Democratic Education — A Moral Task for our Schools

by Georg Lind[1]


Democracy is in growing need world-wide. Most people keep up the moral ideal of democracy (Sen 1999; McFaul 2004). But many are dissatisfied with the existing democracies. It seems that citizens and politicians are increasingly overwhelmed by this form of living together. In order to stop and reverse this trend, many proposals are being made, ranging from stricter laws against anti-democratic movements to the request for more money and more staff for democratic educa­tion.

During the past years many things were undertaken in this regard, however, often with little success. Often one overlooks that there is a need for new approaches to democratic education. Many of the practiced, well-intentioned methods have shown to be insufficient and ineffective. Some have shown successful only in so-called light-tower projects, where certain personnel-wise and financial conditions were met. Therefore, they cannot just be copied. Before we request more money and personnel, we should consider the aims of democratic education and how it can best be done.

We need a method of democratic education, which is effective without requiring a change of the system, an enlargement of the staff, or a reduction of the lesson plan. Such a method would open the chance to reach all people. In a democracy, the change of the conditions must be initiated by the people and not by politicians and experts. These are needed in order to enable people to change their conditions by democratic means, instead of using violence, deceit or boring down to others.

Among the ideals guiding education the moral ideal of democratic living together is the most central, but also the most difficult to achieve. Teachers, parents and students ask themselves how the contradiction between the democratic promise of freedom and the autocratic self-understan­ding of traditional education can be overcome. How can young people be educated to become mature and responsible democrats when the educational methods hold them back in a state of immaturity? How can they be encouraged to think for themselves and to question existing norms and expectations without turning them into anarchistic rebels or libertarian individualists who see in fundamental democratic values such as fairness and solidarity only a restriction of their own self-realization or economic success?

For Socrates the main task of education was to question the existing order, including educati­on itself. Can virtue be taught? What does it even mean?  All men desire the good, but they mostly lack the power to attain it. Is it not better for education, therefore, to promote the powers of attain­ment rather than concentrating on values and desires?

Socrates believed that education gives no answers, but can only ask questions. The govern­ment of Athens at the time saw in this kind of education incitement to rebellion and anarchy and a threat to society; it condemned him to death although he by no means questioned everything. When friends offered to help him flee he turned the offer down. His justification provides a powerful moral message. By fleeing, he argues, he would question law and order, to which he had always been committed.

Socrates himself possibly recognized the danger lying behind his questions if they were pre­sented to citizens who had not yet developed powers of independent thinking. In their case, as Hannah Arendt (2007) remarked with reference to Socrates, critical questions could lead to a rejection of existing norms without their being replaced by personal, inner norms, by true mora­lity.

However, such a process places high demands on moral-democratic competence. It calls for the ability of every individual to solve the problems and conflicts that inevitably arise when orienting personal behavior on moral principles, without recourse to violence, deceit or subjection to others, to whom the burden of responsibility (and hence also the power) is transferred.

As the Indian-American philosopher Amartya Sen (1990) has ascertained, it is things which seem so simple, such as speaking and listening, which first enable democratic, self-governing life together. In a democracy, according to Sen, every citizen must be in a position to speak with and listen to others when important issues are at stake. Similarly, Darling-Hammond and Ancess (1996) assert that the “citizens must have the knowledge and skills to be able to intelligently debate and decide among competing conceptions, to weigh the individual and the common good, if they are to sustain democratic ideals throughout the complex challenges all societies face. (p. 154) Many people lack this competence, as Socrates already pointed out and as our studies reveal, because they obviously have too few opportunities to develop it. (Lind 2002; 2016)

It is, above all, the task of the schools to provide the opportunities for the development of democratic competence by means of both general education and specific education for democracy.


The democratic purpose of general education

How important the general education of all citizens is for the creation and maintenance of demo­cracy was demonstrated, above all, by Thomas Jefferson, the co-author of the American Decla­ra­tion of Independence: “This last is the most certain and the most legitimate engine of government. Educate and inform the whole mass of the people, enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve it, and it requires no very high degree of edu­cation to convince them of this. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” (Jefferson 1940)

The French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, who travelled extensively in the then still young “Democracy in America” and analyzed his impressions in a book published in 1835, saw education as the third pillar of democracy alongside the separation of powers and civil commit­ment. He recommended that the government should spend all the money it could afford on edu­cation as this is the only way of preventing democracy from turning into a dictatorship. “Suffrage without schooling produces mobocracy, not democracy” (Adler 1982, p. 3) For researchers on democracy such as Benjamin Barber (1992) education and democracy are “education and demo­cracy are inextricably linked”. (p.9)

The insight of Jefferson, de Tocqueville, Adler and Barber that education primarily serves to enable people to govern themselves and hence to prevent racism, nationalism, civil war and dicta­torship, shaped educational policy in the young Federal Republic after the collapse of the Nazi regime. As education in the interest of the democratic community it should be available to all citizens free of charge. The public education system has turned out to be an important, perhaps the most important pillar of our democracy.


The revaluation of education

Today it seems that this insight is being increasingly lost. The more the horrors of the Nazi dicta­torship fade from sight, the more the democratic duty to provide education is converted into an individual right to prepare for a career. The democratic educational task of the school is often not even mentioned nowadays in discussions on the maintenance of democracy. Education is often seen as being only indirectly important for the preservation of democracy as it helps to increase economic performance. Consequently the quality of education is no longer measured by its con­tribution to democratic living together but by the (supposed) requirements of the economy.

As a result of this revaluation the task of education is now frequently seen in promoting the reading skills, mathematical competence and factual knowledge of our children. A glance at developments in the USA shows where this leads to. The assessment of the value of teaching in terms of testable knowledge of facts instead of the development of the students’ capacity to think and discuss started there more than fifty years ago. In the meantime test scores form the basis for the evaluation of students, teachers and schools, so that teaching is increasingly devoted to meet­ing the requirements of the test industry instead of promoting the needs of democracy. Learning in schools is more and more restricted to those areas that can be tested and sanctioned by means of simple tests. (“teaching to the test”).

The intensive use of “high stakes” tests associated with hard sanctions for students and schools (Ravitch 2010; Koretz 2017) and the privatization of schools threaten democracy as a way of life (Dewey) without bringing any recognizable benefit to the economy (Berliner & Glass 2014). The fifty-year long-rule of these hifg-stakes tests has not even led to an improvement in test perfor­mance (Lind 2009).

The fear-instilling tests that have to be worked on under extreme time-pressure massively ob­struct the thinking and discussion needed for the development of moral-democratic compe­tence. These tests apodictically lay down what is right and what is wrong. They permit no questions and no criticisms and they leave no time for reflection. Taking a math task from the PISA tests Sjoberg (2007) shows how “unrealistic and flawed” many of the test questions are. “Students who simply insert numbers in the formula without thinking will get it right. More critical students who start thinking will, however, be confused and get in trouble!” (p. 217) These tests also do not per­mit discussions between students and teachers as is possible in good lessons.

The more these tests determine the lives of the children, the more the opportunities disappear which would enable them to use their moral competence, and the more their moral development suffers. Someone who is not allowed to learn how to solve problems through reflection and dis­cus­sion can only have recourse to violence and deception. Someone who cannot experience the solution of conflicts through dialogue will regard other people with suspicion and attempt to protect himself by acquiring material goods and by subjection to leaders who promise to take a tough line on dissidents and to abolish democracy (Adorno et al. 1950).

If moral competence is the ability to judge and act in accordance with inner moral principles (Kohlberg 1964), then democratic competence is its extension to discursive debates with others. It is the ability to solve problems not only through reflection but also through discussion with others instead of resorting to violence, deceit or submission to others.

As psychological studies (partly of an experimental kind) have shown, there is in fact a causal relationship between restricted democratic competence and obedience to authorities, violence, deceit, breach of contract, the covering-up of criminal acts, omission of help, lack of decision, drug abuse, and even with poor learning performance, bad school grades in academic subjects and, finally, with slight commitment to basic democratic values (for source references see Hem­merling 2014; Kohlberg 1984; Lind 2016).


The task of education for democracy

How can education for democracy oppose these social developments? Can it become the key to the maintenance and reinforcement of democracy?

Democratic competence is inborn, but it only develops fully by use, that is to say its develop­ment depends on our finding opportunities which present a challenge to our abilities but do not overstrain them. Many children find few such learning opportunities in the environment in which they grow up (Lind 2006). Parents provide their children with such opportunities in as far as they are able and have the necessary time. This is more often the case with parents who have them­selves enjoyed a good education (Speicher 1994). Consequently, for most children, the develop­ment of moral competence depends on assistance in school.

This assistance is evidently provided by many schools and teachers, although to this day the “subject” is not offered in teacher training or the school curriculum. The extent and quality of school education is by far the strongest factor in the development of moral competence. There are occasional reports on connections with social class, cultural background and gender, but these are clearly of slighter significance and often disappear when the share of education in the connection is factored out (Lind 2002).

In view of the great challenges of the present time (such as social inequality, technical change, immigration, inclusion of the handicapped, environmental pollution, the extinction of species, armed conflict, terrorism, xenophobia and drug addiction) the opportunities for moral develop­ment provided by schools today are insufficient and unsustainable. They are insufficient because they depend on the individual initiative of teachers and on the free spaces left to them by the pressure to achieve higher grades and by school supervision. At the end of their school careers far too many students have not achieved even the minimum of moral competence necessary to solve problems and conflicts in everyday life by reflection and discussion.

Moral education in our schools is also not sustainable because many students fail to achieve the degree of moral competence they need if they are later to find learning opportunities on their own, without school, and hence to develop further. People with low moral competence do not see many decision situations as opportunities for learning, but as threatening and overwhelming. How­­ever, the failure to take advantage of such opportunities leads to a stunting of their moral competence. This regression phenomenon can be found in almost all children who have enjoyed less than 12 years of school education (Lind 2002). Among adults regressions in moral compe­tence occur when their situation provides too few opportunities to use it, as is often the case with prisoners (Hemmerling 2014) or even with students of medicine (Schillinger 2006).

As moral research has shown, schools must not necessarily do more in order to improve the moral competence of all students sufficiently and sustainably. But they must be more purposeful in their approach, that is to say they must work with better methods and with better trained teachers.


Which methods?

Hardly any of the methods prevailing in schools today meet the challenge of providing effective education for democracy:

Institutional studies: We were hitherto of the opinion that for the maintenance of democracy it is sufficient to convey knowledge of democracy, to acquaint young people with the Basic Law and the institutions of the state. The mediation of this knowledge could give young people the opportunity to weigh up the pros and cons of individual good and social good and to discuss com­peting ideas on the meaning of basic democratic principles such as justice, freedom and solidarity. But teachers often fail to take advantage of this opportunity in their lessons because the pressures of testing and grading leave too little time or because the teacher lacks the confidence to deal with reflection and discussion in the classroom (Lind 2016).

Communication of values, ethics lessons. For democracy to flourish citizens must desire it and attribute great value to ideals such as freedom, justice and cooperation. In fact this ideal is highly esteemed by most people in the world (Sen 1996; McFaul 2004) even when they are disappointed by real existing democracy and themselves often fail to live up to their own ideals. The mediation of values by the school is hence not only superfluous. It is a “performative self-contradiction” (Karl-Otto Apel) to the ideal of democratic freedom (Lind 2017b). Moreover, the theoretical media­tion of values in the form of lectures or reading text shows no empirically demonstrable effect on the development of moral competence (Narvaez 2001; Lind 2002).

Living democracy: The method of “living democracy” is only limitedly suitable as a means of promoting moral competence. On the one hand, the learning opportunities it offers are only avail­able to a small proportion of young people, and mostly only to those who already have a relatively high degree of moral competence and are not overtaxed by this method (Comunian & Gielen 2006). On the other hand the effectiveness of “living democracy” is highly dependent on the quality of the “democracy” the students experience and the accompanying pedagogical program (Westheimer 2015). Even the Just Community schools, which practice democratic procedures in an exemplary manner, cannot promote the moral competence of students effectively. On balance the JC projects in the USA brought no developmental gain for the participants (Power et al. 1998; Lind 2002). In the project “Democracy and Education in Schools” in Germany there was a clear learning effect (Lind & Althof 1992), but this cannot be unequivo­cally attributed to the method of “living democracy”, as the students also participated at the same time in many dilemma discus­sions, whose teaching effectiveness has been clearly demon­strated (Lind 2002; 2016). Positive effects of free discussion and genuine participation in democratic decision-making processes were incidentally revealed by the Konstanz longitudinal study of students from five European countries undertaken between 1977 and 1985 (see, e.g., Bargel et al. 1982; Lind 2002). Whereas in four countries only a low improvement in moral competence was established it increased strongly among students in Poland at the end of the 1970s, as many of them had the opportunity to parti­cipate in the democratic movement in their country at that time (Nowak & Lind 2009).

Dilemma discussion: This method of education for democracy developed by Moshe Blatt and Lawrence Kohlberg (1975) did in fact prove to be very effective as a means of stimulating the moral judgment competence of students (Lind 2002) but it was later abandoned as a failure by Kohlberg and his students because teachers did not accept it (Althof 2015). For Kohlberg (1964) moral judgment competence is the “capacity to make decisions and judgments which are moral (i.e., based on internal principles) and to act in accordance with such judgments.” (p. 425) In order to promote this competence the method requires the teacher to confront students with several dilemma discussions and then to present and justify their opinions. In order to maximize the teaching effect the teacher was called upon to offer the students arguments which lay exactly one stage above their developmental level (the so-called “plus 1 – convention”). To this end the teachers had to determine the students’ “level of moral judgment competence” before teaching (with the help of Kohlberg’s interview method). The effectiveness of the Blatt-Kohlberg method was subjected to more intensive empirical examination that any previous method of moral edu­cation. We found over 140 intervention studies which were undertaken between 1970 and 1984. The average effect size of the method was astoundingly high, amounting to r = 0.40 and d = 0.88, a value scarcely achieved by any previous pedagogical method (Lind 2002).

The reasons why teachers were not willing to adopt the Blatt-Kohlberg-Method in spite of its high effectiveness were manifold. It is very time-consuming, requires intensive training of the teachers and involves the carrying out of long interviews with the students, which can only be evaluated by experts. In addition, the interviews are subjective and intransparent for the teachers (Lind 1989). A further difficult problem lies in the need for the teacher to present arguments (plus-1-convention). This stands in contrast to Kohlberg’s own development theory, which calls for discovery learning instead of reproduction. An experiment by Lawrence Walker (1983) in fact shows that the arguments of the teacher have an effect not because the students simply reproduce them but because they stimulate the students to think for themselves. Counter-arguments pre­sent­ed by other students also achieve the same effect. The method could, therefore, be even more effective if the teachers took a back seat and left the students with more time for discussions with each other (Lind 2016).


Moral-democratic competence can and must be promoted by the schools

This experience with the Blatt-Kohlberg-method and the findings of moral-democratic psycho­logy at the end of the 1990s led to important new insights into the nature, measurability, rele­vance, development and teachability of morality, which pointed the way to a new approach to education for democracy (Lind 2002; 2016; 2017a; 2017b). We now know that for competent democratic behavior two different aspects of moral feeling are important. On the one hand there is the central aspect of orientation. Orientation on moral democratic principles such as justice, free­dom and cooperation is indispensable for moral behavior. However, we do not have to promote this orientation: it is inborn and deeply anchored in our emotions, so that it does not have to be conveyed to us by education. On the other hand there is the cognitive aspect of the ability to act in accordance with such orientations. Emotionally felt moral principles are powerful, but they are not sufficient for making the right decisions. They are mostly very indeterminate, can easily lead us astray and often bring us into dilemma situations in which every conceivable decision turns out to be morally wrong.

What we call moral-democratic competence or more simply moral competence is the ability to solve problems and conflicts on the basis of (felt) moral principals by means of thinking and dis­cus­sion with others and without recourse to violence, deceit or subjection to others (Lind 2016). We are scarcely aware of how high or low our moral competence is. The degree of moral compe­tence we possess cannot simply be assessed by enquiring about it. But it is shown in behavior. It is shown, for example, very clearly in discussions when participants judge the argu­ments of their supporters and opponents. Most people judge arguments according to their agreement (or dis­agree­ment) with their own. They find it difficult to judge them according to their moral quality, which is indispensable for democratic discourse (Habermas 1990). The degree to which people can judge the arguments of others regardless of their own opinions and according to their moral quality has proved to be a good indicator of moral competence (Keasey 1974; Lind 2016). Until recently it was not possible to do scientific research on the influence of this ability on our be­havior because suitable instruments were lacking. The existing objective instruments of measure­ment were inadequate for this purpose. They only enabled us to find out how well individual behavior fulfilled certain external social norms. But they did not allow us to ascertain how well it corresponded with the inner moral principles of the individual. With so-called qualitative methods such as Kohlberg’s clinical interview method it was possible to trace inner motives, but they were not objective enough to exclude subjective distortions of the data (Lind 1989).

The Moral Competence Tests (MCT) made it possible to measure moral orientation and com­petence both validly and objectively. By means of a special multivariate test design the MCT makes both aspects of the answering behavior visible and measurable. The MCT presents two dilemma stories and requires the participants in the test to judge a series of arguments for and against the decisions taken in the stories. The arguments are so chosen that each of them repre­­sents a certain moral orientation. The pattern of the answers to the MCT enable us to recognize whether and how far the interviewees are capable of judging arguments according to their moral quality instead of their agreement with personal opinions.

Research using Kohlberg’s interview method and the MCT consistently agree: a) that this ability is very unevenly distributed and is overall very weakly developed; b) that – as must be the case with abilities – it cannot be simulated upwards; and c) that it is causally related to a variety of behavioral forms and competencies which are relevant to democracy (see, among others, Kohl­berg 1984; Lind 2016). For example, moral competence determines to a high degree whether people observe the obligations of a contract, whether they are honest in examinations, whether they can solve the problems they have in life without resort to drugs, whether they can report a crime even though it is disadvantageous for themselves, whether they help people in need, whether they critically examine the directives of authorities, whether they can quickly find solutions in dilemma situations, whether they avoid violence to reach their political goals and whether they are actively committed to the maintenance of basic democratic rights. New studies further show that people with a high degree of moral competence can register facts better, get better grades in Math and German and have better average grades in their Abitur (high school diploma). Particularly important for living together in a democracy is the finding of Wasel ( 1994) that people assess the moral competence of others more precisely the higher their own moral competence is. In a certain sense it is, therefore, true to say that a people gets the government it “deserves.” But the reverse also seems to be true. If a democratic government neglects the edu­cation of its citizens it gets a people that desires more authority and less democracy.

Moral competence needs, therefore, to be developed by use, as our muscles do. Just as muscles only develop to the extent that they are used, so too moral competence only develops according to its use. In this context the number and the nature of the opportunities we find in our environment play a decisive role. There should be not too few, but not too many, not too simple, but not too difficult problems which test our moral competence. The optimal level shifts, as in other fields, with the increasing development of moral competence in the direction of greater challenges. From a certain stage of development onwards the individual is in a position to find suitable learning opportunities and to train his/her moral competence without outside assistance. In order to reach this level of development, however, most people are, as already mentioned, dependent upon a good and sufficiently long school education.


The Konstanz Method of Dilemma Discussion

On the basis of this knowledge I have developed the Konstanz Method of Dilemma Discussion (KMDD). It includes some elements of the Blatt-Kohlberg method, but differs substantially from it (Lind 2016; 2017a; Reinicke 2017). It has been used for over twenty years in a variety of edu­cational institutions: in schools from the third grade on, in vocational schools, in universities, in prisons and military academies. It has been employed in several countries apart from Germany, among others in China. It has proved highly effective. A single KMDD session already achieves a greater growth in moral competence than an entire school year. However, a thorough training of the teachers is a precondition for effective and responsible use of the KMDD. Without this train­ing there are no, or even negative, effects (Lind 2016).

We now also employ the KMDD in the public sphere as “Discussion Theater” (DT). The piece we put on stage is called “Talking and Listening”. First performances in the Dresden Frauenkirche and in Poznan, Poland, were well-attended and successful. They show that there is a need for serious, free discussion of sensitive topics with others that are carried out without accusations and aggression.

Although the KMDD and the DT are theater pieces with a story about decisions taken by a fictitious person, the story mostly has a factual basis or could have happened in the way presented. Above all the discussions between the supporters and opponents of the decision of the protagonist are real: the participants in the discussion theater, as in the KMDD, give their own opinions and attempt to convince their opponents of the rightness of their standpoint. The KMDD and the DT do not, therefore, involve role-playing; they present genuine debates in which emotions are noticeably present. Nonetheless, in the innumerable sessions I have led in more than twenty years there has never been a violation of the only inalterable rule, namely that everything can be said and that the arguments can be judged and criticized, but not the people involved in the discussion. Violation of the rule would not be sanctioned; the leader of the session would simply recall the rule. But this was never necessary either. It seems that everyone wishes for hard but fair discus­sions and that is enough for the session leader, as the perceived authority, to state the rule openly at the beginning and to promise to ensure its observation, but otherwise not to intervene in the course of the discussion (Lind 2016).



Self-determined living together in a democracy is not easy. It can only function if all citizens have sufficient opportunities as children to develop their moral competence. Only in this way can they be enabled to solve problems and conflicts in accordance with the rules of morality, that is, to say by reflection and discussion and not by resort to violence, deceit or subjection to others (Haber­mas 1973). Otherwise they will need a “strong state” (Hobbes, Leviathan), which prevents them from indulging in violence and deceit and takes their decisions for them. Democracy cannot be maintained by force but only by good, democratic education.

In order to develop the necessary competence children need help from the school. The school must provide suitable learning opportunities, not only in ethics and politics lessons, but in all subjects. The use of the Konstanz Method of Dilemma Discussion and Discussion Theater require good training if they are to be applied responsibly and effectively. Without sufficient training and certification the KMDD and DT are ineffective and can even have negative effects.

In contrast to other methods of education for democracy their application requires no changes in the curriculum, timetable or school organization. Every teacher can employ it on his own re­spon­­sibility. It takes up little time and hence does not involve any curtailment in the rest of the curriculum. On the contrary, it has a positive effect on the students’ motivation to learn and on the learning climate in the classroom. A biology teacher reports that after a KMDD session her stu­dents worked through the learning material much more quickly than before. They also asked more questions and discussed more extensively what they had learned. “They now know better why they are learning”.



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