Democracy and education - Mark Saey | Civiclab

Education and society.
Towards a new paradigm in (world) citizenship education.

Flemish education scores poorly on the development of civic knowledge and values. Although government and the educational institutions recognize this, there still is no practical solution in place that integrates all school-factors influencing pupils’ democratic attitude. This can however be remedied by implementing cross-curricular learning trajectories for world-citizenship or WELT projects in every secondary school. In what can also be called the construction of a context for the use of general or civic knowledge, other educational problems can also find a solution free of the doubtful and overrated changes other proposals imply. This article provides an overview of the state of Flemish pupils’ civic knowledge, democratic values and attitudes, shows why the intended proposals are doubtful and overrated, and explains in short what the proposed construction of a context for the use of civic knowledge looks like. In this article we summarize the main findings, insights and integral model for citizenship education, expounded in Saey, M., 2014: Jongeren worden wereldburgers, Ghent: Academia Press.

The state of citizenship education in Flanders

In his book The Establishment Owen Jones describes how the elite gain political capital thanks to the media promoting ignorance and covering up reality.(1) Research showed that the average Brit thinks 27% of social benefits is fraudulently obtained (the correct percentage being 0,7%) and 41% goes to unemployment (it’s just 3%), 29% of the British population even thinks there’s more tax money going to unemployment than to pensions (in reality pensions take 15 times the amount going to unemployment). On average they think 24% of the population is Muslim (in England and Wales the correct percentage is 5%) and 31% is immigrant (it’s between 13 and 15%). To Jones this ignorance is an important explaining factor in the crisis of democracy. But, though I don’t necessarily want to refute his claim about the media, reading these numbers one would first of all wonder whether people across the canal don’t learn these things in school – until further notice still the largest bastion of information and transfer of knowledge, no? Doesn’t education provide the necessary means to later in life not be politically naive, misled or manipulated? Lets take this question back to our own region, and for an answer first look at some more statistics, about pupils’ political engagement, values and knowledge, education should in principle provide for.(2)

In Belgium kids leaving secondary education are somewhat more willing to vote, but nonetheless less interested in politics (32% is, 42% is not) and more likely to be extremist than older groups. On democratic values, like tolerance, respect for the rule of law, human rights and the support for democratic institutions, they score a little better than their elders. But this ‘little better’ hides the fact that, for example, still no more than one out of two is convinced parliament and political parties are of any use. And concerning tolerance (always a good indicator for the state of democratic values) only half the sixteen-year old Flemish kids can imagine ever having a relationship with an immigrant or someone of the other language group (Dutch/French). Still, Flemish pupils at the age of 14-16 have no problem with friends of a different color (86%) and find it important to come into contact with other cultures (67%). But this does not mean the same number is convinced the presence of different cultures in their society is a gain (52%). Worse, not even one in four thinks migrants add to the welfare of the country, and more than 25% is of the opinion migrants are here simply to profit from the social welfare system. 40% of 16-year old Flemish kids think a country should stop migration all together to avoid conflict, and a same number simply agrees with own people first’. Curiously, measured by the evolution of their tolerance, the development of their civic values seems to halt at the age of 14 – they don’t significantly change anymore. Unfortunately that age marks the beginning of the phase in personal development when critical investigation of the wider world can really begin.

Lets now look at what 16-year olds learn or do not learn about politics in school. Although (in 2006) more than half of them says to have been taught something about different cultures, countries and religions, also more than half claim never having heard anything about federalism, the workings of parliament or the United Nations. Only one in four says to more than once having learned about the European Union and recent politics. And in spite of political topics being addressed more in the last two years of secondary school, and the majority of teachers claiming to at least here and there work on the development of a civic attitude, only one in four says politics is not too difficult to understand (the same number applies to adults). Also internationally compared Flemish kids score poorly.(3) They do more or less attain the average score when it comes to civic knowledge, trust in political institutions and belief in gender equality, but they score very poorly when it comes to their attitude towards the rights of immigrants, political interest, political self-image, discussing politics with friends and family and the expectation of their later political participation.

Up till now I used only studies and reports with a focus on civic values and knowledge of ‘purely political’ subjects like parties, elections, institutions. But to really assess the civic capacities of our youth, one has to go (far) beyond the set of questions standard in those inquiries, and ask whether at the end of secondary school, kids actually know the minimum to understand the basic workings of the present world or to situate themselves in that world. Unfortunately that also is not the case in Flanders.

“Our education system does not succeed in offering every kid the possibilities to become a citizen capable to actively play a part in the democratic process and to aid in changing the world”, concludes Nico Hirtt, teacher and leading researcher at OVDS (Call for a democratic school). In 2008 he, together with a group of voluntary colleagues, presented 3000 pupils in the last years of secondary school with a long list of multiple-choice questions about their world-view.(4) Here are some of the main results: only 45% knew what a renewable energy-source is, 90% had a false idea of what causes the green house effect, on average they thought the Belgian ecological footprint can be globally doubled before natural resources run out. Immediately one wonders how the environmental catastrophe can ever be avoided. Only 25% roughly knew the average income of the 10% richest families is about 17 times the size as the income of the 10% poorest families, and only 13% estimated the 1% richest have an income 40 times that. 75% could not correctly interpret a simple chart with indexes showing a relative increase. Add one plus one and one wonders how most of them will ever know whether some political proposal to redistribute wealth is fair or not. The average pupil underestimated the difference in consumption between Belgium and Congo with a factor of 60. Only one third knew Mexico has been a Spanish colony, 25% didn’t know Congo was a Belgian colony. How rational can their opinion about migration and development aid be? Less than one third could correctly point out on a timetable when life on earth began or when agriculture appeared. 50% thought the birth of the sun predated the birth of the universe. 50% thought Judaism is younger than Catholicism, 40% thought Islam is older than Christianity. Take all things together, add the fact that in their higher education specialize is a key operative word, and one wonders how most of them will ever attain a reasonable idea about where they and others are in society and the wider world.

More recent reports show little if any progress. OVDS took another multiple-choice test, this time limited to the environmental question, in 2015. It showed that 71% of pupils in the last years think a Chinese uses more energy than a Belgian, and that only 50% worries about global warming. Knowing the results of all this research one wasn’t very surprised when another report showed that for many students in teacher trainings “many present day events are alien, incomprehensible phenomena, because they are unable to place these in a wider, historical perspective, and do not know which mechanisms cause important events”. Almost half of them can’t distinguish between the most important ideologies.(5)

This way the reader has a sufficient idea of the state of (the results of) citizenship education in Flanders. One has tried to improve it by means of transversal/trans-curricular end-terms (6), which today still remain too complex and especially without an effective practical methodology – but see below.

Doubtful proposals, overrated discussions

Another proposed remedy is the LEF proposal for a neutral and obligatory course on Levensbeschouwing-Ethiek/burgerschap-Filosofie (religion-ethics/civics-philosophy) for all educational strands, of Loobuyck P., Professor of religion and moral sciences at Antwerp University, which has received the attention of the media and parliament.(7) Yet as all proposals for a new course in the common curriculum this one also is confronted with a war between courses. So one needs to carefully consider whether the proposal would deliver a better alternative to the present religious courses, or that the present courses cannot possibly achieve what the proposal claims.(8)

Constitutionally it is possible to make the religious courses fully optional (take them on top of the mandatory curriculum only when parents so desire) to make room for a two hour LEF course.(9) Yet government normally only sets forth end-terms, the modality (a new course or otherwise) is up to the providers, the school-nets, which makes it doubtful his ‘neutral’ course has a real chance of soon being introduced in the Catholic school-net, in spite of popular support and/or rapid secularisation.(10) Interestingly, and never seriously addressed in the media, Loobuyck himself notes a new course on those topics might not be the optimal remedy in both primary and vocational secondary education (11), which would leave only the secondary technical and general strands in the public school-net ‘open’ to the idea of a new course – in this line of thought reaching but 10% of total pupil population. Furthermore, it is far from clear that LEF would realize something the present religious courses in principle never could, though it should immediately be granted this would imply at least more certainty religious courses teach the same stuff in every school, would make room for more civic topics and best available knowledge about other religions, and would implement more inter-religious activities – this last demand being de facto the case in the Catholic school-net, and in the public net already agreed upon by all religions/‘churches’ (12), no doubt as counter attack. So, although the discussion between a republican or ‘hard’ form of secularism and an open or ‘soft’ form of secularism for schools is therefore not an unimportant one, and implementing a new course to achieve the former would also deliver some organizational and financial benefits to the public school-net, it still remains to be seen whether LEF would indeed provide us with a better alternative. Without more concrete content and lesson materials it anyway is very unclear exactly what it could achieve more for citizenship education. There are however far more important issues than arguing for or against this or that course.

The reader no doubt has noticed that, although their overall citizenship level is quite low, Flemish pupils’ knowledge and trust in political institutions are close to the international average, and that many teachers do teach civic topics (be they more interpersonal than strictly political). Moreover, the inquiry into the level of upcoming teachers was designed on the basis of existing end-terms. So, in spite of what the impressions of their level might indicate, there is quite some civics or citizenship education included in the content of several courses. This by the way may also remind us the very important lesson that actually the entire classical curriculum is about fighting ignorance and teaching or promoting critical citizenship, and not just this or that course we address each time the media or politicians are confronted with a social problem they themselves no longer have a solution to. This of course was the reason why above we looked beyond the standard political scientist’s questions. A discussion about end-terms or changes to the curriculum is therefore not entirely senseless, but the poor state of Flemish pupils’ civic knowledge,values and attitudes, is not only nor mainly due to shortcomings in content or learning-plans, the form of secularism in our educational system or the lack of a miracle course of just two hours per week – let alone one of only one hour per week. That’s also why the recent decision of our Minister of Education, to explicitly enter end-terms for citizenship education in a few courses (history, religious, and Dutch) will not prove to be much of a solution. Especially not when this implies the functions of the transversal goals would come under pressure – because exchanging the concerning transversal goals for course-dependent end-terms. Since there are two fundamental insights that long since should have taken us far beyond these doubtful proposals and overrated discussions, and set us on the path towards a new paradigm.

Towards an integral approach

The first insight is that civic knowledge is much better learned and remembered through project-teaching, but that this form of teaching in a single course is too time demanding. In Jongerenpolitiek en burgerschap (p.16) Marc Hooghe et al., drawing on their long-term research, show that what progressive teachers and pedagogues knew already a hundred years ago was essentially true: “that a classical approach with lessons about the political system have but a very limited influence on political knowledge (…) we see that after two years nothing remains of this knowledge. Working with projects in group and (…) an open class climate on the contrary prove to have a lasting effect (…) Learning how to work together, and the idea that the school itself functions as a democracy, prove to be (…) far more important”. It is here, because of an almost total lack of didactical considerations and/or political investigation of ways of learning, that the aforementioned proposals and changes prove to be academic at best. If the classical approach is but effective to a small part of pupil population, should we then not – especially in the case of citizenship education – first of all inquire into the nature of more democratic and universally effective methods?  

A project is at least qua content course-transversal, is about or revolves around a socially relevant topic, and rests on a sound combination of a knowledge and a doing-part. Or in more technical language, it is about the interdisciplinary construction of a context for the use of civic or general knowledge, in which the integral or philosophical learning can be organized along constructivist lines, and with which one can consciously work on knowledge, skills, values and attitudes, much more than with any other form of teaching.(13) More project teaching should be the school-nets’ and government’s answer to the gradual disappearance of conscious social organization as the most general and important context for use of the school curriculum. It would also provide us with a very practical translation of four of the original seven functions of the transversal end-terms schools have to make an effort for: motivate pupils more thanks to realistic and applicable reference points, teach valuable content that is insufficiently addressed, provide more connections between educational options or strands, and help guarantee a sufficiently broad common education.(14) But project teaching is not so easy and too time demanding to ever be considered as the ultimate method for (every hour of) every course. Before we address that problem directly, let us add the second insight, to arrive at a paradigm-changing question.

The second insight is that next to the factor curriculum there are several other schoolfactors influencing the development of pupils’ citizenshipHooghe et al. already summarized: working together, and the school operating as a democracy have the biggest influence. A democratic school climate includes pupils’ participation and sensibilities, the values and attitudes of the role models (teachers) and effective school policy.(15) Somewhat simplified these factors state: the more pupils can actively take part in both the inner and outer school activities the more democratic their attitude, the less politically cynic and xenophobic their teachers the less they are too, the more school policy is capable of internally motivating the school’s population thanks to the rationality of its rules and values the more pupils are integrated in the democratic ethos. These factors more or less cover the other three functions of the transversal end-terms: stimulate schools to work together as organization, live up to social expectations, strengthen the bond between education and society. 

The connection between both insights leads us to ask how project teaching can develop a context for the use of civic or general knowledge, which will reinforce all the schoolfactors influencing the development of pupils’ citizenship. And this can be achieved by organizing trans-curricular learning trajectories for world-citizenship. In the following paragraph we give their main features.

WELT projects World Education Learning for Tomorrow

This type of project can most easily be described as an update of what is known as the Geintegreerde Proef or GIP (integrated test) in the vocational, technical and art strands of the Belgian educational system. A GIP is class-based yearlong learning practice in which pupils (individually or in groups) have to actively and self-dependently deliver a product (installation, website, presentation, performance, …) for which they have to apply the knowledge and skills from several different courses in their (mainly specific) curriculum in an integrated way. They also need to reflect and keep track of all their GIP-activities in a personal logbook. The GIP is most of time coached by teachers of specific courses, but is constructed and three times a year evaluated by a jury composed of every involved teacher and people from the private sector or professional field. Since the GIP does not exist in the general strand and is strongly professionally orientated no one has up till now suggested to use and generalize the structure of this effective learning practice for citizenship education. To do so we have to update the practice, but from this short description it should already be quite clear that building on this existing practice would make the construction of a context for the use of civic/general knowledge feasible. 

When one organizes a GIP around a socially relevant glocal problem, whereby knowledge and doing parts (making a product, internal and external school activities, a play, interviews, political debate, …) are oriented towards the development of world-citizenship (16), the general courses can more easily be connected. That way the balance between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ can be improved or adjusted in every strand. Also other learning practices can easily be integrated (e.g. the exercise in research competence in the general strand, different internships in technical and vocational education, …) thus streamlining and rationalizing the school’s operation (better divide the workload, orient learning towards its goal: world-citizenship).

The yearlong line of knowledge development is organized by a stepping plan for moral reasoning, which stimulates integral/philosophical and active learning and, because of its long-term and multiple-voice elements, secures neutrality or goes against indoctrination. This stepping plan also provides the rationale for choosing didactical tools and specific objectives (transversal goals). And it offers an efficient way to organize the courses involved – according to a rotation-system of only two to three weeks for every course to connect its content to the line of knowledge development and to take at least one number according to the consecutive steps:

1. confrontation with a glocal problem that illustrates one of the three main social fractures: open/closed society, capital/labor, green economy/just transition
2. problemanalysis within a step by step developed insight into the multiple political scales of our global world 
3. consider the relative weight of relevant values (expressed in human rights ; inter-religious reflection) and possible alternative solutions (ethical critique of political answers)
4. consider the opinions of others or external voices (debate with local political parties or civil society organisations)
5. critically formulate a personal opinion. 

The doing-part is connected to these steps so that its activities make it possible to visualize, make concrete and sensitively integrate the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes. For an illustration of how this is done (the general approach as well as the several in class didactics) we refer to the second half of our 2014 and the WELT manual on this website. 

Since an LWZ revolves around a social topic, the jury is extended with members of civil society organizations and/or educational organizations focusing on citizenship. This way cooperation with these organizations can be improved: their lesson materials can be better adapted to specific demands, sub-projects can be improved thanks to their on the spot input and experience. The extended jury also can become the means by which the construction of the extended or ‘broad’ school can be directed by the curriculum and school-vision, which would be beneficial to less privileged pupils needing markers in their life-world to help them connect their general learning at school to their personal development. Or even more generally, this extension would enhance the creation of sub-projects like internships in or cooperation with urban transition organizations, thus speeding up the processes that may help secure the future of mankind. This way the LWZ can help support active democracy in urban districts or help regain conscious social organization as the most general context for the use of civic knowledge and the struggle against ignorance.


Learning trajectories for world-citizenship aim at transforming schools into extended or broad schools for world-citizenship to improve education. This paradigm-shift in citizenship education is needed to finally go beyond the limits of the classical discussions about end-terms, a new one or two hours course, more inter-religious activities between existing courses, state-led or freewheeling political indoctrination, … and answer the crumbling of our conscious social organization as the most general context for the use of civic or general knowledge. We can still debate which kind of secularism is best suited for our schools, but if we really want to make some progress in citizenship education, we urgently need an integrated approach capable to strengthen the transfer of knowledge in the classic curriculum, and to support or rebuild authority in schools by means of what Paul Verhaegen, Professor of psychology at Ghent university, in his analysis of the disintegration of the patriarchal model of authority, has aptly called ‘the group’.(17)

[1] Jones, O., 2015: Het Establishment, Berchem: EPO, p.120.
[2] For all the remaining numbers and percentages, unless otherwise referred to, see: Elchardus, M., en Vanhautte, B., 2007: Het steile pad naar democratisch burgerschap, TOR2007/41, Brussel: VUB ; Elchardus, M., e.a., 2008: Vakoverschrijdende eindtermen in het secundair onderwijs, TOR2008/37, Brussel: VUB ; Claes, E., e.a., 2006: Jeugdonderzoek 2006, Leuven: KUL ; Hooghe, M. (red.), 2012: Jongeren, politiek en burgerschap, Leuven: Acco.
[3] De Groof, S., e.a., 2009: International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS). Vlaanderen in ICCS 2009, Brussel/Antwerpen: VUB/UA.
[4] Hirtt, N., 2010: Seront-ils des citoyens critiques?,
Nonetheless, the background philosophy of these end-terms – their functions – is good, as will become clear.
[5] Swerts, J., en Monten, K., 2013: Onderzoek naar de politiek-maatschappelijke, geografische, historische en economische kennis van studenten lerarenopleiding secundair onderwijs, Leuven: KHL.

[6] “Transversal end-terms are minimum goals concerning knowledge, insight, skills and attitudes, which do not belong to any one course, but are developed in several courses, educational projects and other activities (…) With these end-terms government assigns schools with a number of tasks which it finds important to both education and society. Society finds it important pupils are educated to become citizens, that are taught to live healthy and to take care of each other and their surroundings.” Memorie van toelichting bij het decreet tot bekrachtiging van het besluit van de Vlaamse Regering betreffende de eindtermen en ontwikkelingsdoelen in het basis- en secundair onderwijs, 2009, These end-terms are divided in the following groups or contexts: Learning to learn, Technical skill, Trunk (critical thinking, aesthetic competence, and a series of virtues), three contexts around the Individual (physical health en safety, mental health and socio-relational development), four around Society (environment and sustainable development, political and judicial society, socio-economic society, socio-cultural society). There are no less than 120 specific transversal end-terms government has released on the work-floor of every school. Without any integral methodology, and much complaining in every teacher’s room as a consequence. Nonetheless, the background philosophy of these end-terms – their functions – is good, as will become clear in the text.

[7] Loobuyck, P., 2013: De seculiere samenleving, Antwerpen: Houtekiet ; 2014: Meer LEF in het onderwijs, Brussel: VUBPRESS ; (red.), 2015: Samenleven met overtuigingen, Antwerpen: UPA.
[8] In Flanders’ public educational system schools have to organize the choice between one of several 2 hours religious courses (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Islam, liberal humanism, and soon Buddhism), in the private but state subsidized Catholic school-net only Catholicism is given as the religious course. The Catholic net has about 75% of Flanders’ pupils. The religious courses are organized and supervised not by the state but by their own ‘churches’.
[9] The constitution does not say these courses cannot be offered as optional, on top of the obligatory curriculum.
[10] A survey made by iVox for the Flemish political party Groen! has recently shown 70% of Flemish population to be in favor of a one ‘neutral’ course for all.
[11] Loobuyck, P., 2013:13.
[12] Religious courses now have to work together for at least 6 hours per class per year. Next to all these changes there also is talk in the public school-net to reduce the 2 hours religious course to a one hour one, and to have the other hour go to a LEF kind of course (as we understood during a school-visit from the chief of pedagogical services).
[13] Integral learning means one combines the factual, insight and application dimensions in the learning process so that what is learned becomes inscribed in a persons’ system of meaning and values. Constructivist means one takes the learner through the process by which one arrives at the fact or insight – and in this sense learns by doing, as opposed to the more brainless interpretations of letting kids find out everything themselves or only be ‘coached’ in an always ‘active’ or even ‘fun’ process.
[14] For all original functions see: De Coninck, C., e.a., 2002: Over de grenzen. Vakoverschrijdende eindtermen in de tweede en derde graad van het secundair onderwijs,
[15] See especially Elchardus, M., e.a., 1999: Hebben scholen een invloed op de waarden van jongeren?, TOR1999/4, Brussel: VUB. In my 2014 I added inequality and under financing: in professional/vocational education (where are most of poorest kids) one finds a 30% deficit relative to general education on several components of democratic citizenship, and it is only logical that the more pupils per class and the more a school is in financial need, the less democratic citizenship can be achieved. The Belgian school-system is one of the most unequal systems in the OECD countries.
[16] ‘World-citizenship’ as the concept to functionally summarize or as the general goal of the transversal end-terms. To that end world-citizenship is much better than sustainable development, an a-political (technocratic) and thus far too politically biased concept for education. World-citizenship here means the form of citizenship and/or exercise of political power that takes into account we live in a world-system and that righteousness therefore is also a global affair. In Dutch one makes the distinction between wereldburgerzin (as just described) and wereldburgerschap (citizenship of a world-state) which clearly does not (yet) exist and would also be politically too biased for education.
[17] Verhaegen, P., 2015: Autoriteit, Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij.