Daniel Schugurensky, Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)

The Lifelong Citizenship Learning Website

Working Paper #1


By Daniel Schugurensky
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto

Summer 2003



Among the multiple sites for learning the competencies and values of citizenship is the associational space known as participatory democracy. By participatory democracy I do not mean token consultations without authentic decision making power, clientelistic relationships that disempower and control people, or even basic associationalism in the sense of membership in community associations. Instead, I mean inclusive processes of deliberation that are bound to real and substantive decisions. This type of participation would be consistent with the category of ‘citizen control’ in Sheryl Arnstein’s (1966) participation ladder model and with the category of ‘participation’ in Macpherson’s (1977) four models of liberal democracy.  These participatory processes can be present in schools, families, the workplace and a variety of organizations such as churches, advocacy groups, neighbourhood associations, political parties, housing cooperatives, or social and environmental movements.

A particularly strong form of participatory democracy refers to processes of shared decision making and governance between government and civil society. Examples of these processes of co-determination are municipal experiments like the participatory budget of Porto Alegre (Brazil) and the neighbourhood councils of Montevideo (Uruguay). Participatory democracy not only contributes to the construction of more transparent, efficient and democratic ways of governing, but also constitutes privileged spaces for civic learning and for the redistribution of political capital. Based on empirical data recently collected with participants on these processes about their experiential learning, I submit that participatory democracy is a particularly effective school of citizenship. Through participation in deliberation and decision-making (and in collectively elaborating fair and workable criteria for making decisions), ordinary citizens develop not only a variety of civic virtues (like solidarity, tolerance, openness, responsibility, and respect), but also political capital, that is, the capacity for self-governance and for influencing political decisions. In my framework, political capital includes five components: knowledge, skills, attitudes, distance to power, and resources (Schugurensky 2000a). In sum, the main argument of this paper is that participatory democracy provides powerful opportunities for citizenship learning, and as such it constitutes an informal school of citizenship.

Learning by doing: Citizenship learning and participatory democracy

The idea that the very act of participating in deliberation and decision-making has a high pedagogical potential can be traced back at least to Aristotle, and was clearly formulated by Rousseau. As Carole Pateman (1970) noted in her classic book on participatory democracy, the central function of participation in Rousseau’s theory is an educative one, using the term ‘education’ in the same wide sense that permeates Freirean thought. Rousseau’s ideal system, says Pateman, is designed to develop responsible, individual social and political action through the effect of the participatory process itself. Along the same lines as Rousseau, J.S. Mill also identified the educative function of participation in local governance.

For Mill, who wrote during the mid-1800s in England, it was at the local level where the real educative effect of participation occurs. This is because the issues dealt with at this level directly affect the individuals and their everyday life, and also because it is at this level where ordinary citizens stand a better chance of being elected by their peers to serve on a local body or committee.  It is by participating at the local level, claims Mill, that the individual really ‘learns democracy.’ In Mill’s own words,

We do not learn to read or write, to ride or swim, by merely being told how to do it, but by doing it, so it is only by practising popular government on a limited scale that the people will ever learn how to exercise it on a larger one (Mill 1963, p.186, quoted in Pateman 1988 [1970], 31).

Like Mill, G.D.H. Cole argued that it is through participation at the local level and in local associations that people could learn democracy more effectively: “Over the vast mechanism of modern politics the individual has no control, not because the state is too big, but because he [sic] is given no chance of learning the rudiments of self-government within a smaller unit (Cole 1919, p.157)” (quoted in Pateman 1988 [1970] p. 38). For Cole, the most appropriate space for the educative effect of participation was industry, because individuals are involved in relationships of superiority and subordination, and because they spend a great deal of their time there.

Following Rousseau, Mill and Cole, Pateman contended that the existence of representative institutions at national levels is not sufficient for a healthy democracy. She argues that other spheres nurturing political socialization (what she calls 'social training') for the development of the individual attitudes and psychological qualities that are necessary for good quality participation need to be created and invigorated. Since 1989, one of these new spheres, known in Brazil as a public, non-state sphere ('esfera publica, no estatal'), is the participatory budget of Porto Alegre, to which I will refer later on.

For now, let us remember that in Pateman’s framework, the justification for a democratic system in the participatory theory of democracy rests not so much in its effectiveness for governance, but primarily on the human results (particularly political learning) that are accrued from the participatory process. She characterizes the participatory model as one where maximum input (participation) is required, and where output includes not just policies (decisions) but also the development of the social and political capacities of each individual. This means that political capacity is both a result and a precondition for good participation, and that there is constant ‘feedback’ from output to input (Pateman 1988: 43). For Pateman, a central point in her theory is that once the participatory system is established, it becomes self-sustaining because the very qualities that are required of individual citizens if the system is to work successfully are precisely those that the process of participation develops and fosters. Hence, in a virtuous circle, the more the individual citizen participates, the better able she or he is able to participate (Pateman 1988 [1970], 25). The development of political capacities, then, takes place through the process of participation itself, and this is certainly a process of informal learning:

The major function of participation in the theory of participatory democracy is therefore an educative one, and educative in the very widest sense, including both the psychological aspect and the gaining of practice in democratic skills and procedures. Thus there is no special problem about the stability of a participatory system; it is self-sustaining through the educative impact of the participatory process. Participation develops and fosters the very qualities necessary for it; the more individuals participate the better able they become to do so. Subsidiary hypotheses about participation are that it has an integrative effect and that it aids the acceptance of collective decisions (Pateman 1988 [1970], 42-43).

The nature of informal citizenship learning in local democracy

The last quote by Pateman suggests that one important learning dimension has to do with the development of certain psychological attitudes that nurture more participation. These psychological attitudes are closely connected to increases in political efficacy, that is, the confidence in one’s capacity to influence political decisions. One of the earliest definitions on political efficacy was the one advanced by Campbell, Gurin and Miller (1954). For them, political efficacy refers to the feeling that individual political action does have, or can have, an impact upon the political process. In other words, it is the feeling that engaging in civic action is worthwhile. Regardless of the scope of the political system, which seems to be crucial in terms of psychological effects, is the ability and power of a group to influence a decision.

Given the spread of the so-called ‘democratic deficit’ expressed in high levels of electoral absenteeism and low confidence in political institutions, there is an urgent need for ordinary citizens to learn political efficacy by participating in politics. As Pierre Bourdieu (1991) pointed out, the fact that the political field is monopolized by professional politicians is not a natural phenomenon and can be challenged through social action. This is particularly important for lower income groups, since studies of political efficacy usually find a correlation between socio-economic status, political efficacy and political participation: lower income groups tend to have a lower sense of political efficacy, and tend to participate less. Hence, the educative effect of participation for the development of political efficacy is especially relevant for those groups who are underrepresented in participatory democracy and have less experience with these processes.

However, the change in psychological attitudes is not the only educative effect. For instance, Rousseau, Mill and Pateman also emphasized the broadening of outlook and interests and the appreciation of the connection between private and public interests. They also noted the gaining of familiarity with democratic procedures and the learning of democratic skills, the relationship between local decisions and the wider social and political environment, and the influence of the broader social and political environment on the local reality. Moreover, beyond individual learning, it could be argued that the group as a collective learns too, as it becomes to be more integrated, fairer in its procedures and criteria, and more willing to reach and accept consensus.

The learning that is acquired through participation (be it related to attitudes, knowledge or skills) often has an expansive effect. This means that, as people become more familiar with, and more effective in, local democracy, they also become more interested (and even more engaged) in broader issues of regional, national or international scope. Early research on this topic, undertaken by Kojala (1965) with the Yugoslavian Workers’ Councils as a case study, has shown that over time participants move from discussing ways to manage their most immediate environment to dealing with policy issues and decisions that transcend their immediate environment.

Indeed, participation in local governance nurtures a wider educative effect because it broadens interests and outlooks and develops more practical capacities for political participation. Such participation, and the consequent learning that derives from it, fosters the development of more informed, critical and engaged citizens who are eager to learn more and to take on larger challenges. As citizens become more enlightened, empowered and confident, they become ready to go beyond their circle and become more active in other spheres. Important in this regard is the shift from passivity to the feeling of agency. Drawing on Cole, Pateman argues that industrial working relations nurture obedience and passivity, and that through self-governance and workplace democracy people can acquire the democratic skills and virtues that are necessary to participate in the larger system:

Only if the individual could become self-governing in the workplace, only if industry was organised on a participatory basis, could this training for servility be turned into training for democracy and the individual could gain the familiarity with democratic procedures and develop the necessary ‘democratic character’ for an effective system of large-scale democracy (Pateman 1988 [1970], 38-39). 

Although many participants may still be more interested in local affairs, their new learning assists them to be better able to assess the performance of national representatives, to weigh the impact of decisions taken by national representatives on their own lives and their immediate surroundings, and to take decisions of national scope when the opportunity arises.

Another aspect of this expansive effect is the transition from narrow self-interest to the common good, and from looking only at one’s street as the centre of the universe to a more comprehensive understanding of the community as a whole. In this regard, it can be argued that there is a connection between agency and the development of civic skills and virtues. For instance, Rousseau claims that through the participatory process citizens learn to take into account wider matters than their own immediate private interests because of the need to gain co-operation from others, and learn that the public and private interests are linked. For Rousseau, the logic of the participatory system is such that citizens are forced to deliberate according to their own sense of justice, and they have to reach a common ground in order to make the deliberation possible. Along the same lines, Mill noted that when individuals are solely concerned with their own private affairs and do not participate in public affairs then the ‘self-regarding’ virtues suffer, and the capacities for responsible public action remain undeveloped. Conversely, when citizens participate in public affairs, they are forced to widen their horizons and to take the public interest into account. Then, as a result of participating in decision making, individuals learn to identify their own impulses and desires, and learn to be public as well as private citizens (Pateman 1988 [1970], 25). A case in point is the participatory budget of Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Informal learning through the participatory budget

The participatory budget (PB) of Porto Alegre has been in continuous development since its inception in 1989. Its institutional features have been discussed extensively in the literature (see, for instance, Abers 2000, Genro 2001, Baierle 1998, Schugurensky 2001a, 2001b). In a nutshell, the PB is an open and democratic process of participation that allows ordinary citizens to make decisions together on municipal budget allocations. This includes neighbourhood discussions and decisions about priorities regarding investments in local infrastructure like pavement, sewage, storm drains, schools, health care, childcare, housing, etc. It also includes thematic forums on city-wide issues such as transit and public transportation, health and social assistance, economic development and taxation, urban development, education, culture and leisure. While the model is far from perfect, the PB has promoted a more efficient, transparent and accountable administration of public resources, an outstanding achievement in itself in the context of Latin America. By using equity criteria in budget allocations and bottom-up processes, it has also improved the living conditions of poor communities by reversing previous priorities that used to favour higher income areas. These are important accomplishments that have inspired participatory budget models in many progressive municipalities in Brazil and abroad.

However, there is another accomplishment that is particularly fascinating, especially from an educator’s viewpoint. This accomplishment relates to the impressive amount of civic and political learning that is acquired throughout the participatory process. Most of this learning, I submit, is informal. It is true that the architects of the participatory budget expected some political and civic learning to occur during the process of collective deliberation and decision-making (a sort of positive ‘hidden curriculum’), but the pedagogical dimension was somewhat in the periphery of their radar.  It is also true that some learning undertaken by participants was the result of organized and planned non-formal educational activities like workshops, but most of their civic and political learning was informal. Furthermore, most of this informal learning was unintentional and sometimes even unconscious. In a previous paper (Schugurensky 2000b), I distinguished three types of informal learning: self-directed (which is intentional and conscious), incidental (unintentional but conscious) and socialization (unintentional and unconscious). The preliminary findings of my research in progress on the PB suggests that most of the learning acquired by participants was incidental or part of the socialization process.

Informal learning is often hidden, seldom recognized, rarely valued and largely unexplored (Livingstone 1999, Schugurensky 2002). As informal learning processes are usually unplanned, unconscious and unnoticed, it is not surprising that the knowledge acquired is mostly tacit. In a pioneering book entitled precisely The Tacit Dimension, Polanyi (1966) characterized tacit knowledge as “that which we know but cannot tell.” In an earlier text, Polanyi (1958) noted that tacit knowledge is difficult to identify and to express, and remains inarticulate.

Although mostly unplanned, inarticulate and tacit, the informal learning of the participatory budget has nurtured the empowerment of neighbourhood associations and popular organizations and the development of a new democratic culture that eliminated political clientelism (the typical exchange of favours for votes). This learning has also promoted the ownership of projects by the community, the preservation of public property, the revitalization of civic life, and an increase in citizen participation, community organizing and political activism. Moreover, in-depth interviews with participants have shown significant changes in political knowledge and skills, democratic attitudes and civic behaviors that sometimes are transferred to other settings (Schugurensky 2004). Additionally, this learning is largely acquired by those who need it the most. In many other experiments of participatory democracy, there is a high representation of middle class and male, members, and of the so-called ‘professional citizens’ (those who belong to multiple associations, have a high rate of participation in social movements and are familiar with the formal political system). However, in the Participatory Budget of Porto Alegre the majority of participants are female and from low-income groups (Baierle 1998).

As the Porto Alegre’s participatory budget and other similar experiments suggest, the pedagogical dimension of participatory democracy is an area that deserves more and deeper attention by citizenship educators and by researchers. A particular useful approach to investigate the educational dimension of local democracy is the tradition known as situated learning.

Situated learning and communities of practice

Following the contributions of authors like Vygotsky, Dewey, Bandura, Freire and others to social learning, situated learning and experiential learning, I suggest that learning cannot be isolated from the activity, the culture and the context in which it takes place. I also suggest that knowledge is socially constructed and that learning often occurs in social interaction. As Berger and Luckman (1966) pointed out in their classic work, our understanding of reality is a social construct intimately connected to human intersubjectivity and everyday life, and shaped by complex processes of externalization, objectivation and internalization.

From a situated learning perspective, learners are involved in “communities of practice” that embody a set a values, behaviors and skills to be acquired by members. This involvement is seldom homogeneous, because people do not usually enter these communities of practice at the same time, and thus an informal system of apprenticeship is often established. As ‘apprentices’ (or beginners, newcomers) move progressively from the periphery of these communities to their centre, they become more active and engaged with the culture, and with time they assume the role of ‘masters’ (or experts, oldtimers). Furthermore, the literature on this topic reveals that most of this situated learning is unintentional and hence it is incidental rather than deliberate. For instance, in a study conducted by Gear et al. (1994), it was reported that, in spite of using Tough’s concept of intentional learning projects to ask about informal learning, 80% of the learning episodes mentioned by their interviewees were not intentionally sought. Similar findings have been reported by Brown, Collins & Duguid (1989) and by Lave & Wenger (1990). Likewise, Foley (1999:1), in a recent study on informal learning in social action, argues that “the most interesting and significant learning occurs informally and incidentally, in people’s everyday lives.” Comparable insights are provided by the social movement learning tradition (Adams 1980, Horton and Freire 1990)

As Jonassen (1994) points out, situated learning takes place when learners work on authentic and realistic tasks that reflect the real world.  The knowledge content and the capacities developed are determined by the demands of the real world and the particular context in which learners are interacting.  If knowledge is decontextualized, as happens in many classrooms all over the world, then knowledge becomes inert, and students learn new concepts but may have difficulties applying them in the absence of a real context for its use. This constructivist approach applies also to the learning of citizenship and democracy, the topic of this chapter. Although it may sound like a cliché, it is no less true that one of the best ways to learn democracy is by doing it, and one of the best ways to develop effective civic and political skills is by observing them in the real world and exercising them. In other words, it seems that the old model of apprenticeship, based on observation, modeling, trial and error, and regular social interaction still has something to contribute today to educational theory and practice.

Summary and conclusions

In educational discourse, informal learning is usually conceptualized as a residual category of a residual category. If formal education refers to the institutional ladder that goes from preschool to graduate studies, and nonformal education refers to any organized educational activity that takes place outside the formal education system (e.g. short courses, workshops, professional development, etc.), then informal learning often becomes a loose category that encompasses ‘anything else’ that is not included in the previous two.  Given this characterization, it is not surprising that informal learning is at the margins of the margins of the educational conceptual and research radar. Indeed, most research and policy initiatives still tend to concentrate efforts in formal education, and to a lesser extent in nonformal education. Informal learning is often undervalued and seldom recognized by institutions and researchers.

Hence, it is not surprising that in terms of our understanding of processes and outcomes, informal learning is still largely a black box. This is unfortunate, because much of the relevant (in the sense of personally meaningful and significant) learning acquired throughout our lives occurs in the area of informal learning. This certainly applies to the area of political and civic learning, and particularly to the learning required to act effectively in processes of participatory democracy. For this reason, this site includes issues and debates on citizenship education and on participatory democracy (two distinct fields of specialized studies) but pays special attention to the intersection between them, that is, the informal civic and political learning that occurs in local processes of deliberation and decision-making.

In this site informal learning was conceived of as any learning, purposeful or not, that involves the acquisition of knowledge, skills, attitudes or values that are not formulated in an externally imposed curriculum. Confirming the arguments of classic theories in the field, it was found that participatory democracy is a particularly effective setting to learn the values, skills and competencies for the effective exercise of citizenship. Indeed, J.S. Mill claimed that participatory democracy fosters among participants an ‘active character.’  G.D.H. Cole made references to the development of ‘a non-servile character.’ For Rousseau, participatory democracy nurtures a co-operative character, which includes an interest for the common good, and a capacity to define collectively the common good and to make democratic decisions to put it into practice. For Pateman, it promotes a democratic character, which consists of a capacity for self-governance and political efficacy.

As the experiences recounted by participants in local democracy show, participatory democracy has the potential to fulfill those expectations if there is a proper space to learn democracy by doing it. Through the process of participatory democracy, people learn to become more informed, engaged, and critical citizens who can deliberate and make decisions in a democratic fashion, who can think not only about their specific grievances but also about the common good. This means learning a new political culture that is based on active citizenship, solidarity and equity, that is, a culture in which we are not only spectators but also actors, and in which the common good and the needs of the most marginalized members of society come before our particular demands. It also means learning new ways to relate to each other and to the government, building relationships based on collaboration and respect. An informal school of citizenship provides opportunities for political and democratic learning that is as broad as possible and enjoyed by as many people as possible. Thus, political capital (understood, as noted above, as the capacity to influence political decisions) is more equitable redistributed, and is no longer an exclusive monopoly of professional politicians and the so-called ‘professional citizens.’

The development of political efficacy and political capital, however, is only part of the educative effect of participation. There is also the broadening of perspectives, the awareness of the connections between private and public interests, the gaining of familiarity with democratic procedures, the concern for improving the urban landscape and the quality of life for residents, and the development of political and democratic skills and attitudes. A school of citizenship also means learning how to practice democracy in-between elections.We are not born democrats, and often we are not raised to be active democratic citizens. Democracy is something that we can learn everyday beyond the occasional act of voting, and the more democratic the enabling structures that nurture the deliberation process, the more significant the democratic learning will be. Most political forums today, be they right, center or left, are characterized not by dialogue but by monologues and confrontation. Participatory democracy, while not a perfect model, provides more for listening and for dialogue, which are important preconditions for learning.

This does not mean that participatory democracy should be promoted as an alternative to representative democracy but rather as a complement to it. Also, it is clear that in order to be an effective informal school of citizenship, participatory democracy experiments should be characterized by inclusive, free and fair decision-making processes that depart from the traditional patterns of tokenism, therapy, or manipulation. It is the creation and functioning of true democratic spaces that allow people to learn democracy by doing it. Indeed, participants learn democracy through research, deliberation and decision-making. They also learn by following up on the decisions agreed upon collectively, by evaluating the process at the end of each cycle, by identifying mistakes, and by developing new criteria, policies and guidelines that improve the quality and fairness of the democratic process in the next cycle. Given their pedagogical impact, good participatory democracy processes constitute non-recognized educational institutions that nonetheless would fulfill an important educational purpose.

One implication of all this is that we need to find new ways of doing politics. There is pressing need to create a multiplicity of healthy democratic spaces in schools, in the workplace, in municipal governments, in neighbourhoods and in a variety of locations where people who are affected by decisions usually made by others regularly congregate. Such archipelago of democratic agoras could certainly contribute to make politics more relevant, and to develop informal schools of citizenship and democracy in every community.


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