can schools promote them?

I have a simple and easy suggestion. Change the way students sit with the others in classrooms: rather than have students sit in rows, unbolt the desks from the floor and arrange them in circles.

A circle, as elementary teachers using “reading circles” have long known, is a fundamentally different form of human organisation.

When students sit in a circle, each student sees the others, and all meet as equals — including the teacher.

It is no surprise that many of our great halls and political chambers take the circle — or its variations — as their organising principle.

Such a change in the architecture of the classroom would signal to young people a radical shift in what it means to be a student and in their relationship to each other — and it would require from teachers a change in approach.

Rather than simply imparting information as a sort of talking textbook standing at the front of the class, the teacher, armed with a few good questions, would become a coach and facilitator, directing discussion, eliciting different points of view and moving the class towards consensus.

Rather than being the sole voice of authority in the classroom, the teacher would be one voice among many, albeit one with greater experience in the art and discipline of dialogue.

This need not be done in all classrooms, nor at all grade levels. Neither am I suggesting that it is suitable for all subjects and disciplines.

But in every school and for every student there should be at least one space — and one moment during the course of the day — where students sit in a circle and engage in spirited, respectful discussion on a question or issue of public urgency.

This is not a new idea.

 An early and familiar example can be found in the Socratic dialogues of Plato, where understanding, directed by a skilled teacher, proceeds through discussion and exploration.

Learning through discussion, moreover, has become a core practice of many schools, colleges and universities throughout the world.

The international coalition of Round Square schools, founded by German educator Kurt Hahn, regularly conducts discussions called “barazzas”, a Swahili word referring to community dialogue and reflection.

What has come to be known as the “Harkness method”, first pioneered by Phillips Exeter Academy in the United States, has been adopted by schools throughout the world.

All these approaches share a commitment to respectful dialogue, intellectual collaboration and student-centred debate.

I can imagine a number of objections to this proposal: that it distracts teachers from the important work of test preparation; that teachers may be unprepared to teach this way; that it is yet another attempt to impose Western educational norms upon the East.

Each of these objections would be wrong-headed.

The point of schooling is not simply and solely to prepare young people for high-stakes tests; the point is to transform how they think and to provide them with the skills to change the world and shape the future.

And while it may be true that not all teachers will be comfortable teaching this way, it should also be recognised that teaching through discussion is a skill. With practice, observation and training, it can be learned.

It would also be a mistake to assume that learning through discussion is a uniquely Western practice.

As Nobel Prize-winning economist and historian Amartya Sen notes, skill in deliberation and discussion is a feature of all civilisations, past and present, that value pluralism and free and open debate; it is deeply imbedded in the tribal practices of mediation and dialogue that are so much a part of African and Arab culture.

Teaching through discussion is certainly not the only way to foster active citizenship.

Students can — and should — be given opportunities for service and leadership within their schools and to participate in school elections and parliaments — an important goal driving His Majesty’s Demoqrati initiative.

Last year, a small group of students from both public and private schools convened at King’s Academy to simulate a session of the Jordanian Parliament.

There they debated, in Arabic, national energy policy and the proposed use of nuclear power in the Kingdom.

These kinds of simulations — and similar ones such as Model United Nations, Model Congress and organised debate clubs — hold tremendous promise, but they are not in themselves sufficient, at least if we are to reach all students.

To become so, we must change the character of the classroom itself. We must provide young people with opportunities to practice the skills of citizenship through structured discussion and debate.

Revolutions can topple governments, but only schools — and teachers — can create the conditions where the democratic virtues of respectful discussion, citizenship and civic engagement can flourish.

The world desperately needs young people who can mediate conflict and work collaboratively and deliberately with others to address urgent issues of public concern, and they need to be able to do that even with those with whom they passionately disagree.

Schools serve many purposes: to impart the most basic skills of literacy and numeracy, to prepare young people for productive work, for meaningful careers and for university. 

But one of their most important and perhaps least remarked upon purposes is to teach citizenship.

As events in the region and throughout the world demonstrate, fostering the skills of mind have never been more important than now.

The writer is King’s Academy headmaster. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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