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Opinion: Learning from the 2020 election how to teach democracy

About 157 million Americans voted for president this month, the largest turnout ever for a presidential race. Unfortunately, there remains a large number of Americans that believe that the election was rigged, and a recent survey suggests that about one third of Americans are open to QAnon conspiracy theories. 

We are a country more divided than ever

A source of hope is the remarkable increase in young voter turnout in this election along with the growing activism by students in taking ownership over their own education, even with all of the challenges that 2020 has brought. 

In Denver, a group of students at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College recently led a year-long initiative in creating a historic resolution that “weaves the narratives and knowledge of Black, indigenous, Latino and other communities of color into every part of the district’s curriculum,” known as the Know Justice Know Peace resolution. 

Van Schoales and Mary Willson

In late October, the Denver Public Schools board unanimously approved the student-led resolution. Thousands of high school students will be learning through lessons that are anti-racist and elevate the voices of people of color because of this leadership. 

So, what can we do to bring more of us together around building a greater American democracy? 

In addition to the importance of elevating the voices and ideas of young people, here are three principles for schools to develop critical thinking habits and knowledge for a healthy democracy. 

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Teach perspectives: Teaching perspectives is difficult. It takes time and requires teachers and students to try to get inside the head of another person with different experiences and perspectives. But it is critical to understand the different perspectives on an issue, and often even more helpful to understand how it relates to those in or out of power for a particular issue. 

What do we know about Thomas Jefferson’s writing about human rights while he also enslaved over 600 people over the course of his life? What does that say about America’s founding story and our Constitution? 

For example, Caroline Randall Williams’ “You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument” provides a powerful perspective and window into an exploration of the existence of Civil War monuments that can help connect the past to the present for students. 

Fortunately, there is a growing list of resources and books to explore different perspectives. Teachers could use Nikole Hannah Jones’ 1619 Project that includes free curriculum resources through the Pulitzer Center. Additional resources that incorporate the use of teaching perspectives include Teaching Tolerance and Facing History

Contextualize and use our founding documents: The latest survey on American Civics from the University of Pennsylvania showed that fewer than one quarter of Americans could name any of the branches of government. This is an example of how uninformed most Americans are on the texts, policies, and systems that shape our lives today. 

Prioritizing teaching important historical documents so students can think critically about their modern credibility can provide a foundation for them to build their ideals and beliefs. 

Our democracy depends upon students knowing where they come from, building habits to distinguish facts from fiction, and having a desire to know and care for others, even if they disagree. Our schools and classrooms should reflect these principles. 

Break down echo chambers: Americans are increasingly living in physical bubbles with even greater school segregation by race, income, and politics. History and civics classrooms should be purposely designed to reflect diverse perspectives — including through the lenses of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and income — to ensure students develop the habits to listen and learn from one another.

In the digital age, polarized sides of the political aisle form opinions based on a different set of perceived facts depending on where they get their news, their media consumption habits, and level of media literacy. Understanding how to fact-check information by seeking out second sources, searching for topical experts and more are not only valuable academic skills, but also life skills which can help mitigate the spread of inaccurate information. 

There are many different tools available that show how juxtaposed our media consumption can be. Teaching students how they can be thoughtful media consumers can help break down the echo chambers that exist today. 

It’s up to all of us to foster deeper student understanding, while elevating young people’s ideas and voices, to ensure that our students do far better than we have elevating understanding and respect for one another. 

Our students deserve to learn more about how to build a better American democracy and the future of our nation depends upon them doing it.


Van Schoales is the president of A+ Colorado, a nonprofit focused on improving public education and improving student achievement. Mary Willson is the director of communications at A+, with a background in engaged journalism.


The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to opinion@coloradosun.com.

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