Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Social Imaginaries and Democratic Teaching and Learning

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_397


Over recent decades, the world has undergone a major shift in education policy from State-led to market-led reforms spearheaded by a neoliberal ideological and political ascendancy. This has been manifested through structural adjustment programs (SAPs) in both developed and developing country contexts (Carnoy 1995). This entry discusses how neoliberal policy reforms have further undermined the possibility of democratic teaching and learning in developing country contexts. The entry begins with a discussion on the characteristics and conditions necessary for what is imagined in modern society as democratic teaching and learning. It then discusses how democratic teaching and learning has been, and continues to be, constrained by dominant education marketization policy discourses. It is argued that democratic teaching and learning does not just begin and flourish in the classroom. Rather, it should be viewed as the result of continuous historically, culturally, and socially constructed and reconstructed phenomena at the societal, institutional, and local classroom levels. Democratic teaching and learning practices socially construct teachers’ and students’ identities by giving them opportunities to participate actively in knowledge construction. However, under neoliberalism, SAPs have affected public service provision in particular ways in developing country contexts by emphasizing the necessity of marketization, privatization, and capped State expenditure on education in order to achieve universal participation in primary and secondary schooling.

Social imaginaries may be understood as the various ways in which a society conceptualizes its ideal collective reality and the social means through which people work with others to attempt to realize this ideal. These ways include the nature of interactions between themselves and their colleagues and the social expectations they attempt to achieve in the context of moral and practical imaginaries that motivate these expectations. Conceptions of the imaginary emphasize “the social,” “expectations,” and the “normative.” Taylor (2004) identifies three basic forms of social imaginaries in contemporary modern society: “the market economy, the public sphere, and the self-governing people” (p. 2).

Understanding Democratic Curriculum Through Critical and Poststructuralist Theories

An understanding of democratic teaching and learning practices in the real world, and particularly in developing country contexts, requires an understanding of critical and poststructuralist discourse theories because they offer a systematic approach to analyzing education policy and social realities. These realities vary considerably between the Global North and the Global South and between OECD bloc countries and developing country contexts, including those which have been subject to SAPs required by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in what Carnoy (1995, p. 653) describes as the “new structural reality.” While critical theory informs the analysis by identifying social ideologies reproduced through discourse, poststructuralist theory provides concepts of how power/knowledge, subject positioning, and subjectivity are important in understanding democratic teaching and learning. According to poststructuralists, democratic teaching and learning may be seen as culturally, socially, and historically constructed through discourse. Discourses are representations of social structures and practices that carry with them power relations and ideologies. They represent what people think, say, and do. Poststructuralists differentiate between dominant and nondominant discourses (Foucault 1972). Dominant discourses are those produced and sustained to benefit the interests of powerful people in society. Dominant discourses carry ideologies and power of dominant groups. Ideologies and discourse are related in that social ideologies work through language that mediates social action. Ideologies are partially constitutive of social reality. Therefore, the imaginary of democratic teaching and learning in the classroom may be constrained or facilitated by power relations between students and teachers that are reproduced through dominant discourses and ideologies over the various subjects.

According to poststructuralists, dominant curriculum policy discourses have two major constructive and constitutive effects. Foremost, they constrain how teachers and students participate in curriculum because these discourses furnish possible subject positions. Subject positions continuously occupied by particular social subjects over a considerable period may construct subjectivity (Davies & Harre, 1999). Second, discourses construct objects in various forms through the deployment and use of particular vocabularies. Understanding discourses is important in understanding the theory and practice of democratic teaching and learning.

Consistent with scholars who have criticized the limitations of purely functionalist and structuralist approaches to understanding the material practices of social institutions (e.g., Bourdieu 1977), this entry applies critical and poststructural theories of discourse. Such theories are illuminating insofar as teaching and learning practices are thereby represented in and through language discourse, which is open to multiple interpretations. The application of critical theory in this entry is also informed by the view that democratic teaching and learning practices, to a greater or lesser extent, may be influenced by both individual and group teacher and student ideologies, values, and strategies at local community, family, institutional, and classroom levels. Critical theory thus helps to uncover the ways in which these ideologies, values, and strategies materially influence the presence or absence of democratic teaching and learning practices. Curricula in schools and classrooms also need to meet the imagined and practical expectations of teachers and students who come from different social backgrounds, with different needs and abilities. Democratic teaching and learning offers significant possibilities and opportunities for achieving this in developing country contexts although, as this entry illustrates, this is not always the case.

Basic Principles and Features of Democratic Teaching and Learning

Teaching and learning may be said to be democratic if it follows certain morally informed principles. Democratic education emphasizes the common interests of the many, rather than the particular interests of the few (Dewey 1916). Further, for Dewey, democratic education should enhance all children’s ability to develop and apply “deliberative, practical reason in moral situations” (Jenlink 2009, p. 4). Dewey suggested that teachers could not promote this by teaching what he called “ready-made knowledge” that served to constrain moral reasoning. Instead, it could best be achieved by introducing “a mode of associated living.” Foremost, democratic education occurs when teachers and students together have equal say or freedom in curriculum, pedagogy, and evaluation. For example, in the curriculum, they are free to select content: what and how much content and how and when to teach it. Moreover, they have power to participate in content planning and decision-making. The creation of democratic schools, classrooms, and curriculum requires teachers and students to learn, choose, practice, and evaluate democratic ways that will empower them and improve the knowledge construction process. For example, in a democratic classroom discourse, teachers and students have the freedom to participate in theorizing, experimentation (Kelly 2009), and research based on their immediate school and classroom contexts, because curriculum on this view is context specific (Smith & Lova 2003). In democratic education, there is less interference or imposed institutional barriers to constrain to the freedom of teachers and students to perform such practices according to their local school contexts. The fundamental role of democracy in education may be summarized in two conceptual constructs: social and political liberation and empowerment of those who experience the curriculum (Kelly 2009). These two values are argued to enhance mental independence, respect for others, and respect for the ideas and contributions of both teachers and students in the curriculum and knowledge construction process.

Similarly, all teachers and students have equal opportunity to participate in the planning, decision-making, and implementation of the selected content, experiences, resources, pedagogy, and evaluation practices. Practicing democratic curriculum is possible if tracking, norm-referenced testing, and other mechanisms that constrain students’ access to educational programs (based on their gender, race, age, or socioeconomic class, location) are eliminated. However, teachers and students’ decision to practice curriculum in democratic way may either be facilitated or constrained by their existing capability and capacity, that is, their knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs about curricula aims and objectives’ roles and rights, and responsibilities in the curriculum process.

Moreover, in a democratic curriculum, students cooperate and collaborate in the learning process rather than competing. They work collaboratively through a learning community. Competition is considered to reduce teachers’ and students’ ability to work together as a community of learners and to concentrate on thought-provoking and creative curriculum practices. Finally, democratic curriculum content, process, and praxis (thoughtful practice) are argued to be more likely to produce democratic citizens who will think, behave, and act in a democratic way. Democratic content is thereby produced in a democratic way. It is an outcome of dialogue and participation of all stakeholders in the society or community. Stakeholders’ voices and needs are represented in the curriculum making, implementation, and evaluation. The democratic curriculum takes into account the knowledge, cultures, and experiences of students from different historical, sociocultural, and political backgrounds. As will be demonstrated, this view of education is markedly different from that imposed in recent decades through neoliberalism, SAPs, and the marketization of curriculum production in developing country contexts.

Conditions That May Facilitate Democratic Teaching and Learning

Proponents of democratic teaching and learning in developed countries (e.g., Beane 2005; Apple and Beane 2007; Fielding and Moss 2011; Riley 2004) accept that it is more likely to occur when the following conditions are fulfilled. Foremost, there are smaller class sizes that enable each student to have an equal say on the ways schools and curricula are run. Similarly, it occurs where teachers develop a pedagogic identity of being listeners to pupils’ talk rather than talking at them. This is seen to facilitate teachers’ understanding of the day-to-day challenges students face within and outside schools. Teachers and students who respect each other’s contributions create more demanding lessons that promote motivation for creativity, critical thinking, and ideas in a safe environment. Moreover, democratic curriculum flourishes where teachers provide opportunities for students who have missed learning for any reason to facilitate their participation and construction of knowledge. In addition, it may be said to take place in situations where teachers and students develop opportunities for both formal and informal learning, both inside and outside schools and classrooms. Finally, democratic education may be said to occur where stakeholders work together with schools, teachers, and students to improve physical learning environment, curricular resources, and social interaction (Riley 2004).

Discursive Construction of Nondemocratic Teaching and Learning

Over the past several decades, neoliberal theories of the ideal society and economy have led to the proliferation of education policies of marketization, privatization, deregulation, and decentralization. Education policy and provision in many countries have been transformed from State-led to market-led. In many developing countries, such movements took the form of SAPs. However, despite the imagined emphasis on decentralization, in practice education policymaking and implementation continued to be centrally controlled. In such a centralized education system, policy decisions and implementation are tightly controlled from upper hierarchy. In this model, the possibility of democratic teaching and learning may be seen to be constrained by power relations reconstructed through dominant policy discourses that aim to serve the interests of the powerful, rather than those of teachers and students. Thus, the State, publishing companies, school management, and elite communities construct less democratic school curriculum, pedagogy, and evaluation discourses for reproduction at the lower hierarchy of the education system and institutions. In developing countries, these discourses commonly include prescriptions for syllabus coverage, centrally set examination, textbook approval, financial, school inspection, and curriculum policy changes.

One of the conditions of modernity is the dominance of the market in the many aspects of society from production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services (Taylor 2004). In theory, markets are assumed to provide greater freedom of choice of education programs and resources like textbooks, reference books, teachers’ guides, teaching aids, and lesson plans. However, in practice, in a centralized education systems, schools, teachers, and students’ freedom to select resources may be constrained by multiple dominant competing and contradictory policy discourses constructed by the market, the State, community, school owners, and school administrators. For example, while the market may be structured to produce textbooks, the government produces subject syllabi that outline curricular content selected by State policymakers, and centrally set examinations. The contradictory objectives of textbook producers and distributors, the government, teachers, and students constrain the possibility of democratic curriculum because while some teachers and students may want to select particular textbooks that facilitate deeper understanding, the market may not produce such textbooks. In addition, those produced may be too expensive for some students or they may contain contents that do not meet the needs and expectations of teachers and students. Similarly, freedom may be constrained by school inspectors and State policymakers who direct the type and nature of textbooks available for selection through the discourse of finance and textbook approval. The availability and amount of money collected and spent on textbooks is directed by the State, whose interpretation may in turn be subject to variation at school level. This has implications on the quantity, nature, and textbooks categories teachers and students purchase, which in turn, materially shapes pedagogic and evaluation practices.

It may be argued that marketization policy reform texts and discourses reconstruct the discourse of competition that constrains teachers and students from working in collaboration and cooperation in a community of practice. Competition reduces teachers and students’ ability to work together as a community of learners that enable shared thinking and collaboration that provokes creativity. The imposition of SAPs in developing countries requires both rapid achievement of universal primary and secondary education and rapid increases in the proportions of students who successfully complete secondary school qualifications. Curriculum construction consequently emphasizes official syllabus coverage and passing national and local examinations, rather than constructivist teaching for understanding.

A lack of adequate school resourcing at system level and greatly increased class sizes at the local level, especially in rural areas, further constrain teachers’ pedagogical freedom. Together, State syllabus coverage requirements, examination imperatives, and market positioning by official and unofficial textbook publishers combine to influence the curriculum toward their interests. Teacher and student ideologies and beliefs are guided to select the most affordable and readily accessible resources that appear to offer easy syllabus coverage and the opportunity to pass nationally set examinations. Teachers and students lack the freedom to select content that may encourage learning for understanding. Furthermore, these material conditions of work influence teachers to select and practice nondemocratic teacher-dominated pedagogies in order to cover syllabi and prepare students for examinations. The two discourses of syllabus coverage and examinations, thus, become the publishers’ advertising discursive tool to influence schools, teachers, and students’ textbook and pedagogy selection decisions and practices.

SAPs in a developing country context may also reinforce the existing central control of educational decision-making. Schools have less autonomy on how much, when, and on what resources to spend allocated from the central level. Instead, the central authorities provide revenue collection and spending rules and procedures. Related to finance are the centrally set national examinations where teachers and students have little control on the form, content, and timing of those examinations. These examinations intersect with other policy texts and discourses to influence what, how, and when teachers teach. As a result, schools have fewer resources which affect how they teach and evaluate their work.

Democratic teaching and learning may also be constrained by teacher ideologies and attitudes about students, subject matter, and the nature of learning because teachers select and practice pedagogies that position students as passive participants and limit their creativity and critical thinking. For example, teachers who believe that some curricular contents are more difficult than others may omit them, even though they are part of the official syllabi, believing that they cannot teach such topics. Similarly, teachers who are constructed and constituted by examination ideologies and believe that participatory pedagogies are impracticable will construct syllabus coverage discursive practice that call for lectures and notes taking pedagogies.

In addition, students’ democratic participation in curriculum in the case of most developing countries is constrained by very large class sizes that deny their equal share in the classroom discussion due to limited time and other resources. Teachers have less time to listen to each student’s contribution. Further, large classes means having inadequate funding to purchase textbooks for each student to access the necessary power/knowledge that would enhance their participation in classroom activities and future social identity formation. However, the small minority of students from affluent families will access power/knowledge and, therefore, dominate curriculum discourse and reproduce their already dominant power/knowledge. Such domination and reproduction demotivate the majority of students’ creativity and reflection on their work and constrain their self-esteem and self-actualization.


This entry has examined how contemporary education marketization policy and practices adopted over the past two decades in many countries constrain democratic teaching and learning, a condition that is argued to be necessary for a democratic society. The democratic curriculum remains an idealized form of pedagogical practice in developing country contexts that have experienced SAPs because its realization is constrained by dominant discourses socially and historically constructed by the market and the State and reproduced at the institutional and classroom levels. Thus, a major challenge is that democracy in theory is far from democracy in practice. Marketization policies required by SAP interventions continue to serve to reproduce the existing social arrangements of inequality, discrimination, and marginalization. Democratic curriculum practices in schools and classrooms would require policymakers, school administrators, teachers, and students to practice democratic values in their individual, institutional, and societal relations. That is, democracy must begin with the thinking and actions of individuals in schools, the State, and family level practices. Such an imaginary is difficult if not impossible to achieve in developing country contexts under the current constraints of structural adjustment programs.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Dar es Salaam School of EducationDar es SalaamUnited Republic of Tanzania