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Defenders for Human Rights

Teaching for Human Rights

We all have rights. We also have obligations to one another. Over time we have come to understand the importance of human rights as the foundation of a free and democratic society.

Human rights education refers to: ‘knowledge and skills’ which are necessary to protect and apply human rights in daily life; ‘values, attitudes and behaviour’ which advocate human rights; and taking ‘action’ to defend and promote human rights.

Teaching for human rights focuses not only on what is being taught, but also on how it is being taught. Teaching methods should embrace human rights values and encourage participation and critical thinking while promoting a learning environment free from discrimination and exclusion.

Human rights education can be challenging, even for highly motivated individuals and groups. It requires courageous conversation that can be particularly challenging in the middle and senior years when students raise tough issues and ask hard questions. To effectively engage students in human rights, teachers should cultivate a human rights oriented pedagogy.

Pedagogy for human rights begins with an understanding that it is not enough to teach students about human rights, or just about some rights. A human rights-oriented pedagogy creates supportive learning environments where students learn about human rights through their lived experience, and in the process, develop as fully affirmed, social justice-oriented citizens for human rights – that’s the responsibility piece.

Teaching Styles and Learning Strategies

Teachers are role models. This is particularly true when it comes to human rights. Teachers should lead by example and practice human rights values. Human rights grow naturally in classrooms that are welcoming, open and fair – places where ideals and principles such as equity, diversity, and inclusion are the norm.

There are many learning strategies to help students develop as human rights-oriented citizens. These strategies generally involve the teacher as facilitator in student-centred learning that is:

  • cooperative and collaborative
  • inquiry and project-based
  • critically reflective
  • considerate of diverse points of view
  • authentic and relevant

Activities are intended to promote change on several levels: increased participation in the school, community and family; better cooperation and team spirit; increased respect for diversity and differences; greater inclusion and acceptance of everyone; better ability to express feelings, prevent and resolve conflict peacefully and a heightened sense of responsibility. Students can then apply what they have learned in other contexts, such as at home, with friends and in the broader community.

Creating Conditions for Human Rights Conversations

Teachers will face challenges as they engage in courageous conversations about human rights. These challenges include facing their own personal values and biases. Teaching human rights also requires a holistic approach: you can’t teach about one right in isolation of others. Human rights are interrelated, interdependent, indivisible and inalienable.

Controversial issues are a necessary part of teaching about human rights. Teachers should strive to create conditions necessary for students to engage in dialogue about values, beliefs, and ethics, and to do so with both consideration and respect for each other.

Here are some suggested guidelines to follow when dealing with controversial issues in the classroom:

  • Approach all issues with sensitivity
  • Clearly define the issues
  • Establish a clear purpose for discussions
  • Establish parameters for discussions
  • Ensure that the issues do not become personalized or directed at individual students
  • Protect the interests of individual students by finding out in advance whether any student would be personally affected by the discussion
  • Exercise flexibility by permitting students to choose alternative assignments
  • Accept the fact that there may not be a single “right answer” to a question or issue
  • Respect every student’s right to voice opinions or perspectives
  • Help students clarify the distinction between informed opinion and bias
  • Help students seek sufficient and reliable information to support various perspectives
  • Allow time to present all relevant perspectives fairly and to reflect upon their validity

A specific challenge you may face in the classroom is the phenomenon of othering. Othering refers to any action by which an individual or group thought to be different from oneself or the mainstream is seen as “not being one of us”. This contributes to seeing “the other” as being somewhat less human or less worthy of dignity and respect.

Students need to know that difference, dissent, and disagreement are all part of living in a democracy. In order for students to develop as citizens, classroom environments should:

  • Be non-judgmental, respectful places that allow students to explore and express ideas and opinions without fear of derision or reprisal.
  • Provide opportunities for students to develop and use critical thinking and practice open-mindedness.
  • Include student-centred learning strategies that focus on real issues important to students’ lives.
  • Provide authentic opportunities for students to step outside their comfort zones and to learn how to break down the barriers of otherness.