The Ecology of Democracy and the K-12 Educator

Elementary and secondary school educators have an important role to play in helping to prepare the next generation of citizens for their role in democracy. Educators often approach this task by drawing upon standards, formal curricula, and their educational experiences/expertise. While these sources of information are credible and important, they tend to represent a conception of “citizen” hatched within educational institutions—not within democratic communities. As a result, students’ experiences in schools tend to reflect prevailing notions of “what it takes to make a better student,” rather than “what it takes to make a stronger democracy.”

Educators who recognize this tension or who are interested in the future of democracy should read David Mathews’ latest book, The Ecology of Democracy. The book describes what the Kettering Foundation has learned through 30+ years of research on what it takes to make democracy stronger. By focusing on lessons learned from everyday citizens in communities and in American institutions, the book describes ways in which citizens can become more involved in shaping their collective future.

The fundamental problem of democracy addressed within Ecology is both simple and profound. Democracy, as we know it, provides few opportunities for citizens to come together to decide how we should act to address the problems that affect our communities. As a result, Americans have deferred power to elected officials, experts, and special interest groups who claim to have a corner on solutions. This has contributed to policies disconnected from the concerns of the public and growing public cynicism about the effectiveness of government.

Rather than joining the chorus of critics of government, Mathews suggests that citizens and elected officials have different roles to play in a strong democracy. Politicians, bureaucrats, and institutional actors work in the realm of formal politics, while citizens engage in both formal and informal politics. A strong democracy requires both formal, institutional politics and informal, citizen politics. Without a healthy dose of each, the political ecosystem can become imbalanced. Mathews uses a “wetlands” metaphor to describe the places where citizen politics happens. This metaphor provides a powerful image of the fragile, yet critical, role that citizens play in public problem solving and in a maintaining a strong democracy.

Educators who read Ecology are certain to see parallels between the challenges described in the book and their own experiences. They know, for example, that legislative mandates cannot solve most problems they experience in their classrooms or garner public support for their work. They also know that schools cannot educate children alone. Families, neighbors, and other institutions play a critical role in supporting youth development and educating children. Yet, there are few examples in the popular press of schools and communities that are truly working together to ensure that “no child is left behind.”

For school leaders, this is probably the most tangible contribution that Ecology makes: it provides concrete examples of how individuals within communities have come together to grapple with problems, make connections between their hopes and concerns, and act to address the issues that affect their lives. In order to do this type of civic work, the book suggests a fundamental change is needed in how we think about leadership. Rather than emphasizing the actions of a few talented leaders, the wetlands metaphor focuses on the conditions that support complementary action between leaders and citizens and the alignment of institutional and human resources.

The Kettering Foundation’s research indicates that communities that are most successful at solving problems are places where networks of formal and informal leaders work alongside citizens. School leaders who read Ecology may be inspired to investigate ways of working differently with citizens and other institutions to support the education of children. They may find that by naming problems in citizens’ terms, new ways of talking, thinking, and acting emerge in support of students’ education.

Classroom teachers clearly have a stake in naming and framing the problems of education. They know too well the disconnect that exists between public policies focused on classrooms and the needs of their students. Many teachers are also passionate about preparing the next generation of citizens. For these educators, the powerful stories in Ecology may evoke frustration with the status quo. Yet, they also resonate with many teachers’ aspirations. Alena Aguilar, a middle school teacher with a blog on Edutopia.org, writes that she teaches because “it’s the most effective and most enjoyable way to change the world. That’s the bottom line.”

Many teachers feel the same way and, for them, Ecology offers a different way of thinking about education’s relationship to public issues and teachers’ roles as civic educators. It challenges educators to consider what types of citizens they are preparing through their teaching. Are they emphasizing a citizenship of good behavior, of procedural democracy, or of something more? Ecology provides a glimpse into what might be possible if teachers retooled civic education to focus on teaching the skills and practices of “citizen’s politics,” the type of politics that happens in the wetlands of communities but is so critical to democracy.

The six democratic practices described in the book provide a starting point for teachers who wish to prepare their students for civic work. The practices include naming and framing problems, deliberating to make decisions, identifying and committing resources, and organizing for complementary action. In schools across the county, teachers have begun teaching the democratic practices using National Issues Forums materials and locally developed resources.

  • In Birmingham, Alabama, social studies teachers regularly engage middle and high school students in classroom deliberations about public issues like community violence, Internet regulation, and the national debt. They report that these learning experiences have transformed how their students interact with one another and their teachers. This has created opportunities for students, teachers, and community members to work together in different ways to address shared problems.
  • In State College, Pennsylvania, high school classes learn the process of deliberation and convene community forums each year. Through public deliberations moderated by youth, the community has come to understand issues, like teen substance abuse, differently. This has paved the way for prevention and intervention strategies that are more responsive to the problem as youth and other people in the community experience it.
  • Finally, teachers in West Islip, New York, have integrated citizen politics in how they teach social studies and history, K-12. Rather than only teaching the practices as they apply to current events, teachers ask students to consider how historic issues were named and framed by citizens and institutional actors at key points in history. This approach to teaching engages students in the analysis of history, rather than memorization of timelines. It also provides real examples of how citizens came together to respond to the issues that confronted their generation. (This integrated approach to history and civic education is consistent with the National Council for the Social Studies’ (NCSS) definition of social studies—“the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence.”)

While these examples demonstrate how some educators have applied the six democratic practices in their schools, the book is not prescriptive. It merely describes how successful communities have gone about solving their problems, in ways that promote learning and empower citizens to do civic work. For school leaders and classroom teachers, the take away lessons may be different. Yet, the lessons of Ecology are relevant to anyone concerned with the education of the next generation.

Stacie Molnar-Main is a psychologist and educational consultant whose work focuses on strengthening schools and communities through practices that support social-emotional learning, civic learning, and school-community partnerships. Her clients include individual schools and school districts, government institutions, nonprofits, and foundations that have an interest in addressing the complex issues that affect youth development.