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Democracy as Prevention

What does it mean that democratic values can help prevent prejudice and discrimination? And what does this tell us about the school's possibilities?


  • Democracy, Citizenship and Empowerment

Prevention of prejudice and discrimination is part of the school's societal mandate, as formulated in the mission statement and the overarching framework of the curriculum. The preventive work should be linked to democracy: the school should promote democratic values and attitudes as a counterbalance to prejudice and discrimination (Overarching framework, chapter 1.6). What does it mean that democratic values can be a counterbalance to prejudice and discrimination? And what does this say about the possibilities and prerequisites of democracy in schools?

There are different understandings of democracy that emphasize various aspects of what it means to be a citizen (see Understandings of Democracy). Common to all is the idea that democracy is based on a notion of equal interaction and participation. It presupposes that all citizens in a society can participate in decisions and dialogues about common affairs and that interaction is characterized by mutual respect. Therefore, democratic "attitudes" involve recognition of others' dignity and rights.

Prejudices challenge democratic values

Schools should promote democratic values and attitudes as a counterbalance to prejudice and discrimination (Overarching framework, chapter 1.6).

Prejudices, group hostility, and discrimination are in opposition to fundamental democratic values such as solidarity and equality. Notions of "us" and "the others" obstruct constructive interaction, dialogue, and the consideration of both majority and minority interests. By defining certain groups in society as "the others," they are excluded as equal participants on the many arenas where decisions are made and the distribution of power and resources occurs.

Notions of "us" and "the others" obstruct constructive interaction, dialogue, and the consideration of both majority and minority interests..

A characteristic of democratic processes is that they start from common concerns where there are different and conflicting opinions and interest conflicts. Functioning democratic processes depend on mutual recognition, equal interaction, and trust.

Insight into othering and prejudice mechanisms (see ) can help us understand the aspects of democracy and citizenship that are most relevant and effective as a counterbalance. Research shows that pronounced group-hostile and antidemocratic attitudes are related: they are characterized by binary thinking (either-or, friend-foe), aversion to the undecided and ambiguous, and a tendency to support hierarchical structures. The reluctance to engage with different opinions (pluralism) and different ways of being (diversity) are interconnected (Zick et.al. 2011, Council of Europe 2018).

In contrast, democratic competence involves the ability to critically engage with complex situations, tolerance for ambiguity, and openness to differences. It is also referred to as democratic resilience (Davis 2016).

Prejudices and group-hostile attitudes undermine the conditions for trust and equal interaction, especially if they are part of institutionalized practices and structures. Prevention of prejudices and group hostility cannot be limited to cultivating democratic attitudes or competence at the individual level. It must also encompass the institutional and systemic conditions for democracy to be experienced and practiced.

Building to prevent – empowerment and formative development

The school's mandate for formative development implies that education should not only provide students with knowledge about and an introduction to democratic processes and prerequisites: the school should empower students and foster critical and independent thinking.

Empowerment is connected to the idea of the autonomous individual, a person who is not a pawn but an independent actor in life and in society.

Empowerment is connected to the idea of the autonomous individual, a person who is not a pawn but an independent actor in life and in society. To facilitate the formative development of autonomy, students must have experiences that strengthen their self-confidence, judgment, and action competence. They should be able to critically evaluate information, value choices, and societal structures, make informed, independent choices, and "actively participate in the further development of democracy in Norway," as formulated in the overarching framework (1.6).

Empowerment is about strengthening students' sense of being able to control their own lives while still being an important part of and able to influence society. An education that empowers students will undermine feelings of helplessness and exclusion that can foster group-hostile attitudes.

Democratic formative development, therefore, encompasses more than knowledge, values, or attitudes. It is about maturing toward, and practicing, thinking, living, and acting "democratically" (read more, Understandings of Democracy and Democratic Learning). The concept of "democratic preparedness," central to Dembra, involves both the ability, willingness, and motivation for democratic action and participation.

Democratic preparedness involves both the ability, willingness, and motivation for democratic action and participation.

Conditions for formative development

If empowerment is limited to individual formative processes, an essential aspect of formative development is overlooked: the individual cannot become an acting subject without being in relation to others (intersubjectivity).

The external perspective and the diversity of perspectives that others represent prevent the individual's insight from becoming one-dimensional and fixed. Being challenged and corrected by others who think and believe differently, and interacting with others who have different interests, are conditions and not obstacles for the individual's ability to think and act independently.

Democratic formative development in this sense is about practicing respectful interaction and dialogue and requires institutional practices that create good conditions for democratic action in the diverse student community. The democratic ideals of equal participation and cooperation can to some extent be practiced and cultivated in schools, and this becomes crucial for preventing othering, prejudices, and group hostility.

It is essential to recognize that prejudices, discrimination, and marginalization of certain groups are a fact at the societal level and that this also has consequences for schools. In a Dembra perspective, critical reflection on attitudes, practices, and structures that contribute to exclusion and marginalization and hinder equal participation becomes an essential part of the school's democratic mandate.

Dembra's principles for prevention

Dembra's principles are developed based on the idea of which learning experiences and institutional practices promote a democratic school culture and prevent prejudices, exclusion, and discrimination.

Principle 1, inclusion and participation, points towards the practice of the fundamental democratic principle of equal participation. The ideal in a school day is that all students should be included in the community and feel on a basic human level that they are worth as much as everyone else.

Students should be encouraged to participate by having their experiences, inputs, and opinions considered valuable. They should have space and opportunity to influence their own everyday lives and be heard in conversations and discussions. Empowerment presupposes such experiences of being trusted and listened to.

Principle 2, knowledge and critical thinking, refers to the fact that informed and reflected choices require knowledge but also critical reflection. Practicing critical thinking requires a class community where asking questions, wondering, and exploring an issue from multiple angles are ingrained practices.

Disagreement and debate are important prerequisites for individual opinion formation. Dealing with the fact that truth is not always clear-cut and immediately accessible is a necessary democratic skill. Critical thinking involves, not least, self-reflection, the ability to critically examine one's own perceptions and prejudices, and to realize that one's own opinions are fallible. Openness and curiosity about others' perspectives are fundamental attitudes that must be cultivated in schools (see Critical Thinking).

Principle 3, diversity competence, emphasizes understanding and the ability to manage diversity as central to democratic education. Diversity, or plurality, is a fundamental element in modern democracies, and students must be trained to navigate in a field where community-building relies not only on similarity but on the ability to strengthen and sustain democratic processes. Understanding diversity involves looking beyond essentialized notions of "the others" and acknowledging complexity and diversity within groups.

Principle 4, ownership and anchoring, pertains to the idea that developmental processes in schools can only be effective if the entire staff at the school has the opportunity to identify with and contribute to shaping the work of improving the school's practices. Involvement of teachers and staff in the planning and design of developmental work is essential for success. This principle aligns with the curriculum's emphasis on professional communities as learning and collaborative communities (see Professional Community and School Development).

Principle 5, the school as a whole, points out that the school's work should not be limited to the classroom but should consider that students and teachers are part of broader communities, where parents and the local community also play a crucial role. Prevention efforts work best when they encompass all levels of the school and involve parents and key entities in the local community (see Five Levels of Development in Schools).


Davies; Lynn (2016) Can education prevent violent extremism? (https://en.unesco.org/news/lynn-davies-can-education-prevent-violent-extremism)

Europaråd (2018) CDC and building resillience to radicalization leading to violent extremism and terrorism In: Reference framework of competences for democratic culture. Volume 3: Guidance for implementation, s. 101.123 (https://rm.coe.int/prems-008518-gbr-2508-reference-framework-of-competences-vol-3-8575-co/16807bc66e)

Zick, Andreas, Beate Küpper og Andreas Hövermann (2011). Intolerance, Prejudice and Discrimination. A European Report. Berlin: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. (http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/do/07908-20110311.pdf)