About this Lesson
What is democracy and how does it function in the UK? This lesson has been created to explore that question and is divided into two parts. Part one provides students with an opportunity to explore and deepen their understanding of the concept of democracy and equips them with a framework to assess the health of a democracy. Part two then explores the strengths and weaknesses of the UK’s parliamentary democracy.
This lesson is designed to be adaptable. You can use the activities in sequence or choose a selection best suited to your classroom. It includes:
- 7 activities
- Student-facing slides
- Recommended articles and videos for exploring this topic
- 4 extension activities
We live in a time of great tension and conflict in democracies around the world. Political and social differences, eroding trust in institutions, and rising incidents of hatred and bigotry all threaten our democratic structures and the social contract, which underpins how we relate to one another: tolerance and an ability to connect with those who hold views different to our own has decreased. Elections in recent years, both inside and outside of the United Kingdom, have further revealed and exacerbated deep divisions within many democratic societies, raising fundamental questions about the strength and fragility of democracy in our world today. Moreover, in the UK, controversies surrounding the conduct of Members of Parliament have raised important questions concerning the democratic process: Who is responsible for holding the Prime Minister and Members of Parliament to account? What are, or should be, the consequences for those who breach expected codes of conduct? And, if a Prime Minister resigns, who has a say in who the replacement will be?
Given this political climate, it is vital to reflect on what it takes to sustain democracy and to consider how, as educators, we can help young people understand what democracy is, the role they can play in upholding democratic institutions and values, and the importance of collaborating with, and listening to, those with different perspectives.
Explain to students that they will be exploring the topic of democracy, reflecting on what it is, its strengths and weaknesses, and how it functions in the UK.
Use the Concept Maps teaching strategy to have students generate, sort, and connect their ideas about democracy on a piece of paper. If you have coloured pencils or markers, pass them out for the sort and connect stages of the strategy to help students categorise and organise their ideas.
Ask students to share their ideas in pairs or small groups and to elaborate on their own maps. Then, use the Wraparound strategy to have each student share one idea with the class.
You might also wish to explain to students that the word democracy comes from the Greek word dēmokratia, which is composed of two words: dēmos (‘the people’) + -kratia (‘power, rule’), and share a definition of democracy with students. For example, the Cambridge dictionary defines democracy as
the belief in freedom and equality between people, or a system of government based on this belief, in which power is either held by elected representatives or directly by the people themselves 1
- 1:‘Democracy’, Cambridge Dictionary, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/democracy.
Next, in pairs or as a whole class, ask students to spend a few minutes brainstorming questions they would ask to assess the strength of a democracy. You might provide them with an example to help them get started: Is there a free and open press? Have a few pairs share their questions.
Then, pass out or project the following nine ‘Checklist for a Healthy Democracy’ questions:
Compare the list with the questions that students brainstormed. Place students into small groups and ask each group to choose two questions either from the 'Checklist for a Healthy Democracy' or from the list of questions they brainstormed. Then, ask them to discuss the following questions:
Next, ask students to return to their concept map for democracy and add new ideas or questions that the checklist and group discussion raised for them.
Does the culture of the country value and protect the free expression of ideas? Does it tolerate disagreement and dissent?
Are diverse segments of society able to trust each other enough to unify behind causes upon which they agree?
Do citizens and civic groups actively work to hold the government and its leaders accountable?
Are local, city, and state governments effective, trusted, and responsive to constituents?
Do citizens prioritise democracy? Or are they willing to trade democracy for other outcomes such as a better economy?
Do schools teach students to value democracy and how to participate in government at local, state, and national levels?
Is there a free and open press? Does the government allow for the free flow of information from multiple media sources? Are journalists given access to cover the government and elected officials?
Are democratically elected leaders committed to preserving the democratic processes? Do they value democracy for its own sake, not just as means to enact a preferred agenda?
Are the branches of government and primary institutions within civil society healthy and effectively balancing each other’s power? 2
Thinking about the UK’s democracy, how would you answer your chosen questions?
What do you need to learn more about to give stronger answers to the questions? Where can you get that information?
- 2This checklist was originally posted in the Facing Today blog post “How to Assess the Health of a Democracy”, https://facingtoday.facinghistory.org/how-to-assess-the-strength-of-a-democracy.
Civil rights leader John Lewis wrote the following statement about democracy in a letter that was published in the New York Times after his death:
Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself. 3
Ask students to read this quote and then discuss:
What do you think John Lewis meant when he said democracy is an act not a state?
What do you think the term Beloved Community means in this quote? How could thinking about your society as a Beloved Community be a part of building democracy?
How do you think John Lewis’s definition of democracy is similar to or different from the one you created on your concept map?
According to John Lewis, each generation is responsible for taking action to support democracy. What actions do you think people in your own generation are taking to create ‘a nation and world society at peace with itself’?
- 3John Lewis, ‘Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation,’ New York Times, 30 July 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/30/opinion/john-lewis-civil-rights-america.html.
Finally, invite students to complete a Connect, Extend, Challenge handout, using the following questions to guide them:
- Connect: How do the ideas and information shared connect to what you already know about democracy?
- Extend: How does the information shared extend or broaden your thinking about democracy?
- Challenge: Does the information shared challenge or complicate your understanding of democracy? What new questions does it raise for you?
Next, explain to students that in addition to understanding what democracy is and what makes a democracy healthy, it is also important to understand how democracy functions in the UK and to consider its strengths and weaknesses. Begin by using the Head, Heart, Conscience teaching strategy and ask students to respond to the following questions in their journals, which focus on the head and the heart sections of the strategy (students will respond to questions that focus on the conscience section in a final reflection activity):
- What do you know about how the UK’s democracy functions?
- What do you want to know about how the UK’s democracy functions?
- How do you feel when you think about political leaders or elections in the UK? Why do you think you feel this way?
- Are there particular events or news stories that impact how you feel about the UK’s democracy? If so, what are they?
Invite students to share their answers in pairs before asking volunteers to share one question they have about the UK’s democracy.
Share the reading Introduction to the UK’s Parliament Democracy with students and read it as a class, pausing to allow students to ask any questions that they might have.
You might also wish to show students one of the following videos:
- How does the General Election work? (UK Parliament)
- General election 2019: The voting system explained (BBC News)
- An introduction to Parliament (UK Parliament)
- How Parliament works in nearly 60 seconds (UK Parliament)
Once students have read the text and/or watched a video, divide them into groups and ask them to respond to the following questions.
- What is parliament composed of? How is parliament different to the government?
- How are the two Houses of Parliament different? What are the advantages/disadvantages of these differences?
- What are the benefits of a government being able to call a general election at any time? What are the drawbacks?
- What might the benefits of having an unwritten constitution be? What are the potential drawbacks?
- What guides the conduct of the Members of Parliament? What is surprising, interesting and/or troubling about this?
- What are the advantages of the First-Past-the-Post voting system? What are its disadvantages?
Alternatively, you might ask students to review the reading Introduction to the UK’s Democracy and identify the advantages/disadvantages of each section.
Once students have finished discussing the questions or reviewing the advantages/disadvantages, lead a short class discussion on the strengths and weaknesses of the UK’s parliamentary system.
Invite students to revisit their initial responses for the head and heart sections of the Head, Heart, Conscience teaching strategy and to add in any further thoughts they have. Then, invite them to reflect on the following questions which focus on the conscience section of the strategy:
Do you think the UK’s parliamentary system of democracy is fair? Why or why not?
What do you think could be done to improve the UK’s democracy?
What role do you think you can play in upholding the UK’s democracy?
Ask each student to choose one question from the ‘Checklist for a Healthy Democracy’ that they would like to explore on their own. Have them find a current news article that helps them answer the question in a new, different, or deeper way.
Explore forms of participatory democracy with students, such as citizens’ assemblies, people’s assemblies and the use of tools such as Pol.is. Share one or more of the following case studies/activities:
- In the UK, citizens’ assemblies have been held on how to respond to climate change (a documentary called People vs Climate Change about this citizen’s assembly is available to watch on BBC iplayer) and on how the UK’s democracy should work.
- In Taiwan, the government has been using the platform Polis to ask for citizens’ opinions, to help build consensus, and to pass laws (see the Wired article Taiwan is making democracy work again. It's time we paid attention).
- In Rojava, Kurdistan (northeastern Syria), people’s assemblies are used to make decisions on how society functions (see the Financial Times article Power to the people: a Syrian experiment in democracy).
- You might also choose to use our People’s Assembly teaching strategy to hold a people’s assembly on a set topic in your classroom.
Teach students about different voting systems by sharing p.9 of How it Works: parliament, Government, Democracy and You and about the First-Past-the-Post voting system by watching the Channel Four video Is Britain REALLY democratic?
Share the Seven Principles of Public Life with students, inviting them to reflect on how effective these principles are at guiding the behaviour of public servants, what could be done to ensure these principles are always followed, and what principles they might add were they to update them for the present day.
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