“Although advocates for liberal education frequently cite the goal of developing skills necessary for students to function as democratic citizens (such as critical thinking, recognition and understanding of multiple perspectives, and the employment of scrutiny and reason), the actual teaching that students experience often is resoundingly, even hypocritically, antidemocratic” (Manor et al., 2010, p. 12)

In my previous post, I mentioned how student-faculty partnership could challenge some of the basic assumptions in Western higher education system. Here, I would like to address the question of how a Students as Partners model challenges the claim that current higher education system follows a democratic teaching model. To explore this topic, I will rely on two recent studies that, in my opinion, successfully show how student-faculty partnership on teaching and learning is rooted in the pedagogy that truly aims to be democratic.

In their chapter titled “Foundations of Student-Faculty Partnership in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Theoretical and Developmental Considerations,” Christopher Manor, Stephen Bloch-Schulman, Kelly Flannery, and Peter Felten (2010) argue that power dynamics are the core of our (western) higher education system. Both the relationship established between the professors and the students and the physical space used to carry out this relationship are hierarchical. Teachers are the figures with almost total authority in the classroom, while students either of secondary or no authority at all (p. 10). To a certain degree this is understandable since teachers have the knowledge and expertise that students wish to acquire. The hierarchy is based on and is nurtured by the fact that one side possesses something that the other desires, and it is also assumed that this hierarchy is temporary, since the students can take on the roles of the teachers once they become knowledgeable and/or develop certain expertise.

Unfortunately, the established model based on such hierarchy, even when the hierarchy is seen as temporary, creates several profound problems that prevent students from thinking in a democratic way. First and foremost, the model discourages active participation of students in the process of their education, a characteristic that undoubtedly is an important attribute of a democratic society or democratically minded individual. Manor et al. argue that such dynamic obliges students to think that they are “totally dependent on their professor” (p. 10), that they are powerless when it comes to making decisions about what and how they learn and, consequently, fail to develop a sense of responsibility. The authors make a very strong point that power and responsibility are interconnected and, where there is power, there is more responsibility, while lack of power leads to less or no responsibility: “The students’ perceived powerlessness in their own education translates into a lack of their taking responsibility for their own education” (p. 10).

Hierarchical relationship between teachers and students is reinforced by another major misconception about the way knowledge is constructed. Students are made to believe that education is a “transfer of knowledge” from teacher to student, rather than a process that, as Manor et al. argue “allows examination and making meaning from knowledge” (p. 10). One of the consequences of such misconception is students’ inability and/or reluctance to engage with their peers and view them as valuable resources instead of always expecting the teacher to be the sole source of knowledge in the classroom.

Hence, the perceived powerlessness of students and consequent lack of responsibility, as well as the misconception about the process of knowledge acquisition and dissemination, lead to students often seeing education as something done to them, not necessarily something that they do (Manor et al.,  2010, p. 11), a profoundly anti-democratic model that discourages students from perceiving themselves as active participants in the process of their education, rather than its passive recipients. It also diminishes the value of collective and collaborative efforts of meaning construction.

Cook-Sather and Alter (2011) also maintain that student-faculty partnership offers us an opportunity to democratize education by “re-imagining the responsibilities of learning and teaching at the college level” (p. 50). In the article titled “What Is and What Can Be?” the authors argue that the collaboration between students and teachers brings into play “a more democratic dialogue; […] making spaces for such dialogue within which faculty and students contemplate together how learning is or could be happening in college classrooms” (p. 50). Once we open up to the possibility of listening to others, once we enter into dialogue, the process becomes ongoing. The dialogue itself becomes transformative, placing both teachers and students in a “liminal” space; a space that is reciprocal, where teaching and learning is co-conceptualized and co-constructed (p. 51). The authors go even further to claim that, according to their study, such relationship revealed the importance of “’unfinishedness,’ which, as Freire (1998) argued, is what makes us educable” (p. 51).  According to Cook-Sather and Alter, it is precisely this “unfinishedness” (for students as well as teachers), this becoming comfortable with uncertainty, this constant dialogue with multiple perspectives, that has the power to challenge the established system and structure, the very essence of authority, and create a more democratic classroom (p. 51).

It is no secret that those of us who teach in higher education systems wish to educate students to be well prepared to live in a democratic society. What do we mean by this? In my opinion, it means that students are capable of making their own decisions; before making them, they are able to evaluate the situation critically (using critical thinking skills), and they behave as responsible human beings who understand that their actions, their decisions, and their choices will affect the lives of those who live around them. We also want students to learn the value of respecting others and working in collaboration. Yet, it seems that while we teach all of this, we don’t necessarily practice it. The educational system we use seems to be archaic, based on autocratic, rather than democratic model. In the end, the question is: (How) can we educate students for democratic society hoping to raise citizens who live by and promote democratic values, while in practice we seem to be following a non-democratic model?


  • Cook-Sather, A. and Alter, Z. (2011). What Is and What Can Be: How a Liminal Position Can Change Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. Anthropology & Education       Quarterly, 42(1), 37-53.
  • Manor, C., Block-Schulman, S., Flannery, K., Felten, P. (2010). Foundations of Student- Faculty Partnerships in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. In C. Werder and M.M. Otis (eds.), Engaging Students Voices in the Study of Teaching and Learning (pp. 3–15). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Ketevan Kupatadze, Senior Lecturer in Spanish in the Department of World Languages and Cultures, is the 2017-2019 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Kupatadze’s CEL Scholar project focuses on student-faculty partnerships.

How to cite this post:

Kupatadze, Ketevan. 2017, September 25. Democratic Teaching Model? [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/democratic-teaching-model/