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Understandings of Democracy and Democracy Education
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Understandings of Democracy and Democracy Education

What is it like to become a democratic citizen? Read about how different understandings of democracy give different approaches to democracy education


  • Democracy, Citizenship and Empowerment

What does it really mean to live and be educated as a fellow citizen in a democratic society? There are different interpretations of what democracy truly means, leading to diverse approaches to democracy education. While some emphasize democracy as a formal system, others focus more on the participatory aspect or argue that democracy involves negotiation, communication, and public debate. Thus, democracy becomes more than a form of governance; it can also be considered a way of life.

Different approaches to democracy are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Various aspects of democracy may complement each other, but they can also be in tension with one another. The understanding of democracy is intertwined with questions of majority/minority, equality, and discrimination. These different perspectives also have implications for the view of democracy education.

Democracy as a formal system

Most Western democracies are structured as representative democracies, where citizens participate in the election of political representatives, make political decisions in political bodies such as parliament, and the government, formed by some of the parties represented in parliament, formulates policies across various societal areas. This is also known as indirect democracy. An essential principle in the democratic system is the distribution of power among different institutions, aiming to prevent power concentration and abuse: in addition to Parliament (legislative) and the government (executive), the courts (judicial) are a crucial institution ensuring that political decisions align with existing laws. Additionally, the media is often regarded as the fourth estate, capable of exposing abuses of power and rule violations among politicians.

When democracy education involves conveying knowledge about the political system, it implies that the use of the right to vote becomes the central form of political participation or influence. It also involves the opportunity to take on political responsibilities, requiring membership in parties or other political organizations. However, research on youth political participation shows a decline in involvement in established political institutions, partially replaced by other, less formalized forms of participation.

Democracy as rights and duties

"Through work on the topic of democracy and citizenship, students should understand the connection between individual rights and duties." (Core curriculum, 2.5.2)

To participate in democratic processes, individuals must have rights, such as the right to express their opinions and to participate in and form political organizations. To ensure equal participation, it is crucial that everyone has equal rights.

The major historical struggles of minorities revolved around rights: rights to political participation, as well as fundamental rights as a prerequisite for full social and cultural participation. The Black struggle in the USA in the 1960s, against racial segregation and for equal participation in all societal arenas, was termed a fight for "civil rights."

It is essential to question what equal rights mean when people are different and have different prerequisites. This is particularly significant due to historical injustices that certain groups have faced, shaping attitudes, societal structures, and institutional practices (see racism).

Discrimination protection becomes important in this context, recognizing conditions in society that systematically prevent people from actively participating, requiring special rights and measures to position those subject to structural discrimination more favorably. However, such measures, like quota systems, are often highly controversial. Can such measures contribute to maintaining an image of minorities as less capable? And how long should such measures last?

However, participating in a democracy is not limited to rights; it also involves duties. Some duties are formalized (in Norway, following laws and paying taxes are such duties. In some countries, like Belgium, participating in elections is also considered a civic duty, and not voting can be penalized with fines.) Other duties are informal. One can say that it involves democratic rules of the game. Using one's own rights should not limit the rights of others. This is where democracy as interaction and a way of life comes into play.

Freedom of speech is an example where the balance between rights and duties is highly relevant. When public commentators are harassed in social media or comment sections because of their gender, skin color, or cultural or religious background, many argue that this is covered by the sender's freedom of speech. However, when many who have been subjected to such harassment are scared away from participating in the debate, it becomes a serious democratic problem.

Some argue, therefore, that we should not only talk about freedom of speech but also about speech responsibility, to establish what Lysaker and Syse refer to as "civilizing norms" in democratic discourse.

Participatory democracy

"Students shall experience that they are listened to in everyday school life, that they have real influence, and that they can influence what concerns them. They shall gain experience with and practice various forms of democratic participation and involvement, both in the daily work of the subjects and through, for example, student councils and other advisory bodies." (Core Curriculum 1.6.)

Supporters of participatory democracy believe that a prerequisite for a living democracy that works in practice is that a large part of the population actively participates, not only by voting but by engaging and participating in other political processes. Political participation has inherent value, especially for opinion formation and political socialization.

Although political decisions in representative democracy are made by elected representatives, there are many opportunities for everyone else to influence these decisions. Interest groups and political initiatives can champion political issues and exert pressure on politicians by gaining public attention, for example, through demonstrations, signature campaigns, or other forms of expression (which may include civil disobedience, i.e., breaking current laws to protest). This is referred to as civil society engagement.

Historically, important political issues have generated engagement and mobilized broad participation, even from many who were not necessarily politically organized. Such mobilizations can contribute not only to political change but also to change on a cultural level. The civil rights movement in the USA and today's climate strikes are examples of this.

However, there are also forms of democracy that give citizens more immediate influence on political decisions. These are called "direct democracy." Switzerland has a form of direct democracy where proposed laws are accepted or rejected through referendums. The ban on building minarets on mosques, which was adopted through such a referendum in Switzerland in 2010, has garnered much international attention and confirmed skeptics' fear that direct democracy can be abused by populist and xenophobic forces that exploit fear.

From a Dembra perspective, it is essential to be aware of the various possibilities and resources that majority and marginalized groups have to mobilize for their interests and to gain attention and influence for their concerns. Drawing attention to the historical and ongoing liberation struggles of minorities in education is also an opportunity to highlight marginalized groups as actors.

Democracy as deliberation

"[Students] shall develop the ability to think critically, learn to handle disagreements, and respect dissent." (Core Curriculum 2.5.2)

"Deliberation is to weigh and explore all aspects (facts and arguments) of an issue against each other in a thorough, open, and critical discussion of a topic."

Both in representative democracy and participatory democracy, public political debate plays a central role. Here, citizens can form an understanding of the political reality, discuss challenges and possible solutions. They also have the opportunity to become active participants.

In a pluralistic democratic society, the discussion about "common concerns" takes place on many public or "semi-public" arenas. Perhaps not everyone feels like writing an opinion piece in a nationwide newspaper, but many participate in some way in conversations and discussions about politics, face to face or on social media. Discussions about political topics and individual issues also arise in workplaces and recreational organizations.

All these conversations collectively contribute to a political culture – and it is therefore important to be conscious of how these conversations take place. Will it be the mightiest's right, status, and tactics of dominance that determine who prevails with their viewpoint? Or should everyone be heard, and the "best argument" win?

It is this latter vision that underlies Jürgen Habermas' discourse ethics , see also , the idea of a rational conversation where all participants recognize each other's equal right to participate and contribute. The ideal is to arrive at solutions that transcend individual interests through deliberation; that is, listening, critically evaluating arguments, and, most importantly, through compromises that benefit the community.

From a Dembra perspective, the understanding of deliberative democracy is relevant because it builds on and aims to establish a fundamental recognition of equality among all participants in democratic processes . At the same time, it becomes clear that biases and othering mechanisms undermine this foundation.

The moment some participants in the political conversation are deemed illegitimate and/or incompetent due to ethnicity, religion, or gender, the process is no longer democratic from a deliberative perspective. This holds true even if formal procedures are adhered to.

Democracy as culture and way of life

"Through work on [democracy and citizenship], students should learn why democracy cannot be taken for granted and that it must be developed and maintained." (Core Curriculum 2.5.2)

Democracy is primarily a life lived in association with others and not just a form of governance, according to the American philosopher and educator John Dewey (1859-1952). Democracy exists primarily as lived experience , ). His thoughts on the democratic "way of life" have inspired many and also shape notions of democracy and democracy education found in Norwegian curricula.

From such an approach, democracy is more than mechanisms of governance and the right to participate; it is an idea of equal coexistence marked by dialogue and collaboration. Democracy is a process; it is something that must constantly be created, recreated, and realized anew in all the living relationships between people in a society

Democracy is a process; it is something that must constantly be created, recreated, and realized anew in all the living relationships between people in a society.

In such a perspective, democracy becomes an educational process. A vibrant democracy requires that we are shaped into and for a democratic way of life. Growing up is becoming a part of the community we are to share with others. Democracy and education are thus closely linked. Giving children and young people experiences and challenges that promote democratic competence becomes the primary task of education ( The values of democracy must be put into play and lived in the everyday life of the school.

How does education, for example, promote the ability to communicate and develop solutions in collaboration with others? How are students trained to "handle disagreement and respect dissent?" (Core curriculum 2.5.2) Equal collaboration on common challenges in a pluralistic society requires both practice and attitude development. According to Dewey, communication is precisely the backbone of a democratic society. Communication and "shared experience" are the keys to finding good solutions together and creating community and understanding.

From such thinking, developing the school as an arena for equal dialogue and interaction becomes essential for democratic formation. Students must learn democracy by experiencing it and acting democratically. For this to be possible, there must also be awareness of what threatens or hinders equal interaction. Racism, biases, and discrimination are examples of such mechanisms. Students must learn to identify and counteract prejudices and exclusion to contribute to building a democratic school culture.

(see Democracy Education: about – through – for)


Dewey, J. (1927): The public and its problems. Swallow Press, Ohio

Dewey, J. (2002): ”Demokrati och utbildning”, Uddevalla: Bokforlaget Daidalos

Habermas, Jürgen (1983): Moralbewußtsein und kommunikatives Handeln. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp

Lenz, C. (2020) Demokrati og medborgerskap i skolen. Pedlex

Lysaker, O. & Aakvaag, G. C. (red.) (2008): Habermas. Kritiske lesninger Oslo: Pax

Lysaker, O., og Syse, H. (2016). The Dignity in Free Speech: Civility Norms in Post-Terror Societies. Nordic Journal of Human Rights, 34(2), 104-123. Doi:10.1080/18918131.2016.1212691

Løvlie, L. (2007). Utbildning för deliberativ demokrati. I: Englund, T. (red) Utbildning som kommunikation – Deliberative samtal som möjlighet. Göteborg: Daidalos