The complicated pursuit of democratic teaching 




What constitutes democratic social studies education? Broadly speaking, it is said to include deliberative instructional practice that focuses on controversial issues, explores political themes, and aims to close gaps in students’ civic literacy (e.g., Parker, 2003; Levinson, 2012; Hess & McAvoy, 2015). Further, many advocates have called on educators to teach about specific controversies involving race, gender, and LGBTQ issues and to prepare students to create positive change and engage in struggles for social justice (e.g., Ladson-Billings, 2003; Westheimer & Kahne, 2004; Blackburn, 2013; Swalwell, 2013).  

Often overlooked, however, is the more difficult work of examining our own classroom practices, facing up to our histories and current behaviors as teachers and students (Strom, 1994).  

What follows is a description of a unit segment taught by a first-year teacher — I’ll call her Ms. K — working in a high school just outside of Madison, Wis., during the 2010-11 school year. Ms. K wanted very much to create a democratic classroom, featuring open discussion and inquiry. She asked me — then a graduate student who had supervised her student teaching — to assist her by codeveloping the curriculum for her 20th-century American history class, discussing pedagogy with her, observing her practice, and helping her reflect on it.  

At the time, Gov. Scott Walker had just introduced a bill designed to hobble Wisconsin’s public sector unions. In response, a movement to recall him had begun, and students, teachers, and citizens of all kinds were occupying the state capital. The meaning of democracy — what it was and what it could be — was on everybody’s minds, and Ms. K’s students were fully engaged in discussing and inquiring about complicated historical and current events. And yet, it soon became clear that the lessons were not taking root in one important sense: While they eagerly examined the world outside school, students were reluctant to examine their own beliefs and actions in the classroom, most notably how they divided themselves along racial lines. 

A history class and its lessons 

Ms. K had planned an entire unit of the history course to revolve around a single, essential question: What does it mean to be a democracy? Initially, students objected, arguing that the question was naïve, ignorant, and possibly even stupid. The meaning of democracy was clear, they said, and not worth exploring. And in fact, when asked to come up with a common definition of the term, they were able to do so quickly and with little difficulty, agreeing on a short and succinct statement: “A democracy is a form of government where everyone has voice.”  

Immediately, though, Ms. K began poking holes in their definition: Does that have to be equal voice? As determined and judged by whom? Should old people have the same say as the young? Should the voices of poor people be given as much credibility as the voices of the wealthy? What about interest groups? Lobbying groups? The press? How much freedom should the press have? At first, the students answered fiercely and with a hint of disdain. However, Ms. K kept dodging, parrying, and challenging their responses, and as their thinking deepened, their certainty began to waver. Perhaps the question wasn’t so simple after all.  

As they moved on to study the beliefs of the founding fathers and mothers, students were surprised to learn that the definition of democracy had been contested from the beginning — the founders often disagreed with each other, and they were unable to reach an easy consensus. Ms. K then had students participate in a simulation, assigning them to take on the roles of signers and critics of the Constitution. As they became more familiar with the historical content, and as they played their parts, their thinking deepened still further, and the definition of democracy became cloudier. 

Over several weeks, Ms. K had students reprise their roles many times, taking on the parts of founding (and time-traveling) fathers and mothers as they analyzed and debated a range of complex historical episodes, including the Schenk and Debs protests against World War I, the Palmer Raids and subsequent deportation of “undesirables,” the Alien and Sedition Acts of the 1920s, the 1937 court-packing plan, the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Loyalty Oaths of the 1950s, the counterintelligence operations of the 1960s, and the current union strife in Wisconsin. 

As the unit moved from historical event to historical event, Ms. K continued to challenge simplistic assumptions about democracy, repeatedly asking students — in their roles as founding-era characters — whether the actions of state and federal officials were consistent with what the founders had in mind, especially when it came to the growth and expansion of governmental power, specifically the power of the presidency and the governorship. 

Further, not only did the class explore critical moments in American history, and not only did it dive deeply into debates about the nature of our democracy, but, to help students understand the concepts, Ms. K turned the class itself into a demonstration of democratic practices. Rather than lecturing, she favored Socratic seminars, simulations, open discussions about essential questions, and student-led inquiry. And she was thrilled to see students respond by seeking alternative points of view, making a point of honoring each other’s ideas, encouraging the quietest students to participate, and regulating their own participation, such that nobody dominated the discussion.  

Democracy in action? 

Having supervised Ms. K’s student teaching and helped her create the unit, I was excited and proud to see how well it had gone. I had observed the class several times and was convinced the unit was a success. For any teacher, and especially for a first-year teacher, this seemed to be classroom instruction at its finest. It was thoughtful, well-planned, and well-organized. Ms. K had pushed students to analyze and think critically, and, in return, they had driven much of the discussion with their questions, engagement, and active participation. It was, I thought, the best example I had ever seen of a democratic classroom.  

But then something happened that threw everything into question. 

It was toward the end of the unit, and students were analyzing Gov. Walker’s effort to weaken the state’s public sector unions. Perhaps strutting a bit or even showing off in front of me, Ms. K told the class, “Since we are a democracy, I’m going to let you choose your own teams and your own place to meet in the room or the hallway, and I’ll count on you to watch your time and complete your analysis. You all know what to do, so . . . get to it!” There was a cacophony as students moved desks, pointed to one another, and formed teams. Students hustled, laughing and contorting as they pushed desks together, dropped backpacks, pulled out documents, and engaged in a rollicking discussion about which of their founding-era characters would side with Gov. Walker and which would not. Their task was to write several paragraphs explaining their arguments, and they quickly got busy gathering ideas, some of them leafing through their notebooks and others going to the classroom computers to search the internet. 

The teacher asked: What does it mean to be a democracy? Students’ thinking deepened, and the definition of democracy became cloudier. 

Ms. K made eye contact with me and smiled, obviously proud that students were examining democratic choices democratically. And that’s when it hit me. They had been studying democracy exhaustively for weeks and had convinced themselves, their teacher, and me that they were committed to running the class in democratic fashion. They seemed to have a heightened awareness of how struggles over race, class, and gender had influenced American democracy. They had talked explicitly about de facto and so-called unconscious segregation, and they had condemned it. But when given the chance to pick their own teams, they had segregated themselves — every one of the teams was all white, all black, all Hispanic, all male, or all female. 

When I pointed this out to Ms. K, just after the lesson, she seemed crestfallen. I asked her, were the students’ choices democratic? Immediately she said yes, then backpedaled and said no, then said yes again. We talked for close to two hours about what students had learned in the unit and how we ought to interpret their choices. By the end of the conversation, she had become convinced of her position: The students had spent several weeks analyzing, discussing, and debating key moments in the country’s political history, and they knew very well what democracy meant. If they chose to sort themselves into gender- and ethnic-alike teams, then their decisions were in fact democratic, she argued.  

I wasn’t so sure. Ms. K thought that no harm could come from students’ freely made decisions, but I was reminded of research showing that in recent decades, Americans have become more and more likely to live in ethnically, economically, and politically segregated neighborhoods (Bishop, 2009), and they have become less and less likely to participate in civic and community groups (Putnam, 2001). If people choose to be with people who are “like them” and to separate themselves from those who are not, isn’t that a serious problem? Left uneasy by Ms. K’s assertion that students had behaved in a democratic fashion, I decided to seek out the views of four university faculty members who have written on issues related to education and democracy. The conversations — which I describe in brief, below — illustrated just how varied the current scholarly opinions are on these issues.  

When given the chance to pick their own teams, students had segregated themselves — every one of the teams was all white, all black, all Hispanic, all male, or all female. 

Four perspectives 

The first conversation was the most straightforward. After I told him about the unit and the self-segregation, the professor peppered me with a series of questions. “Did the students choose to do this? Had they been together long? Was it late in the semester? Had they formulated a strong community?” When I answered yes to all of these, he rendered his verdict: “Democratic.” I countered that this interpretation seemed too narrow, even a bit dogmatic. He seemed to be suggesting that majority rule was the most important and possibly the only defining feature of democracy. I reminded him that our country has done many horrible things under the sway of a majoritarian approach to governance. For example, I said, consider Andrew Jackson’s attempted destruction of the Cherokee Nation through the Trail of Tears. This was majority rule in action: The whites wanted the native land, and they wanted to have the people “relocated,” so Jackson moved them. Dismissing my example as “hyperbole,” the professor remained convinced that Ms. K’s classroom was a genuinely democratic space. 

In the second conversation, too, the professor reacted immediately and with strong conviction, but he made an entirely different argument: Schools cannot be democratic spaces, he said, given that  they are part of a state apparatus that enforces rules, regulations, standards, and a myriad of direct and indirect constraints on people. Possibly reacting to the look of dismay on my face, he continued, “That doesn’t mean that individual actors and groups can’t make progress.” If students develop a stronger voice, and if they become more able to make choices, then those are good and healthy signs of democratic growth, he added, noting with approval that Ms. K’s pedagogy and curriculum gave students a critical push. But, he reiterated, looking for absolute victories is a mistake. Given the current structure of the U.S. educational system, schools and classrooms cannot be meaningfully democratic.  

The third conversation began with a warm commentary on the unit’s guiding question and its critical approach to historical analysis. However, the professor added, the curriculum seemed “color- and gender-blind. Where are the struggles of people of color?” she asked. “Where are the particular struggles of women?” It was a fair criticism and stung mightily — while the unit had touched on these themes, it had devoted far too little time to them.  

Echoing the previous critique, the professor went on to argue that the class had been “as democratic as it could be” given the societal constraints. “You seem to be operating under the false assumption that school can somehow evacuate or avoid or remain unaffected by the larger social ills plaguing America.” Wisconsin was becoming more diverse, but it was still largely white, she pointed out. Ms. K’s school enrolled few students of color and, due to the high property values in the area, few working class or poor students. So why was I surprised that students of color would gather together when granted the option? In schools like this one, they tend to have few opportunities to work with each other, share survival tips, and help each other succeed. “This classroom may well have been the only space in which these students could meet and talk. So maybe we can view it as democratic space in this instance: Students of color had the opportunity to choose, and they chose themselves.” But, I countered, would students of color have chosen to group together if their white classmates hadn’t done so first? And if not, can we still define their choice as a democratic one? She smiled and asked wryly, “Can democracy exist in a school, or even a classroom, if it doesn’t exist for students of color outside of it?” 

The fourth conversation began with praise as well. The professor complimented the unit, noting how it connected past and present dilemmas and how it showed history to be an intersecting series of events. But as to how democratic a classroom it was, she felt conflicted. Normally a lively presence, she seemed subdued for most of our conversation, slouching in her chair. “Maybe I’m too long for the classroom,” she said, “and too aware of the limitations of schools and classrooms as sites of change. I see all kinds of problems with the choices the students made. The ethnic- and gender-alike teams . . . it’s very troubling and absolutely undemocratic. It’s also worrisome that the teacher, who seems strong in so many respects, didn’t notice it and then, when you pointed it out, wasn’t bothered by it. From a classroom perspective, so much of what happened — from the pedagogy to the content analysis — was democratic, but the students’ decision to segregate shows that the teacher, the students, and the community have a lot more to figure out.”  

Democracy in progress 

When I shared the faculty’s feedback with Ms. K, she seemed a little defensive but mostly introspective. She so wanted her classroom to be a place where students learned to put democratic values into practice. She aimed to create civic-minded citizens who would engage in the complex societal debates — over race, class, gender, LGBTQ rights, and many other issues — that continue to haunt the United States. If they weren’t able to apply those principles in her classroom, then how likely would they be to enact them in the outside world?   

I continued to observe Ms. K’s class that year. On several other occasions, she gave students the freedom to choose their own teams, and each time, they divided themselves by race, ethnicity, and gender. Eventually, at wit’s end, she decided to call attention to the pattern and engage the class in an explicit discussion about it. Whenever I give you the option to pick your own partners, she explained, you behave “just like you do in the cafeteria — you self-segregate.”  

The students reacted with disbelief. “Are you accusing us of racism?” somebody asked. But when she reminded them who had worked in which teams that week and the weeks before, they were stunned to realize that she was right. They had no idea, they said. “How embarrassing for us,” one of them exclaimed. “We’ve been studying democracy all this time and can’t even do it ourselves.”  

A few female students were quick to disagree, arguing that their choice to work with other females had nothing to do with democracy at all; they simply understood each other better and sometimes felt more comfortable working with other females. The boys were incredulous, and they pressed the girls to explain how that was anything but self-segregation. But while some students of color spoke to the male-female divisions in the class, neither they nor any of the white students said a word about how they had sorted themselves by race and ethnicity. By the end of the conversation, the students agreed that they weren’t where they “needed to be,” as one of them put it. Ms. K wrapped up the conversation just before the bell rang: “It seems like we have work to do . . . and I’m very excited to do it with you.”  

Democracy is an ongoing project, something to be pursued and chased after with a passion, but it may never lead to a fixed destination. From my perspective, there was democracy in the classroom described here; it could be heard in students’ voices and analysis, in their searching questions and critique of content, in their restlessness to figure it all out. When left to decide for themselves, they slipped up, but it’s important to recognize that they and their teacher were willing to criticize and reexamine their own choices and actions, and that is an inherently democratic thing to do. In short, they had come to learn that — like all of us and like democracy itself — they were works in progress.  



Bishop, B. (2009). The big sort: Why the clustering of like-minded America is tearing us apart. New York, NY: Mariner. 

Blackburn, M. (2013). Learning to tell a pedagogical story about heteronormativity. In P. Gorski, K. Zenkov, N. Osei-Kofi, & J. Sapp (Eds.), Cultivating social justice teachers: How teacher educators have helped students overcome cognitive bottlenecks and learn critical social justice concepts. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing. 

Hess, D. & McAvoy, P. (2015). The political classroom: Evidence and ethics in democratic education. New York, NY: Routledge. 

Ladson-Billings, G. (Ed.). (2003). Critical race theory perspectives on social studies: The profession, policies, and curriculum. New York, NY: Information Age Publishing. 

Levinson, M. (2012). No citizens left behind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Parker, W. (2003). Teaching democracy: Unity and diversity in public life. New York, NY: Teachers College Press. 

Putnam, R. (2001). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.  

Strom, M. (1994). Facing history and ourselves: The Holocaust and human behavior. Brookline, MA: Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation. 

Swalwell, K. (2013). Educating activist allies: Social justice pedagogy with the suburban and urban elite. New York, NY: Routledge. 

Westheimer, J. & Kahne, J. (2004). What kind of citizen?: The politics of educating for democracy. American Educational Research Journal, 41 (2), 237-269. 


Citation: Gibbs, B. (2017). The complicated pursuit of democratic teaching. Phi Delta Kappan 99 (4), 21-25.


BRIAN GIBBS ( is an assistant professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Previously, he taught social studies in East Los Angeles, Calif., for 16 years. 

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Education as a function of the state