Hope and perpetual challenges in the development of education for democratic citizenship and human rights

In the Perspectives on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education seminar, researchers, teacher trainers and public authorities related their hopes and long-term challenges for developing teacher training; where can methods be found for the long-term work needed to gain skills in democratic citizenship and human rights education? Who will train teachers in these skills? How could schools become genuinely inclusive?

Professor Arto Kallioniemi, UNESCO Chair in Values, Dialogue and Human Rights in Education, noted that if Finland is in the official rhetoric considered a model of democracy and human rights, one might ask whether that really holds true now that the binding nature of human rights appears to be an unfamiliar subject to many.

Human rights and making them known comprise one of the most central duties of schools and educational institutions, Kallioniemi stated, bringing up the importance of including education and research on democratic citizenship and human rights in teacher training.

In her address, Professor Emerita Helena Ranta asked where human rights are headed, beginning with a quote from Helga Henschen’s poem originally Swedish poem Tala (Speak):

“Let the words fly like swallows to faraway lands [...] to our sisters and brothers in the prisons of the world [...] those who could not be silent. Speak, speak; it is our duty to those who spoke while they still had lips.”

With her experience of humanitarian crises, Ranta highlighted topical global themes of equality, resettlement and the freedom of religion. She reminded the audience that we still have a long way to go towards achieving equality and brought forward the annual report of the Human Rights Watch, which contains familiar problems relating to the freedom of expression, capital punishment and defenders of human rights.

“I wish I had received human rights education in my time,” Professor Emerita Helena Ranta concluded her seminar address.

National curricula emphasise skills in education for democratic citizenship and human rights, while international treaties and national legislation protect fundamental and human rights. In terms of these rights, the legal obligations of teachers are referred to only superficially in teacher training.

The limits of rights

Kristiina Kouros, an expert at the Human Rights Centre, spoke about the legal limits of fundamental and human rights: their core is inviolable, while on the fringes interpretations are made, among others, by courts on a case-by-case basis. Political debates are being had on the sidelines of related struggles, while "in the cycle of intended and unintended misunderstandings", arguments and opinions may become entirely unattached from the judicial content of fundamental and human rights.

Political battles are essential to the evolution of fundamental and human rights, but not everything comes down to interpretation. Much of the implementation of fundamental and human rights already rests on a solid legal foundation, something teachers too can rely on. Understanding the legal aspect of the rights boosts literacy among related public discourse. Kouros pointed out that this is why teachers should have some understanding of law.

The state of human rights and democracy in Finland?

Amiirah Salleh-Hoddin, winner of the global education award in 2018, gave an address entitled Positive Peace Education and the Anatomy of Ostracism project in Serbia and Finland. She asked which parties primarily assume the role of experts when talking about democracy and human rights, while also highlighting the fact that although problems related to democracy and human rights are often associated with distant locations, teaching also should discuss the realisation of human rights here in Finland.

“We’re a long way from everyone knowing what we’re talking about when we talk about human rights,” Professor Reetta Toivanen stated.

As regards curricula and the rule of law in general, it is curious if the principles of human rights and democracy are not known or taught. According to Professor Toivanen, many of her students have never even read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is great to finally have human rights as part of the comprehensive school curriculum, but here is the key question:

Who will train all the teachers in human rights? asked Toivanen.

Passing the buck has been a traditional problem; universities are autonomous, preventing interventions by ministries and other authorities, in addition to which related development at universities is difficult without funding. Teachers may be afraid of discussing challenging matters, expressing their uncertainty about handling the content of education in democratic citizenship and human rights. Toivanen noted that such education cannot rely solely on the personal activity of teachers.

Positive peace education to promote social justice

In positive peace education, introduced by Amiirah Salleh-Hoddin, peace denotes not only the absence of violent conflict but the measures needed to achieve peace through the promotion of social justice and the disassembly of unjust structures. In the Anatomy of Ostracism project, measures to prevent hate in schools were categorised into three steps: 1. identifying structures and privileges, 2. controlling situations of discrimination and 3. changing the operating culture.

Salleh-Hoddin also spoke about teachers who ask for tools to use to tackle racism. According to her, uttering such a question in itself constitutes taking the next step. In other words, norms should be taken down and personal privileges should be acknowledged, which is the first step towards dismantling racism. Being unable to recognise privilege renders one also unable to recognise discrimination.

Perspectives from teacher training: a lifestyle change for education in democratic citizenship and human rights?

– “Freedom, equality, love – will they ever happen in this wicked world?” stated Matti Rautiainen from the Department of Teacher Education, University of Jyväskylä, quoting Minna Canth, a Finnish writer and social activist.

A brief overview of the history of democratic citizenship education demonstrates how glad we should be that we can talk directly about the subject. Rautiainen highlighted as a problem the fact that the majority already feel they are putting the principles of democracy and human rights into practice, even though a closer look at research and practices reveals that this is not the case.

– Is education in democratic citizenship and human rights in need of a lifestyle change? he wondered.

Liisa Vanhanen-Nuutinen from the Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences shared how, in a survey conducted in 2014 by the Human Rights Centre, the state of education in human rights was found to be poor in teacher education, but even poorer in universities of applied sciences. “This was the starting point,” she noted.

What she found pleasing is that universities of applied sciences have taken steps towards more systematic development. And yet, too many are forced to experience discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnic background or another characteristic.

Leif Rosqvist from the University of Turku acknowledged the support provided by the new early childhood education plan for the development of early education in democratic citizenship, in addition to which he expressed his concern for what has been achieved with the support given. Rosqvist stated that educators have the duty to introduce democracy to educational situations in a meaningful manner. This meaningfulness could be achieved through interaction and by giving children the opportunity to contribute to teaching. For teachers, this entails considering their identity: how am I conducting my work?

Tuomas Korhonen from the University of Eastern Finland alluded to John Dewey when referring to communal responsibilities, opportunities for diverse skills development and the destructiveness of their separation to democracy in terms of the moral significance of democratic citizenship. According to Korhonen, people already know how to demand their individual rights, which is positive for democracy and human rights. What Korhonen considers a challenge is that taking responsibility for common matters does not seem to evoke as much interest as fulfilling individual desires.

Johanna Lampinen from the University of Oulu shared Korhonen’s concern and noted that society can often signal to students that even with enthusiasm, the promotion of themes and common goals that require long-term effort, such as implementing the core content of education in democratic citizenship and human rights, is not necessarily worthwhile.

“Education for democratic citizenship and human rights takes time, it’s a process,” Lampinen points out.

Mikaela Björklund from Åbo Akademi University introduced a perspective of inclusive multilingualism by asking how many languages are in evidence in teacher education. Björklund was pleased by committed teacher trainer colleagues, for example, in the Diversity in Education (DivEd) project. When diversity is disrespected, the social situation causes worry. Tight economic situations also engender problems related to collective skills. Björklund also emphasised that teacher training must put principles into practice, not just talk about them.

Education development at the University of Helsinki: teacher students looking for discussion on human rights, democracy, equality and non-discrimination

At the end of the seminar, Inkeri Ruokonen, director of the Teachers Can! project, thanked the work for education in democratic citizenship and human rights done at the University of Helsinki, as well as for the introduction of a new pilot course which has provoked interest among students. The research-based course content, founded on societal challenges as well as the viewpoints of teacher students, highlights problems related to Finnish democracy and human rights. The students are looking for discussion on human rights, democracy, equality and non-discrimination.

UNESCO Chair Arto Kallioniemi thanked the Human Rights Centre, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Education and Culture for supporting the Human Rights, Democracy, Values and Dialogue in Education project, which has enabled collaboration and the development of education in democratic citizenship and human rights.

Stream of the event

Stream of the event can be viewed here.

Tips for teachers and educators for education in democratic citizenship and human rights

  • Tips for linguistically and culturally responsive instruction (in Finnish and Swedish only) compiled by the Diversity in Education (DivEd) project
  • The Maailmankoulu portal and the Anatomy of Ostracism project of the Peace Education Institute
  • The Demokratia, ihmisoikeudet ja osallisuus (‘Democracy, human rights and participation’) material repository (currently in Finnish only, later available also in Swedish) to support teachers in education for democratic citizenship and human rights. The material has been collected in cooperation between the Human Rights, Democracy, Values and Dialogue in Education project and the Finnish National Agency for Education.

Seminar background

The seminar was held at Think Corner in conjunction with a meeting of the national network of higher education institutions for education in democratic citizenship and human rights, focused on discussing cooperation opportunities and development challenges. The seminar was organised in collaboration with the following projects: Human Rights, Democracy, Values and Dialogue in Education, Teachers Can! and ALL YOUTH.