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  4. September 1998 - Volume 13
  5. Democracy in Schools: A Challenge for HRE

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FOCUS September 1998 Volume 13

Democracy in Schools: A Challenge for HRE

Human rights in practice is an important element in teaching human rights in schools. The environment of schools (consisting of school rules and regulations, attitude of teachers and school administrators toward the students among others) has much to do with the effectiveness of human rights teaching. An environment that does not respect human rights will not promote an appropriate attitude towards human rights among the students.

In a workshop held for Northeast Asia, educators from south Korea, People's Republic of China, Hong Kong, Republic of China, and Japan agree that schools should foster respect for human rights. Schools in Korea, for example, still use corporal punishment on students who fail to follow school rules. Most schools in Northeast Asia emphasize obedience and conformist behavior that prevent students from developing their own individual opinions. Teachers are always regarded as the only source of knowledge. As a result, schools lack opportunities for dialogue between students and teachers. Students are not given the chance to express their ideas that can help improve the education system.

The situation of Northeast Asian schools is influenced by several factors. One is the dominant influence of the conservative view on Confucianism. Education officials and school administrators believe that passive learning process is effective. Students are required to faithfully follow what the teachers say. This results in a form of paternalism that gives teachers the status of experts who can provide the students all the knowledge they need. In doing so, they wield much power over the students. At the same time, students are deprived of the chance to express what they know, or raise questions on what they are told.

Highly competitive education system is another factor. Students are being prepared to pass examinations to get to the next higher level of education. They are expected to concentrate on learning only those that will be included in the examinations. This competitive and examination-oriented system in turn put so much pressure on the students. Their values are formed around the ideas of getting ahead of others, and promoting their own interest alone. Teachers, on the other hand, are required to teach only such subjects that relate to the examinations. Other matters such as human rights have low priority. This type of education system invariably promotes knowledge-centered education which neglects the importance of cultivating proper attitudes and behavior toward others.

Another factor is the passive, if not negative, attitude toward human rights and human rights education by teachers, school administrators, and parents. They fail to appreciate the value of learning human rights as part of the school curriculum and putting human rights principles into practice within school setting. Human rights remains vague and unimportant in the children's learning process.

Generally speaking, this situation has victims. Students who see the need to develop their individual capabilities are limited to standard curriculum. Within the curriculum, students are not given the chance to engage in creative learning using new and participatory pedagogies. And those who cannot compete well through examinations are left out in the education process. Teachers who would like to innovate teaching methods and cover important issues such as human rights (as part of the formal curriculum) are restricted. They are bound to follow only what is provided for in the formal curriculum. In both cases, creativity and critical thinking on the part of the students and the teachers are given less weight.

It therefore becomes clear that if teaching human rights demands the practice of human rights, the education system has to change.

The idea of incorporating the teaching of human rights in schools comes at a time when educational reform is under way in Japan, Korea and Republic of China. The opportunity presented by the movement to reform the educational system, occurring in the context of on-going political and economic reforms, gives enough room for human rights teaching to become part of the school curriculum.

Several initiatives in Northeast Asia illustrate attempts at reaching this goal. In Osaka, the DOWA education (a major component of human rights education in schools in Japan) is being reviewed to find ways and means of improving the curriculum. A teachers association as well as education researchers look for new teaching methods and approaches that can be incorporated in the school curriculum.

The teachers themselves took the task of forming their own association that can undertake training and research on human rights education. The output of this association is then fed to the schools to improve the curriculum. The association promotes the idea that the role of the teachers in human rights education is not simply limited to the classroom but extends to activities that support curriculum development through research and training.

The Taipei experience shows an example of how teacher training can be used to support human rights education in schools. A group of teachers developed a program for training teachers on human rights education. Workshops are offered to those who are interested in learning new teaching perspectives and methodologies that subscribe to human rights principles. Training is also devoted to understanding human rights values and national and international human rights documents. Curriculum development, teaching material development, and school life case studies are also taken up. The organizing group always emphasizes the principle that human rights education is a value-based education that has to be reflected in the school environment.

The Hong Kong experience shows the need to examine ordinary subjects in the school curriculum and find relevant parts that actually deal with human rights. At the minimum, human rights can already be taught using existing subjects. Teachers will just have to be creative in making human rights much more clearly or explicitly discussed in the subjects. Support from teachers associations which can provide programs for learning human rights and human rights work (whether of NGOs, government institutions or United Nations agencies) is important. Likewise, institutions set up by government to support specific areas such as civic education can be vehicles for introducing change in the school curriculum.

The workshop participants likewise discussed possible programs that can support the development of human rights education programs in schools. A program on human rights education should include general understanding of the nature of human beings, the state, government, the society, and the international community, and the relationship between them; general knowledge of human rights (values, history, legal documents, institutions), the specific human rights issues, and how to respond to changing human rights situation. Process-oriented and student-centered methodologies are recommended in curricular (with human rights infused in existing subjects) and extra-curricular activities. It is emphasized that democratic methods should be employed. And new paradigm in assessing students' performance has to be developed.

The school environment should be improved by adopting systems regarding student appraisal of teachers, student participation in school management, and by emphasizing the role of parents and the local community in school affairs. Teachers' autonomy (with appropriate responsibilities) should be promoted to allow them to employ creative ways of teaching human rights. Resource centers on human rights education are also needed that can supply materials for direct use in the classroom. Support for teachers can also be provided in terms of legal directives (that require the teaching of human rights) and financial incentives.

Human rights teaching should also be included in training programs for teachers and school administrators.

To counter the negative public perception on human rights, the media should be used to promote human rights. Community support for human rights/human rights education should be sought.

All these suggestions are based on the various experiences of the participants.

The workshop participants realized the need to do more research on the different aspects of teaching human rights in schools. Research can cover such issues as teachers' perception of human rights, teacher training systems, textbook analysis, teaching methods and evaluation, and human rights and cultural values. Exchange of information and materials between groups in different countries is also a need. Thus various activities (conferences, workshops, work camps) should be organized. More cooperation between the government and the non-governmental organizations should take place to support human rights education in schools.

The participants discussed the cultural values-human rights framework with a presentation on the Korean experience.

Several principles were cited as guide for teachers as well as students in examining their own cultural values in light of human rights. Constructive reinterpretation of culture is prescribed as a means of linking cultural values to human rights principles. Conversely, rooting human rights in their own cultures is a means of making human rights more meaningful. Human rights principles can also be fused with positive traditions and cultural values using laws as vehicles. In this case, law as an agent of social change can be strengthened by human rights principles and positive cultural values.

The workshop was organized by HURIGHTS OSAKA in cooperation with the Graduate School of Public Policy of Sogang University, Seoul on August 10-13, 1998.

The workshop was held during the week when south Korea was celebrating the 50th year of its independence. Learning from past and current experiences on systems of politics and economics, the Korean leaders are campaigning for a second nation-building that will do away with authoritarian government, negative legacies of Confucianism and self-righteous nationalism. Korea it is said must globalize its local culture, and localize the global culture.

In this context, Korea's education system "typified by standardization, rote memorization, examination-oriented study and school cronyism" that fostered "selfishness and secrecy" has to be changed. A spiritual rearmament is needed to achieve this end.

The call for a change in the way of thinking in Korea applies most appropriately in schools as they adopt human rights education. Put in another way, human rights education means change.