Protecting human rights at school is not a matter of opinion – A course on democratic citizenship and human rights education provided teacher students with knowledge and courage

Hate speech, climate change, polarization. How do schools react to societal change? Studies in democratic citizenship and human rights provide teachers with the skills required to discuss such questions. A pilot course on the topic was commended by teacher students.

How can teachers promote democracy in everyday school work? And what responsibilities do teachers have in ensuring that the human rights of all pupils are observed? Many professionals in the field of education do not have an answer or are at a loss when having to take a stand on hate speech or identify a situation where inequality occurs among pupils.

A pilot course organised by the University of Helsinki in spring 2019 tested the inclusion of studies in democratic citizenship and human rights education in teacher training. Simultaneously, a material repository (in Finnish only) was compiled to support all teachers and others involved in education.

Democratic citizenship and human rights education has gained traction in national curricula, but teaching the topic to teachers has been lacking standardisation. In a report by the Human Rights Centre (summary in English) and another report by the Ministry of Education and Culture (in Finnish only), both published in 2014, democratic citizenship and human rights education in teacher training was found to rely on the activity of individual operators as well as to be unanchored to a legal basis and unsystematic. Furthermore, the lack of a social perspective in teacher training was highlighted.

Teacher students are looking for more information

The special pilot course Demokratia- ja ihmisoikeuskasvatus opetus- ja kasvatustyössä (‘Democratic citizenship and human rights education in teaching and education’, article in Finnish and Swedish only) was designed as an entirely web-based course targeted at anyone qualified to work as a teacher. The students attending the course came from a range of backgrounds, including early childhood education, special education, class teacher training as well as general and adult education. Some already had extensive experience of working as a teacher, others were only embarking on their studies.

In teacher training, democratic citizenship and human rights education naturally involves not only current societal change but also the core values and mission of education: what actually matters in schools?

The pilot course examined the meaning of human dignity in daily school life through concrete examples: how can equality be promoted and how can pupils’ varying backgrounds be taken into account? In terms of a safe learning environment, the themes discussed included situations where pupils are humiliated or bullied, as well as inclusion and special support. Through the prism of gender equality and equality in general, course assignments dealt with, among other matters, minorities and the status of disabled persons.

In order for future teachers to be able to base their actions in challenging situations on knowledge, the course also reviewed national legislation and international human rights treaties. The examination of hate crimes and the limits of the freedom of speech constitute one topical issue.

Antti Teikko completed the course as part of his class teacher education. For close to a decade, Teikko has worked as a teacher and a support worker in a children's home.

– The course provided an excellent update on the status of human rights and democracy in Finland and abroad. I gained new legal knowledge and abilities to process these issues as both a teacher and a support worker at a children's home.

Julieth Leinola-Eskola took the special course just before graduating as an early childhood education teacher. She would not have chosen the course on the basis of its title, but the web-based nature made it easier to complete the course.

– I felt the course was really important, a kind of missing piece in our education. The topic should be discussed in teacher education, as its connection to all teacher education courses is so strong. During the course, I wondered how many people knew precisely what human rights, children’s rights and democracy meant. As teachers, we must possess the skills and knowledge required to addressing these matters, Leinola-Eskola says.

Moving from the fear of politics to inspiring instruction

Teachers often shy away from political commentary in the classroom, as schools are dominated by an ideal of neutrality in spite of the fact that curricula encourage the discussion of questions related to society and human rights.

The students on the pilot course recognised this, bringing up the tension between remaining neutral and taking a stand on something. Laura Karlsson, a class teacher student, described in her course assignment her insight about how an active stance is often needed to avoid passively promoting inequality. She also pondered whether anything can be more important than Finland being, in the years to come, an active, critical and well-functioning society that respects human rights.

Many students reported gaining from the pilot course courage to plan the discussion of societal topics or those related to human rights in their school or group.

Protecting human rights is not a matter of opinion

Teachers’ position as a public authority is another matter that is unclear to some. Teacher students do not always understand that the obligation of public authorities to safeguard fundamental and human rights has been enshrined, for example, in the Constitution of Finland. That is something that cannot be set aside as a matter of opinion.

At times, problems arising in school have to be settled with parties involved in the control of legality. Appeals related to the education system submitted to the Parliamentary Ombudsman of Finland pertain to, for example, the right to equality in education and a safe learning environment, religion and ethics education. Matters highlighted include bullying, indoor air problems, decisions on special support, accessibility and the rights of disabled children.

In his annual report (summary in English), the Ombudsman raised the lack of human rights education in conjunction with the prevention of fundamental and human rights violations as a Finnish human rights problem. Professors Audrey Osler and Hugh Starkey, who have studied democratic citizenship and human rights education, summarise in their book entitled Teachers and Human Rights Education (2010) that rights cannot be observed without awareness of their existence. Ignorance of pupils’ rights and obligations prevents their enforcement.

In their feedback, the teacher students who took the course mentioned the importance of concrete examples. In fact, the Human Rights, Democracy, Values and Dialogue in Education project is producing learning materials pertaining to typical challenges on the basis of the pilot.

Students’ wish: Make the course compulsory

In the course feedback, the students expressed a wish that democratic citizenship and human rights education be made part of the compulsory studies in teacher education. According to them, all teachers should have the same basic knowledge on the subject. Equality, understanding the legislation as well as diversity perspectives related to democracy and participation were highlighted as important themes.

Additionally, the students noted that human rights and democracy are not something that can be taken for granted. The course provided them with means to keep them to the fore in their own work.

– Understanding human rights and democratic citizenship education helps guide you in your work and reduces hesitation when discussing and intervening in problems, says Julieth Leinola-Eskola.

– Good education and teaching are based on democratic values. During the course I realised that human rights and democratic citizenship education is the duty of every teacher on every educational level.

Options for utilising the special pilot course are currently being surveyed. At the University of Helsinki, the aim is to also organise the course in the form of contact teaching and include it in the course offerings.