04 SES 03 E, Leadership, Democracy And Inclusion In Pre-Primary Education: How Far Have We Gone?
Primary goal of a three-year Hamburg university-based research project (2013-2016) titled „Democracy Education in Early Childhood Education Institutions“ (cf. here and hereafter: E. Richter, Lehmann and Sturzenhecker, 2017) was to broadly examine the relationship between the implementation of democratic structures in early childhood education institutions and the resulting forms of democratic practice among nursery children 2 to 5 years old according to the concept „The Nursery of Democracy“ (TND) (Hansen, Knauer and Sturzenhecker, 2011).
This concept of early childhood education involves professionals providing a structural basis for children’s democratic participation by establishing a constitution within early childhood institutions. This document first of all identifies the rights of children and practitioners within the institutions, defining the scope of children’s and practitioners’ rights to self-determination and participation but also specifying limitations of involvement in decision-making processes. Moreover, the concept TND introduces participatory and deliberative procedures as well as children’s committees on democratic participation, enabling a joint exercise of participation rights.
The democratic and educational theory underlying this concept of democracy education is based on John Dewey’s (1916) concept of democracy as something experienced not only as a form of government but also as a form of life.
The TND concept describes education as being inherently characterized by unequal power relationships. If the aim is to enable children’s right to participation, then structural power lying with the professionals in the institutions has to be shared with the children. Only when it no longer depends on the „arbitrariness“ of adults (as Korczak termed it) whether children can clearly perceive their rights, can democracy also be possible in social pedagogical settings such as early childhood institutions.
The research project examining the implementation of TND provides a much broader perspective by utilizing Jürgen Habermas’ theory of deliberative democracy. According to Habermas, participatory democracy should be implemented and applied in all non-governmental spheres, i.e. areas pertaining to individual everyday life or ‘lifeworld’ such that the addressees of the law to which they are subject can, at the same time, understand themselves as its reasonable authors (Habermas, 1992, p. 52)
The focus of our research was to study how democratic participation among all members had been empirically implemented in early childhood institutions that had adopted the concept „The Nursery of Democracy“ (TND) and subsequently introduced a constitution within their institution. We took an analytical view as to what extent the above-mentioned democratic decision rights and structures enabling deliberative democracy for young children had been implemented. We began therefore by identifying institutional conditions, participation structures and forms of interaction enabling deliberative democracy within selected early childhood institutions.
The TND concept permits an extensive scope of democratic rights and procedures of co-decision for young children: they are empowered to make decisions on issues directly affecting them and everyday life in the nursery. Thus, the TND concept goes much further than conventional methods of teaching professionals to be conscience of children’s rights or allowing children to decide on certain project contents. The concept provides a detailed method for fulfilling the Rights of the Child under the UN Convention as well as the German Basic Law treating children as entitled citizens (here in their nurseries). The outcome of the research is important with respect to international efforts to strengthen the experience of democracy in educational institutions because it can show whether and how democracy experience at an early age works. If it can prove that young children and their social-pedagogical professionals can co-produce such an intense democratic structure, then it can encourage countries worldwide to dare more democracy experience in nursery education.
Altogether six nurseries in various federal states of Germany were examined. The selected institutions were comprised of generally at least three kindergarten groups (approx. 60 children) and had been operating under a democratic constitution along the lines of the concept „The Nursery of Democracy“ (TND) for at least two years. The surveys were conducted consecutively in the six selected nurseries according to the research design and the findings were validated by the practitioners within the institutions prior to their usage in the final report. By doing so, knowledge acquired during the course of the research project could be shared, as well as research methods and questions adapted. Two basic principles were of particular importance when choosing the appropriate methods for survey research and evaluation: first, the integration of various perspectives on the topic of research when addressing the research questions and second, an active involvement of participants in the research process. A social-pedagogical research on democracy has to be democratic in its own procedures. Therefore, the research design is in the form of a triangulation involving various methods for survey research and evaluation: expert interviews with early childhood program directors, discursive interviews with practitioners, photo-based group interviews with children, participant observation of children’s committees as well as documentary analysis of constitutions, meeting minutes, concept drafts, etc. A model of participatory research was applied during the research process. The basic precepts of the so-called „Handlungspausenforschung“ (H. Richter et al., 2003) that takes place in a reflexive and discursive pause from everyday action allows for an active participant involvement in the research process. The group under study is regarded as subjects rather than research objects, thus promoting a mutual educational process between researchers and study participants. This approach included designing the group discussions with professionals and children as discursive interviews, validating the interview transcripts prior to analysis by means of a communication process among participants and researchers as well as validating the altogether six sub-study reports prior to their usage in the final report and subsequent publications. The statements of the children were transformed into drawn and wordless comic stories, narrating their experiences in democratic decision-making structures. The drawn stories were then handed back to the children to check if their experiences had been reported correctly. Their comments and corrections were recorded again and included in the findings.
In conclusion, all of the examined early childhood institutions distinguish according to the “nursery constitution” between participation by means of democratic practice within children's committees and participation by means of individual self-determination. However, the relative weighting given to these two forms of participation does vary. In two of the nurseries, staff focuses in day-to-day relations on meeting individual needs and personal interests by applying a dialogical approach. In addition, the professionals emphasize the fact that they only want to demand from a small number of children participatory democratic practice in children's committees and self-governance based on honorary posts because they regard both activities as essentially too bureaucratic. At the same time, according to our research findings, staff does practice a kind of “democracy of experts” by making decisions for the children by means of majority vote by the professionals. This approach is consistent with a liberal concept of democracy (Habermas 2008, p. 141 ff.), just as Joseph Schumpeter (1950) formulated as a competitive or elitist model of participatory democracy. In contrast, the four other early childhood institutions examined all exhibit a clear focus on a democratic and collaborative approach to dealing with conflicts and competing interests. This enables the nurseries to establish opinion and policy shaping procedures and make majority decisions reached in a deliberative-democratic process by everyone involved, with the objective of condensing individual needs and wants into common interests. Such democratic practices serve the aim of educating children, already regarded as being competent, in democracy and are consistent with the societal conceptions outlined earlier regarding deliberative democracy as a form of life. The findings show that young children and the professionals in nurseries are quite capable of making structured democratic decisions and solving conflicts.
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