Researching Teaching and Learning for Democratic Participation: An Inquiry into Pedagogy Practices at Simon Fraser University

On October 15, 2017, a group of researchers at SFU, including Dr. Cristina Serverius (RA), Dr. Brenda Morrison, Dr. Am Johal, Paola Ardiles, Dr. Daniel Savas, led by Dr. Joanna Ashworth, proposed a research project to the VP Research that would explore cases of democratic teaching and learning internally at Simon Fraser University.

This interdisciplinary group of researchers at SFU are investigating pedagogical models, methods and initiatives that ‘democratize’ the learning process through participatory approaches. In some cases, these approaches also emphasize action and experiences benefiting both the learners and, in many cases, the external organizations that partner with them. Many of these democratic teaching and learning examples are located within academic courses in SFU’s departments, schools and centres where fostering participatory citizenship is a prime learning objective.

This study seeks to understand the design elements, barriers and supports for these approaches within the classroom and when they extend into civil society organizations. This generative research will create a series of cases or portraits by speaking to practitioners, teachers, and researchers to get first-hand knowledge of what is currently being done to strengthen participatory teaching and learning methods and practices (what we refer to as democratic pedagogy) both within the university and how these approaches contribute to democratic participation in broader society. This research will assist us in gaining perspectives on what works, in what ways, and in what contexts and in doing so, daylight the pedagogies that foster the development of students as effective agents of change that strengthen civil society in the process.

SFU’s tagline, “Engaging the World,” expresses the university’s mission to be Canada’s Engaged University. The university’s focus on engagement for change in its academic offering and beyond recently prompted its designation as an Ashoka Changemaker campus. These are aspirations imply a reimagination of the role of the university in society. Educational thinker Henry Giroux describes this new role in the following call for change:

“Colleges and universities must define themselves anew as a public good, a prospective space for the promotion of democratic ideals, of the social imagination, civic values and a critically engaged citizenship… we must educate them to become intelligent, compassionate, critically engaged adults fully aware of the fact that without informed citizens, there is no democracy” (“Why universities must defend democracies.”).

SFU’s Strategic Research Plan (2016-2020) seems to echo Giroux’s call, specifically in two of the six key challenges it identifies: Challenge #4: Strengthening civil society by advancing justice, equity and social responsibility, and Challenge #6: Transforming the landscape of teaching and learning.

Universities should then create opportunities for democratic participation, which, broadly defined, includes the political and civic realms and those areas between where students can influence public life and enhance public discourse.

For many individuals and units engaged in teaching and learning at SFU, these are not new approaches; many have long viewed teaching and learning as a means to prepare students to become active participants in civil society and help them grow into changemakers for their local, national, and global communities.

This study aims to understand the various manifestations of democratic and participatory teaching and learning at SFU, as well as the support and barriers for these approaches.

The goals of this study include: 

  • To understand the design elements, barriers and supports for democratic pedagogy approaches.
  • To map the field of teaching and learning for democratic participation at SFU. What are the various manifestations of such approaches at SFU? What are the opportunities, imperatives, obstacles, and caveats?
  • Prepare and implement a survey of all SFU faculty re: democratic innovation inside and outside the classroom;
  • Conduct a series of semi-structured interviews with faculty and create case portraitures
  • Draft a summary report (White Paper) based on the survey and interview findings;
  • Host a follow-up workshop open to study participants to discuss and finalize draft summary report including questions for further research; and
  • Develop an external (e.g., SSHRC) research funding proposal based on the above.