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Danish education fosters young super-democrats

Two new studies show that Denmark has the highest quality of democracy and that young Danes are world champions in democratic thinking. Is there a connection?

Study in Denmark editorial

By Thomas Alexander Hoelgaard

Denmark has the highest quality of democracy in the world. This is the conclusion of a new democracy barometer developed by German and Swiss researchers.

The barometer compares thirty well-established democracies on nine points: the protection of personal freedom; the rule of law; an active citizenship; a system of checks and balances; transparency; political representation; participation; competition and the ability to implement democratic decisions.

Denmark's top position is consistent with its ranking as one of the most equal and least corrupt countries in the world. It also ties in well with the overall confidence that Danes have in their political system and key decision makers. What's more, a recent international study shows that key principles of democracy are encouraged through the Danish way of teaching.

Let´s agree to perhaps disagree

The International Civic and Citizenship education Study (ICCS) has mapped the democratic understanding among more than 140.000 students in 38 countries. The survey shows that Danish students are superior in terms of democratic thinking and citizenship. It also shows that students in Denmark experience an open and anti-authoritarian learning environment where they can comfortably express their opinions.

One of the researchers behind the study, Professor Jens Bruun from the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University, says that the findings fit well with an overall goal of teaching in Denmark: to enable students to consider different perspectives and form their own opinions. This emphasis on critical thinking is cultivated through a learning environment with room for debate and disagreement.

“Any classroom teaching citizenship will always to some degree be based on the idea that students must learn to adapt to society's values. In Denmark, students learn not only about society's values and democratic principles, but also to question the basic assumptions underlying them”, says Jens Bruun.

Fostering a critical mind

According to Jens Bruun, the critical thinking dimension in Danish education is very important for democracy. By encouraging young people to relate critically to society, they essentially learn to take responsibility for their own rights and duties in society. In this way, schools practice democracy in the actual process of teaching.

“There is a world of difference between a teacher who enters the classroom, runs through a curriculum and says 'thank you for today' – and one who encourages students to discuss and critically process the material presented to them. The latter prepares students to deal constructively with real-life dilemmas and conflicting interest”, says Jens Bruun.

Danish schools a cradle for democracy

By encouraging students to openly discuss society's basic values, schools in Denmark serve as a cradle for democracy. In fact, the Danish Primary Education Act states that schools should promote intellectual freedom, equality and democracy. However, Jens Bruun points out that the democracy in the world outside of school also plays an important role in promoting young democratic minds:

"As young people inherit their values from home, from school and from interacting with society, they too will eventually pass on their values to the next generation. As such, democracies arise from below and develop over time. They are essentially a way of life”.

The courage to put your ignorance on public display

One could say that democracy is like knowledge, expanding through a synthesis of different perspectives. The widespread use of collaborative learning in Danish education is based on the same reasoning, as it seeks to promote innovative thinking by encouraging students to apply and share their skills and ideas through e.g. project work.

For Danish students this is essentially how they have always been studying. For some international students, however, it can be quite challenging as they are suddenly expected to manage their own academic focus and ask inquisitive questions to their teachers.

"International students may feel that they are putting their ignorance on public display", says Mette Reebirk, head of the international office at Roskilde University.  But ultimately they benefit, she reassures, because they become more adept at applying new knowledge in innovative ways.

Originality key to innovation and rewarding jobs

Mette Reebirk gives an example of how international students may benefit from studying in Denmark:

”We once had some Chinese students at Roskilde University who eventually all got great jobs in the US. When I later spoke to them they told me that studying at Roskilde was decisive in getting them the jobs, because they didn’t feel like one in a billion, but felt confident that they could come up with truly original answers”.

Mette Reebirk points out that these are important skills in a globalized society where the challenge is not so much to find the right information, but being able to apply and transform information in novel ways. As stated by Mette Reebirk:

“International companies look for creative people who can truly think for themselves, collaborate and jointly develop innovative solutions. And these are key features of higher education in Denmark”.
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ABOUT ICCS

The International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS) is an international comparative study conducted by The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA).

The ICSS looks at the impact of globalization on political education in the 21st century. That is, students' understanding of democratic principles, cultural values, national identity and individual values and attitudes.

The study is based on more than 140,000 students from more than 5,300 schools in 38 countries as
well as information from approximately 60,000 teachers and 5,000 school principals.

Read more here


ABOUT THE DEMOCRACY BAROMETER

The Democracy Barometer has been developed by Prof. Marc Buhlman from the University of Zurich and Prof. Wolfgang Merkel from the Social Science Research Center in Berlin.

By comparing 30 of the world´s most well-established democracies, the Barometer finds that Denmark and Finland have the highest quality of democracy,  South Africa and Costa Rica the lowest.

Top 6 democracies in the world:
Denmark: 88.3
Finland: 87.7
Belgium: 85.1
Iceland: 83.5
Sweden: 82.9
Norway: 82.1

For the full list, click here.

ABOUT THE DEMOCRACY

BAROMETER

The Democracy Barometer has been

developed by Prof. Marc Buhlman

from the University of Zurich and

Prof. Wolfgang Merkel from the

Social Science Research Center in

Berlin. By comparing 30 of the world´s

most well-established democracies, the

Barometer finds that Denmark and

Finland have the highest quality of

democracy, South Africa

and Costa Rica the lowest.

Top 6 democracies in the world:

Denmark: 88.3

Finland: 87.7

Belgium: 85.1

Iceland: 83.5

Sweden: 82.9

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