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EPALE Thematic Coordinator Andrew McCoshan shows how work by the Council of Europe can be used to develop the competences we need for effective political participation
Europe faces politically challenging times. At European level, the forthcoming European Parliamentary elections come after years of falling participation. In 1979 the turnout was 62%; in 2014 it was 43%. Participation has been particularly low amongst the unemployed (31%), manual workers (35%), homemakers (37%) and young people (28% of 18-24-year olds). The main reason for not voting is ‘lack of trust in politics in general’. Such loss of faith in European democratic institutions is concerning indeed, and challenges us to think broadly and deeply about how to re-kindle trust in politics.
Equipping adults with the competences they need
Countries continue to develop citizenship education for school children, but adults also need to be equipped with the competences to participate effectively in political processes. But which ones? The Council of Europe has worked extensively on competences for democratic culture and the results provide useful tools and materials for adult educators.
As shown in the diagram, four groups of competences are identified, although, as the Council stresses, ‘In real-life situations, competences are rarely mobilised and used individually. Instead, competent behaviour invariably involves the activation and application of an entire cluster of competences.’
So which knowledge, skills and attitudes are key for effective participation in political processes such as elections? Reading across the Council of Europe’s publications, we can identify a bundle of inter-related competences that may be needed including:
- knowledge and understanding of political concepts, including democracy, and how political disagreements can be resolved peacefully;
- knowledge and understanding of how democratic institutions work, contemporary threats to them, and the varied ways individuals can participate in them, including through civil society and NGOs;
- knowledge of communication, of freedom of expression and its limits, and how political messages, propaganda and hate speech in the mass media and digital media are communicated;
- communication skills to enable articulation of political views in different media - speech, written;
- skills in cultural appropriateness so that discourse can be culturally sensitive where communications involve people who are perceived to have different cultural affiliations from oneself;
- analytical and critical thinking skills, and the ability to adapt one’s arguments appropriately to political issues;
- good knowledge and understanding of the political issues that are being debated and the ability to critique the views of others and to evaluate the arguments which they deploy.
This is not a complete list, and it provides a good starting point for adult educators to consider what competences their learners might need to develop further.
Using the right pedagogies
In a further publication, the Council of Europe shows how such competences can be developed through appropriate teaching and learning methods. It shows how teachers, as facilitators of learning, might use typical aspects of the leaning process to plan their educational activities for the development of competences for democratic culture. We can apply these to participation in political processes:
How to use the adult learning process to support political participation
Learning through experience, either real or imagined, is a fitting way to develop attitudes of respect and openness in political processes. Methods include games, activities, traditional media and social media, face-to-face interaction with others or through correspondence.
Learners can benefit from exposure to different political opinions. Learners often compare what is unfamiliar with what is familiar and evaluate the unfamiliar as “bizarre”, as “worse” or even as “uncivilised”. Teachers need to be aware of this kind of comparison of value and replace it with comparison for understanding, which involves seeing similarities and differences in a non-judgmental manner and taking the perspective of the other.
Behind similarities and differences there are explanations for differences in political opinion. Facilitators can support their learners in the analysis of what may lie beneath what they can see others doing and saying. This can be achieved, for example, by careful discussion and analysis, through inquiry‐based methods, of written or audio/video sources.
Comparison, analysis and experience need to be accompanied by time and space for reflection and the development of critical awareness and understanding. Facilitators, especially in non-formal and formal education, need to ensure that such time and space is provided in a deliberate and planned way.
Reflection can and should be the basis for taking action, for engagement with others through dialogue and for becoming involved in co-operative activities with others. Facilitators may foster political debate and encourage participation in elections.
Source: Adapted from Chapter 2, Council of Europe, Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture: Volume 3 Guidance for implementation
Adult education cannot solve the problem of declining political participation alone of course, and there are no quick fixes. But developing and applying the work of the Council of Europe offers a hopeful way forward.
Andrew McCoshan has worked in education and training in Europe for over 30 years as an academic researcher and consultant. He is currently a Senior Research Associate at the Educational Disadvantage Centre at Dublin City University in Ireland.