A call for comprehensive political education in Malaysia (Part 2): Political discussions in classrooms

In my previous article, I discussed the need for comprehensive political education from the perspectives of improving teacher training and including political education in civics and citizenship education. However, even if Malaysia has specialized teachers teaching civic and citizenship, how a teacher goes about teaching it could still be subjected to what society thinks as ethically appropriate to discuss in class.

When it comes to politics in the classroom, I find that certain dogmas dictate and hinder objectivity, whilst corrupting the freedom of thought and expression. For example, if a teacher encourages his or her students to evaluate and discuss the performance of the government, debate policies which impact social, political, and the economic makeup of Malaysia, I’m certain that teacher would be ostracized.

Thus, when teachers and students are not allowed that freedom to deliberate, I believe it eradicates the essence of political education. This article offers two main arguments. Firstly, it calls for the renouncement of the stigma and taboo surrounding political education in schools. Secondly, it argues that it is crucial for classrooms to foster political discussions through deliberative democracy.

Taboo in Japan, Taboo in Malaysia?

In Japan, political education was a taboo topic for a long time, and this off-limits topic originally functioned to keep certain ideologies from manifesting themselves in school education. As a protest, the Japan Teachers’ Union (Nikkyoso) staged strikes years ago, to dispute the conservative government’s education policies. The protests by the leftist-leaning union were about the politically influenced textbook screenings and rating system for teachers.

This led the Ministry of Education to issue a guideline in 1969 banning high school students from engaging in political activities, to an extent where politics were made equal to the consumption of alcohol and tobacco. Hence, schools made exams and academia the nucleus of their operations, instead of cultivating social awareness. Japan has since made gradual changes and in 2015, binned the 1969 guidelines which lifts the ban on political discourse in high schools.

Can Malaysia emulate a similar direction and approach?

Japan, a country with comparable Asian values to ours, and has similar political developments, has taken progressive steps in encouraging political education. Once the ban was lifted in 2015 and when the government lowered the voting age from 20 to 18 in 2016, political discussions in classrooms became the norm, provided that teachers do not indoctrinate the students and maintain neutrality in political discussions.

As the stigma from political education was absent, what their teachers and schools got right was perhaps their everyday classroom practice, and the belief that political education and its deliberation is crucial in developing civic minded citizens.

Deliberative Democracy

Deliberative democracy is different from interest-based democracy as it warrants individuals to come together in deciding public matters and policies through rational discussion. Besides encouraging free and equal deliberations from participants, the discussion and debates focus on a consensual outcome (Hanson & Howe 2011).

Samuelsson’ (2016) article ‘Education for Deliberative Democracy, A Typology of Classroom Discussions” investigates four examples of classroom discussions and their relevance in education for deliberative democracy. These discussions were analysed to provide more information about what classifies as deliberative democracy and how teachers can lead classroom discussions toward democratic deliberation. He investigated four types of discussions 1) the exploratory discussion 2) the problem-solving discussion 3) the predetermined discussion 4) democratic deliberation.

Though the four types of discussions have similarities, democratic deliberation stands out as a reason based public deliberation, which focuses on reaching a collective decision. The pedagogical idea of deliberative democracy is focused on teaching students how to state arguments, underpin them with reasons, listen to and reflect upon what others are saying, while striving to reach a collective conclusion with other students.

How would this look like in the classroom?

Teachers could start off by encouraging students to explore a topic, perhaps something recent in our political ecology. Students could then research the matter and its implications and justify them with facts and evidence. This is a crucial reflective reasoning process that requires students to be critical in justifying their stance. While some students are presenting and stating their arguments, the other students would listen, reflect, and even disagree with reasons backing their claims. The teacher and the students themselves can facilitate the lesson towards a conclusion, or an agreement regarding the topic at hand.

Students who go through this process are molded to make informed decisions and justify their opinions. In a political decision scenario, their views will be steered by canvassing facts, evidence, and values. On top of that, students would be able to construct an innate understanding of what to do based on deliberation and would project a better likelihood of heading towards mutual understanding and consensus. All of which makes them informed, mature, and more productive citizens.

Conclusion

For a comprehensive political education to take place, teachers and schools (without violating neutrality) must not be shunned for encouraging political discussions. Once this shift in societal perception is gradually achieved, teachers could attempt to deploy deliberative democracy measures when planning and executing lessons about political matters.

Perhaps, the act of deliberative democracy in the classroom itself could encourage the sanctioning of political education by society.

Perhaps what happened in Japan would not be as successful in Malaysia.

Nonetheless, I am convinced that preventing our young minds from explicitly discussing political matters in school, a place for children to learn and grow under the supervision of dedicated teachers, has grave repercussions. When we have indifferent and politically uninformed teens, efforts such as lowering the voting age to 18 will bring forth little meaning.

> Co-authored with Samuel Isaiah

Read more on Deliberative Democracy:

Hanson, J. S., & Howe, K. (2011). The potential for deliberative democratic civic education. Democracy and Education, 19(2), 3.

Samuelsson, M. (2016). Education for deliberative democracy: A typology of classroom discussions. Education for Deliberative Democracy. Theoretical assumptions and classroom practices.

Read more on Japan’s Political Education:

Teachers say Japan’s young voters need to have political awareness nurtured in schools

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