Department of Adult
Education and Counselling
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)
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
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.
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
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 , 31).
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  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
, 25). The development of political capacities, then, takes place through
the process of participation itself, and this is certainly a process of informal
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 , 42-43).
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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 , 38-39).
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.
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 , 25). A case in point is the
participatory budget of Porto Alegre, Brazil.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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)
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.
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
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
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.
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.’
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.
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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