Democracy Lab is a two part workshop that asks students to engage with questions of democracy, and what it means to participate.
Problems and Purpose
The aim of Democracy Lab is to facilitate the co-creation of knowledge and understanding of democracy with high school students. As Kei Nishiyama points out;
Conventionally, a lecture on democracy would begin by introducing the concept of democracy, drawing on its philosophical foundations. This would be followed by historic cases of democracy. However, the key to understanding the ‘texture of democracy’, as Gagnon suggests, lies in understanding the diversity of conceptions and languages used to express it. Thus, learning democracy should start from the bottom up.
This is the starting point of Democracy Lab: the recognition of diverse conceptions of democracy. Democracy Lab starts this conversations with students not by telling them what democracy is, but by asking what it means to them.
The secondary aim of Democracy Lab is to demystify and break down the writing process through a supported process of reading, note taking and collaborative writing. It aims to foster the following skills:
- critical thinking
- independent research
- note taking
- synthesising sources
- collaborative writing
Origins and Development
Democracy Lab was developed by deliberative democracy scholar and Participedia co-investigator Lucy J Parry. After being invited to talk to students about democracy at a high school in Northern Italy, Lucy wanted to find a way to introduce Participedia and the notion of democratic innovations to inspire students and explore an angle of democracy that would likely be unfamiliar to them.
She was also inspired by a series of articles in The Loop, an academic blog, on the science of democracy. This series advances discussions on varieties, values and threats to democracy. Lucy decided to use some of these 'big questions' in the field as an entry point for introducing and studying democratic innovations in practice. This approach reflects her own work which combines political theory and empirical social science research.
As a former teacher of academic writing, it was also important to introduce students to the ideas of independent study, research and writing - a task which many undergraduate students struggle with. Therefore, a collaborative writing exercise was included in the second workshop to build these skills and equip students with the confidence to start an academic assignment.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Participants in the Democracy Lab would generally be students around the final year of high school. In the first application of this method, these were students in a civic education class in Northern Italy. The sessions should be supported by the teachers in the class to facilitate especially the research task in between sessions.
How it Works: Process, Interaction, and Decision-Making
Democracy Lab is a two part workshop that takes place online. It uses a Miro board to facilitate note taking and discussion. Other platforms can probably be used to do this and there is nothing inherent in Miro's features that are necessary.
Democracy Lab I
Prior to the first session, the Miro board needs to be set up ready. This first session covers three main questions, outlined below. Each question should be presented in a Miro frame, with a supply of sticky notes for students to write their answers on. First, whoever is leading the session should give a brief introduction and outline how the session will work. The emphasis is not on giving a lecture or a talk but on the co-production of knowledge, as students and teachers are invited to define democracy themselves. There are no right or wrong answers, and it should be made clear that critical responses are also welcomed - not everybody might think democracy has value and it's important everybody can express their view.
A set amount of time is given for each question, followed by a group discussion of what has been written on the sticky notes. The amount of time given can vary according to lesson times and what the class can offer, however, it should be taken into consideration that this first session covers quite some ground and might involve some thinking on topics and at a depth that participants are not used to. It's important that it is not rushed, and also that there is time for students to ask questions throughout and when they want to - there is no set Q&A time as the conversation flows more organically. Students are also encouraged to use the chat function as well as speaking out loud, to maximise forms of participation that people are comfortable with. Miro has a built-in timer and music if desired.
- What is democracy and what is its value?
- What threatens democracy these days?
- What does it mean to participate in democracy?
For each question, an image and a link offer a bit more information on the question from an unexpected perspective to prompt some reflection.
After all three questions have been answered, the final part of the first session starts from students responses to question 3 on participation, to introduce the concept of democratic innovations and Participedia. A very brief outline of democratic innovations is given (really just a few minutes) before diving into the site. To some extent, this cannot be precisely planned because it depends how students respond to the question. They might only mention voting, or they might suggest things like public debates and so on. Lucy's overview of democratic innovations mentions:
- democracy is more than voting
- the where of democracy - beyond governments, in public spaces, in our schools, homes
- democratic innovations as new forms of citizen participation
- some concrete examples from Participedia (e.g. participatory budgeting, participatory arts, citizens assemblies)
- some of the benefits and critiques of these processes
The final part is to introduce the task that students will do in between the first and second session. A frame on Miro outlines this with clear written instructions, and the facilitator should explain it clearly as well with time for questions. The students' task is to explore Participedia (show them briefly how to navigate the site) and find a case that they find interesting. They should read the case and then revisit the original three questions in light of this new information. In addition, they can consider the question 'if and how democratic innovations can help address threats to democracy'.
On the frame, space is reserved with sticky notes for them to share their findings. At this stage, they only need to make short notes so this is not too taxing. Also on the frame are links to some examples to get them started; they may use these or do their own research. In the Italian case, Lucy linked to all the Italian cases on Participedia. Check in advance if the students' main language is one of the languages supported by Participedia and mention this and how they can change the language. The collaborative writing task of the second session can be briefly explained. The main facilitator should make sure their students understand the task and that teachers are able to support them.
A maximum of four weeks should be the gap between the first and second sessions so as not to lose momentum. Teachers can liaise with students during this time to support them to complete the task.
Democracy Lab II
The second session of Democracy Lab is dedicated to a collaborative writing task, where students systematise their notes, organise their thoughts and do some group writing to summarise their reflections and findings on the questions they have considered. Again, there is no set time but note that the group writing task is pretty challenging for anyone, so sufficient time needs to be dedicated to this part.
The first task is to return to the sticky notes from the first session, question by question. Students are asked to group the notes together into themes, and to identify common themes that emerge. For example, common values of democracy such as equality and freedom. This should be repeated for each question and can generally be done quite quickly. The purpose of this simple task is to demonstrate how to start organising existing notes when preparing an academic assignment, and how this helps to organise our thoughts and build a structure for our writing.
The second task is collaborative writing in small groups. Students should form four groups and each group is assigned a question. For practical reasons, there should be no more than 5-6 people in each group. Their task is to summarise the notes from their question into a short paragraph of a couple of sentences. One person can nominate themselves to actually write, but the expectation is that everybody contributes. This task is a matter of reviewing the notes, now organised, and trying to turn them from notes into sentences. This also requires synthesising different points and sources together.
The facilitator should explain that this is a difficult task, and that the amount written at the end is not important. Students might have to consider how to handle opposing opinions within their group, or very disparate responses, and how to represent the views of each other. If time is limited, or the task feels too difficult, this can be skipped and you can instead, ask the group to continue organising the sticky notes to make a essay plan, arranging the themes already identified into a logical order that could become a written assignment - instead of doing the actual writing.
Time allowing, the third task is for students to add their final reflections and feedback on the session in a separate frame.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Following the second session, the lead facilitator can put together the students writing to create a short written article. If there is more time available, this can be done as a group during the session. This task is a matter of creating a structure that flows and makes sense to an external reader. Adding links to cases and other sources is encouraged, as well as other transitions and necessary points. This article could serve a number of purposes (that should be discussed during the session):
- presented to the rest of the school
- posted on the school website or magazine
- submitted to a local newspaper
- submitted as a group assessment
- posted online as a blog
The general idea is that student have a collaboratively written piece that demonstrates the skills and learning they have hopefully gained during the session.
In the Italian case, this article was put together by Lucy after the second session and submitted to Participedia as a blog post. It's important to recognise that in future applications, the purpose of this final article should be discussed with the students, who might have their own ideas and aspirations for what they want to achieve. For example, different contexts might face different threats to democracy that students wish to focus on. In this case, the lesson plan should be open enough to allow for these contextual directions and students should be supported to orient their writing towards a collective goal, collaboratively defined.
Because Democracy Lab has only been run once, and was not formally evaluated, there is no evidence on its impact and effects. Informally, feedback from teachers afterwards suggested that students were highly engaged in the topic, even if they seemed quiet during the session.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
As mentioned above, there has been no formal evaluation of Democracy Lab. The points below are based on Lucy's experience of designing and delivering the sessions.
- After the first session, students fed back that they felt a bit isolated each on their own computers in the classroom (students were physically in class but the session was online). As a result, the second session was designed to include in-person group work. The session could be easily adapted to either all online (using breakout rooms) or all in-person (using actual sticky notes and whiteboards instead of Miro). The first session could also be adapted to include pair rather than individual work.
- The sessions were conducted in English, with students who were all studying and being taught in English in their civic education class. This could of course be adapted for different language needs, but is limited by the languages supported on Participedia (currently seven).
- The depth and breadth of the sessions was pretty ambitious; taking students from democratic theory to democratic innovations to collaborative writing in less than three hours total. Teaching online also makes it more difficult to gauge understanding and engagement and at points Lucy wasn't sure if everybody was following. Having regular check ins throughout helped with this, and creating an open and informal atmosphere welcoming questions, and also emphasising that the session involved some difficult work that is usually university level.
- Having simple check in and check out activities helped to break the ice and create a sense of being together. These were done both in the chat, on the camera and speaking out loud and involved sharing a feeling or doing a physical movement.
As mentioned above, the format and specific questions for Democracy Lab can and should be adapted for local contexts and considerations. Given additional time and resources, the facilitator, teachers and students could design the questions and process together in advance of the sessions. The only core themes are: the connection between democratic theory (the core questions) and practice (democratic innovations on Participedia) and the idea of working together to create a final output.