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Teaching and Learning on the Verge: Democratic Education in Action

reviewed by Anna Falkner - September 28, 2016

coverTitle: Teaching and Learning on the Verge: Democratic Education in Action
Author(s): Shanti Elliott
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807756415, Pages: 216, Year: 2015
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Shanti Elliott writes the following in her book Teaching and Learning on the Verge: Democratic Education in Action, [d]emocracy does not exist in itself but in the struggle for it. It is process; it is relationships (p. 59). Drawing on this idea from historical proponents of democratic education, the author argues that young people are strategically placed to critique education and democratic society. In addition, adults and particularly educators need to ally themselves better with students. This creative text helps teachers seek to redefine how they approach working with young citizens. Elliott takes an approach to democratic education that positions storytelling and the arts as means of communication between the microcosm of students in classrooms and larger democratic communities.

Elliott draws heavily on traditional progressive thinkers like Dewey (1916/2007) and the tenets of civic education and critical pedagogy. In particular, she attends to Guinier and Torres power-with model (2002) to re-conceptualize the teacher/student power dynamic. To begin, Elliott focuses on the ritual of social action and witnessing as a form of active civic engagement. This type of witnessing is called activation and is a mode of self-reflection and change.

In the first two chapters, Elliott suggests that only by beginning in activation (or internal change) can teachers and students begin to empathetically engage in civic action. She argues that a framework of counternarratives in democratic teaching offers a flexible tool for self-reflection, power analysis, and connecting with others. Teachers use of counternarratives, including multicultural literature and community oral histories, allows both teachers and students to border cross. This lets them develop knowledge and understanding of the lives of one another and other members of the community.

In Chapter Three, Elliott uses counternarratives to introduce the importance of dialogic work as pedagogy among students. She also discusses this work among teachers as a means to reflect on goals, development, and challenges in teaching practice. The author suggests that when attention is focused on fostering liberating relationships, dialogic inquiry can be a form of civic engagement both among students through oral histories and literature, but also between teachers and their work.

Elliott then adds another level of dialogic inquiry in Chapter Four. This is the idea of playing with power through artistic spaces and practices such as improvisation and the Theatre of the Oppressed (Freire, 1970). She suggests that these forms allow students and teachers to practice the creative nature of civic engagement that is often unresolved. In the final two chapters, Elliott considers the implications of dialogic inquiry practices in terms of place-based education and as forms of assessment. She argues for a broader reconceptualization of democratic education as relational praxis.

Elliotts argument rests heavily on the assumption that young people are capable of civic action, but also are a necessary part of democratic practice. She writes, [d]emocratic education requires rethinking the frame of the adult-child hierarchy, whereby young people are as a class dismissed from adult concerns and decision making (p. 4). Throughout the text, the author effectively demonstrates through student and classroom examples that young peoples inquiries allow for shared struggle, shared possibility (p. 15). This much-needed assumption not only serves her larger argument, but addresses a larger issue in democratic education. Specifically, young people are treated as citizens-in-training rather than citizens-now. Rather than approaching democratic education as an apprenticeship, Teaching and Learning on the Verge provides teachers with examples of ways they can develop democratic trust with students and truly value the contributions of the learners in their community.

Elliott draws attention to the privilege of civic efficacy in several ways. By centering the power of witnessing and internal change, she introduces one of the texts major underlying themes, namely questioning the privilege of civic efficacy. The author primarily critiques this type of efficacy as a notion of White privilege, noting the history of the difference in struggle necessary for people of color to create civic change as opposed to white civic actors. She writes, [e]fficacy entitlement is blinding: it obstructs the growth of democratic dispositions" (p. 120). Elliotts redefinition of success in civic engagement for youth has implications for the way we view the capabilities and capacities of young peoples civic engagement. It is a necessary byproduct of assuming the value of young peoples democratic contribution. What the author calls activation, dialogic inquiry, and power play become tools for civic engagement that do not require students to create change in adult terms, but in ways that are not necessarily predefined by adults or history. Elliott relates an example of a class dialogue left open and unresolved. This and other examples emphasize the ongoing processes of student civic engagement rather than distinct narratives with clear and positive resolutions.

As part of these ongoing processes, Elliott emphasizes the interplay among the individual, the class, the school, and the community throughout the book. She writes, [t]he dance of reciprocity fosters circulation between school and community, with the great bridging help of the arts, and trust in children's own capacities. The outcome of this democratic play is not high test scores, but public presence (p. 176). The author does not explicitly draw upon theories of communitarian citizenship, which Etzioni (1995) posits is the balance between the push of individual needs and the pull of the collective social order. This balance is maintained by civic trust and responsibility for one another. However, Elliotts work on individual students' and classes border crossing into the community suggests that literature and the arts are powerful ways for students and teachers to build that trust and construct empathetic relationships with one another.

The major tenets of Elliotts book are well-illustrated with examples from classroom engagement in the community, multicultural literature, and practices such as Theatre of the Oppressed. They include counternarratives as a framework for power analysis and fostering reflective civic engagement and arts. These narratives become a means to develop dialogic inquiry and a disposition to analyze and critique power. They also emphasize the importance of border crossing by both students and teachers. Through literature, historical examples, and examples from alternative schools and classrooms, Teaching and Learning on the Verge offers an important and imaginative approach to democratic education paralleling her argument for playing with power (p. 18, emphasis in original).


Dewey, J. (2007). Democracy and education. Middlesex, UK: The Echo Library. (Original work published 1916)

Etzioni, A. (1995, August). The responsive community: A communitarian perspective. Presidential Address. American Sociological Association, 61, 111. Retrieved from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1437135

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum.

Guinier, L., & Torres, J. (2002, January 31). The miners canary. The Nation. Retrieved from https://www.thenation.com/article/miners-canary/

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 28, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21662, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 1:25:36 PM

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About the Author
  • Anna Falkner
    University of Texas, Austin
    E-mail Author
    ANNA FALKNER is a doctoral student in the Social Studies Education program at the University of Texas at Austin. Anna has taught preschool, third, and fourth grade, and currently teaches Social Studies Methods in Elementary Schools as an assistant instructor at UT Austin. Her research centers on critical constructions of early childhood and elementary social studies. She is currently involved in the international project, Civic Action and Learning with Young Children, a multi-vocal ethnographic study aimed at exploring the civic action capabilities of preschool children. She will be presenting alongside Dr. Katherina Payne, Dr. Jennifer Keys Adair, and Shubhi Sachdeva at the College and University Faculty Assembly conference this November. She can be contacted at Anna.Falkner@UTexas.edu.
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