How can educational researchers help achieve a democratic ideas-informed society?

By Prof. Chris Brown

About the HE Education Research UK Blog Series
To raise awareness of the HE Education Research Census and contribute to a conversation about HE education research in the UK, this blog series explores a wide range of issues at the forefront of education research today. It includes blogs from colleagues at all career stages, research areas and nations of the UK. Please get in touch if you too would like to contribute.

The idea of the democratic, ideas-informed, society is a concept that can be traced back to at least 375BCE and Plato’s The Republic. We can think of it as the sort of place in which citizens actively, openly and critically engage with new ideas, developments and claims to truth. The desired outcome of this engagement is a situation in which people become ever more knowledgeable, are able to make good decisions and lifestyle choices, and will re-align their values in response to new progressive beliefs and norms: in other words, re-align their values in response to beliefs, perspectives or proposals for change that seeks to improve the human condition. As a result, there are benefits which can be realised from the ideas-informed society: not just for individuals and their families, but also for communities, society more widely, as well as the natural environment at large.

Yet, despite the advantages available from doing so, there are significant cold spots in terms of the extent to which different groups and communities actively and critically engage with new ideas. For instance, recent Structural Equation Modelling, using a representative sample of 1,000 respondents in England, shows that those in communities with low levels of education, alongside a socially-narrow level of cohesion, are less likely to regard keeping up-to-date as important. Here, narrow cohesion corresponds to situations in which one’s interpersonal connections are broadly homogenous: consisting predominantly of people with similarly low levels of education and similarly employed in routine/manual jobs. The data suggest that members of such communities may not be as likely to see value in statements concerning tolerance and inclusion, the ethical and sustainable practices of businesses, or the need to support the physical and mental health of ourselves or others.

At the same time, it is these very communities that are likely to benefit most from being able to engage with new ideas, make smarter decisions and choices, and adopt more progressive beliefs and norms. So what might educational researchers do about this? Well, the structural equation model findings suggest that, in the long term, educated societies are more likely to be informed societies. This suggests teachers and teaching needs to be fully harnessed to equip future citizens with the skills, aptitudes and dispositions needed for them to actively want to keep up to date, as well as engage in debates relating to ideas, truth claims and new developments. Yet, if education is to achieve these things, then educators themselves must be able to model what is required, which necessitates them developing new traits and ways of working. Within this context, the development of relevant high quality, continuing professional learning programmes will be necessary.

But there is also space for us to think about other, meaningful, short/medium term actions. So, what might be required? The structural equation model also hints at the importance of citizens in low education/narrowly socially cohesive communities engaging in ideas-related discussions, which seemingly counters some of the issues noted above. Potentially this is because discussion is an indicator (a proxy measure) of the presence of a more positive form of relational social capital, which itself often results in the creation of certain types of human capital in others. For instance, it can help individuals build a secure sense of self-identity, have confidence in expressing opinions, and can increase emotional intelligence – all of which enables individuals to become better learners and citizens. In other words, discussion can lead to a sparking of interest in relation to new ideas, as well as building one’s ability to think about them or engage with them critically.

So, as well as improving education itself, educational researchers can explore how to improve interactive engagement by communities with ideas. For instance, by running science cafés which engage citizens with new research findings and encourage citizens to talk about how these might be usefully employed. There are no doubt other similar approaches. And to take this forward, we are currently pulling together a compilation of initiatives that have previously attempted to get communities talking – so, if you have suggestions for things we might look at, we’d love to hear from you!

Professor Chris Brown is Professor in Education and Deputy Executive Dean (Research) at Durham University, UK.

Find out more:

Click this poster to link to the research article (open access)

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1 thought on “How can educational researchers help achieve a democratic ideas-informed society?

  1. Pingback: News and Info | HE Education Research Census

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