Link to CSU home page

Information about this Journal

Call for Papers

Submission Guidelines

Events & Opportunities

List of Editorial Board members

List of Contributors

Link to ITL home page

Link to Exchanges home page

Integrating Democratic Ideals and Thematic Instruction
In Teacher Education Curricula

Mimi Miller and Ann K. Schulte

Department of Education
California State University, Chico



Using an action research paradigm, two education professors redesigned, taught, and studied the effects of a course for pre-service teachers (N = 108), entitled “Applications for Democratic Education.” Qualitative data collected from the teacher-researchers and students indicated growth in students’ ability to design a curriculum that included democratic IDEALS, defined by O’Hair, McLaughlin, and Reitzug (2000) as inquiry, discourse, authenticity, leadership and service. Course content and the results of the action research are discussed for possible contributions to teacher education.


In an era of standards and accountability in education, the teaching profession faces many challenges. Our observations in schools led us to believe that the recent focus on standardized testing has made authentic, interdisciplinary instruction more difficult. In response to pressures to meet content standards and prepare students for standardized tests, many new teachers rely heavily upon scripted programs and pre-packaged curriculum. Instruction that integrates the subjects and addresses real-life issues is becoming rare. However, in order to prepare students to participate in democratic life, teachers need to help their students see connections between school and the world. Thematic instruction is an effective way to address standards and authentic learning.

This paper reports the findings of a study that asks the question: “How do we teach pre-service teachers to integrate democratic ideals and thematic instruction?” In our teacher education program, a course in interdisciplinary instruction resulted in curricular planning that sometimes produced units around trivial topics such as “crayons” and “spaghetti.” Simultaneously, our department was developing a series of credential courses designed to help teachers educate for a social and political democracy. Clearly the interdisciplinary instruction course needed revision in order to meet the department’s changing mission.

As a team of two education professors, we redesigned an interdisciplinary instruction course, Applications for Democratic Education, the aim of which was to teach pre-service teachers to plan integrated curricula around essential ideas and questions in the classroom, school, community and world. Both as teachers of the course and as researchers, we engaged in action research, which calls for a systematic, deliberate, and measured approach to teaching, with demonstrable outcomes and results. As we taught the course, we analyzed how its revision helped teach pre-service teachers to integrate democratic ideals and thematic instruction through an integrated curriculum design.

Theoretical Background

The revised course was built to teach the concepts of democratic education and integrated instruction. To teach students what democratic practice looked like, we used the acronym IDEALS (inquiry, discourse, equity, authenticity, leadership and service) from O’Hair, McLaughlin, and Reitzug (2000). This section offers relevant background information, definitions, and explanations of concepts involved in teaching about democratic education.

Democratic Education

Education for democracy has deep roots stretching back to the Founding Fathers. In the twentieth century, John Dewey (1966) continued this theme when he emphasized that a democratic society must depend on schools to provide the means to learn and to exercise future practice of democratic education principles. He further noted that democracy is more than political; it also includes a whole range of actions in various realms of social life. More recently, Gutmann (1999) argued throughout Democratic Education that democracy must permeate schools and be taught deliberately. These frameworks provide a context for thinking about democracy both as an indicator of the curriculum to be studied and as the processes used to study it.

Integrated Instruction

Integrated, or thematic, instruction has its roots in the problem-centered approaches advocated Apple and Beane (1995) and others. An integrated curriculum lets students participate in an authentic learning process by seeking answers to questions they genuinely have about a topic. This process differs from the more common interdisciplinary format in which a theme is separated into discrete subject areas. As Bruner (cited in Beane, 1993) said, “We might better concern ourselves with how [those] problems can be solved, not just by practical action, but by putting knowledge, wherever we find it and in whatever form we find it, to work” (p. 53). The redesigned course required students to create a curriculum that put student knowledge to work around authentic issues.

Democratic IDEALS

The democratic practice described throughout the course is a dynamic environment that expresses the IDEALS of O’Hair, McLaughlin, and Reitzug (2000):

  • Inquiry refers to engaging in questions that drive learning. One example might be to allow students’ questions to guide the curriculum. In the context of this course, we required pre-service teachers to engage in conversations with actual students about their interests, their experiences, and topics they would be interested in learning, to give their elementary students a central place in guiding the curriculum.
  • Discourse is conversation and debate about learning, including discussion of controversial issues. Discourse can often enhance the students’ understanding about multiple perspectives on social injustice, leading to the IDEAL of equity.
  • Equity is aimed at achieving just practices in school and society. Equity can be represented by having diverse perspectives in classroom content as well as managing the classroom in an equitable way and by providing fair access to resources.
  • Authenticity is learning that has value beyond the classroom, such as solving a problem in the community. One example of authentic learning is found in place-based education, which aims to ground learning in local phenomena and the students’ experiences (Smith, 2002). It illustrates Beane’s (1993) assertion that theme-based or integrated learning often stems from social issues. (p. 57)
  • Leadership is initiation, and may involve developing and sharing expertise. The pre-service teachers in the course were provided examples of how students could create “expert groups” to research aspects of the unit theme. Leadership is also apparent through the sixth IDEAL, service.
  • Service refers to developing social responsibility, often through social action that meets a significant community need. As instructors, we defined successful service learning as the characteristics listed by Wade (1997): preparation, collaboration, service, curriculum integration, reflection, celebration and evaluation. To generate ideas for service learning high in both service and learning, pre-service teachers evaluated several case studies of service-learning activities.

Through group work processes, reading, discussion, and examples of classroom instruction, we used the IDEALS to build the foundation for curriculum design. This study employed action research to assess how effectively the curriculum was constructed, how well students learned and applied the curriculum, and what overall student-learning impact resulted.


This study employed an action-research methodology to study how to integrate democratic ideals and thematic instruction. Action research served as an effective mode to begin studying our practice and to model democratic inquiry, and enabled us to better understand how to transform the content and purpose of the revised course.

The process of action research stems, in part, from the work of John Dewey (1904), who noted that teachers tend to proceed reactively in how they teach and that they should instead reflect on their practice, integrating their observations into their practice. Action research, the organized inquiry teachers apply to their own work (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993), often follows a cycle of developing questions, collecting and analyzing data, and acting on the data.

Four course sections with a total of 108 pre-service elementary teachers participated in this study. Each section began with nine hours of direct instruction and guided inquiry. Then, over three weeks, 18 groups, most with 5 students, designed thematic units. During that time, the instructors met with each student group, both in person and via email.

During instruction, we attempted to guide students toward creating thematic units built around authentic issues in the school and community. Pre-service teachers were encouraged to choose themes by interviewing K-8 students and by examining problems and needs within the school and community. Our student groups, with instructor guidance, created standards-appropriate units that included such required components as community-school profile; rationale; goals and objectives; lesson plans; and assessment; plus additional supporting materials.

We documented the process and outcomes of the course, using the instructors’ journals, the units designed by our students, and their written pre- and post-reflections on democratic IDEALS. These data were analyzed qualitatively for evidence of democratic content and processes; through consensus on inter-rater and content-validity issues, our reflections were aligned with written and oral evidence of the students’ understanding expressed in their units.

Dialogic Journals

We met periodically to discuss the various data sources and to record student interpretations and reflections. Using these dialogic memos, we charted the transformation of the course focus from interdisciplinary instruction to democratic and integrated instruction, looking for key themes and issues that were significant in our teaching.


Early in the course, the pre-service teachers were asked to respond in writing to pre-course reflection questions that focused on their understanding of democratic practice in education, and to describe what classroom practices might best illustrate each of the IDEALS. Finally, they were asked to complete written post-course reflections describing how their units exemplified each of the IDEALS.

The pre- and post-reflection concepts were contrasted, again using a shared consensus model to address reliability and validity issues of this qualitative data analysis. Revealing the impact of course instruction and group interaction on the students’ ability to integrate democratic practice and content into a thematic unit, the data offered evidence of their perceptions of democratic IDEALS as expressed in the curriculum.

We read these descriptions and corresponding lesson plans to gain a rich image of how each group defined the IDEALS. After comparing the groups' IDEALS with the definitions and examples that had been used in the course, we ranked each IDEAL for each group using a three-step rubric.

Integrated Units

The integrated units that our students had produced served two purposes for data analysis. First, they served as data to support the groups’ post-reflections. We ascertained whether the units actually exemplified the IDEALS in the way that groups had described.

In addition, we analyzed the proposed service-learning elements of the units, rating each unit’s description of service learning on two continua: the quality of service (Did the service meet a real community need?) and learning (Was the service clearly integrated with classroom instruction?). Using these continua and applying a model class activity that used cases to exemplify the quality of service learning, we were able to rank and cluster the service learning designed by the pre-service teachers.

Analysis and Discussion

The initial goal was to answer the following two questions: “Do pre-service teachers understand the IDEALS?” and “Can they articulate how they are enacted?”

We read and coded the first group’s pre-reflections, which asked students to describe ways in which they could apply the IDEALS. This analysis showed that pre-service teachers’ descriptions of democratic practices and content were largely abstract. In these pre-course reflections, pre-service teachers defined inquiry as “students asking questions” but did not give concrete examples. That lack can be explained by students having theoretical rather than practical understanding of democratic education, having a weakness in articulating the concepts, or both.

After analyzing pre- and post-reflections, we found that six of the eighteen groups showed little or no growth in depth or richness of applying IDEALS concepts, especially with regard to equity and leadership. For example, equity was described in pre-reflections as fair rules and discipline, or as differentiating instruction so that everyone could meet lesson objectives. Leadership and service meant students giving presentations; and service often was defined as any sort of action. This same thinking was evident in their post-reflections. For these six groups, the biggest improvements were in inquiry and service. They did attempt to include students in the decision-making process, as well as some form of community service.

Another third of the groups showed some significant growth in understanding the IDEALS. The pre-reflections of one group that wrote a unit titled “What Good Are Worms?” looked similar to those described above. There was little reference to student voices. Instructional strategies focused on making sure that everyone understood what the teacher intended. In this group's post-reflection, however, their thinking evolved, especially in terms of equity, authenticity and leadership. In their unit, students engaged in writing a proposal for city officials about obtaining a plot of land for a community garden, recruited volunteers, collected community resources, and created a garden. The unit culminated with students discussing an equitable way to distribute food among local agencies. This reflection shows a development in thought compared to the first reflection, in which authenticity was described as taking a field trip.

The final third of the groups demonstrated that the units’ authors had made significant progress in understanding the democratic IDEALS. One unit from this group, entitled “Diversity of California,” showed the group members’ pre-reflections were fairly advanced compared to the other groups’ reflections. Pre-reflections spoke of a curriculum that encouraged debate and critical thinking, and that allowed students to “choose their own course of study.” They described equity as “curriculum based on the multicultural experience” and service as “culturally sensitive” action.

The group’s post-reflections illustrated further growth. In their unit, proposed for fourth grade, teachers “relinquished ‘control’ of teacher dominated decision-making and accepted the role of ‘facilitators’” by suggesting students choose specific areas within the study of California history where they wished to learn more. This student-guided questioning led to a unit focusing on resources, regions, immigration, and the role of women. The unit captured the spirit of the democratic IDEALS, as was evident in this post-reflection:

We, as elementary teachers, need to practice, model and scaffold what we preach to our students. We should not teach our students to be passive observers of their world, but to jump in and play an active role in their own education ‘inquiry’ through strategies such as our use of higher level teaching methods of reflective inquiry and critical pedagogy.

The analysis of the pre- and post-reflections provided significant insight into how students made sense of the democratic concepts and applied them to thematic units. The results, showing that the learning was multidimensional and that learning must be purposive and direct, should assist instructors in improving their courses.

Service Learning

In teaching the units, we noticed a wide variation in the quality of service learning. We used a quadrant (Youth Service California, 1996) to categorize units from the four sections of the course (see Figure 1). We analyzed these units according to two continua—quality of service (on the x-axis), and quality of integration of service and learning (on the y-axis). Each of four quadrants represents a different level of service and learning. Any unit placed in quadrant II, for example, included high service integrated with classroom learning.

Figure 1. Quality of Service/Integration of Service and Learning in Teachers' Units (Service Learning Quadrant adapted with permission of Youth Service California, Oakland, CA).

After evaluating each unit and placing its title on the quadrant, we noticed clusters of units within and among the quadrant groups. These clusters are labeled A-D. The content of Cluster A’s units stemmed directly from community need and student questions. Some groups left the specific service unit up to their students to figure out, based on how it unfolded in practice. For example, in the fourth-grade unit on the diversity of California, individual students would identify a statewide need and write letters to Congress. In the unit on allergies, the pre-service teachers discovered that there was little information available to people who were moving into the area about the unusually high rate of allergies. The unit group identified the community need and then matched student interests in developing the service activity of creating brochures for distribution by the chamber of commerce.

In Cluster B, the culminating learning activities also provided a service. These differed from the units in Cluster A because they met a less significant need and were not student initiated. For example, a unit about the local city park culminated with the students weeding portions of the park. Although the park might benefit from weeding, this event was not the driving force of the curriculum.

Cluster C represents units in which the service learning did not fulfill a significant need for a particular audience within the community. These “service” activities tended to be special school events or pamphlets to demonstrate to the community what the students learned.

The units in Cluster D are characterized by service that is, in general, disconnected from learning. In addition, the need was marginal to the topic, introduced by the teacher, or an afterthought. For example, the group who wrote the unit on quilts did not come up with a service project until after they designed their unit activities. They ultimately decided to have students make one quilt and donate it to a retirement home. In some cases, the need being met by the service was the teacher’s, as in one unit where the service was writing a grant to acquire funds for a school NASA project. Although both the quilt making and grant writing provided some degree of service, they did not qualify as meaningful civic action.

After categorizing the units based on the service learning components, we realized that the other IDEALS could often be found in the units as a result of the service-learning project. Therefore, the quadrant assisted us in analyzing how the units incorporated democratic practices in addition to service. For example, in the conflict resolution unit, fourth-grade students would develop a peer mediation program as a service to their school. In the process of developing the program, they would engage in inquiry, discourse, and equity because students would talk about how to understand different perspectives and personal feelings in order to resolve conflict. This is an authentic life skill. Through this service project, the students would become leaders within the peer mediation program.

Successful Integration of Curriculum

Overall, the quality of the topics improved from the previous course structure. Current topics such as urban expansion and peaceful conflict resolution were more relevant to community needs than spaghetti and crayons. Some students had difficulty letting go of the idea that the teacher should choose the topic and everything that followed. Some groups never got past this perception of teaching, a point illustrated by the fact that they attached service to the unit as an afterthought. Some groups remained resistant to this change in thinking even though we attempted to guide them toward more authentic topics and encouraged them to consider alternatives.

Impact on Future Course Instruction

Our analysis revealed four conclusions about how to teach pre-service teachers to integrate democratic ideals and thematic instruction:

  • Expectations for meeting the democratic IDEALS within the unit must be explicit. The dialogic journals revealed that the definitions of the democratic IDEALS initially provided to pre-service teachers were not descriptive enough. More explicit definitions provided up front would likely have led to more successful integration of democratic instruction into the units. In addition, providing examples of units in which service learning drives instruction would guide students more closely to achieving the course objectives. Good examples of service learning are essential because the analysis revealed that quality service learning indicated the presence of all the democratic IDEALS, not just service.
  • Pre-service teachers would benefit from guidance in planning integrated, thematic instruction with primary grades K-2. Of the eight units in Cluster A, which most strongly expressed IDEALS, only one unit was designed for a primary grade level. The inclusion of inquiry and discourse may have been perceived as easier to accomplish in the upper grades, where more proficient literacy skills and strategies make student-directed research and group discourse more likely. Whatever the reason, this discrepancy would indicate a need to provide examples of what democratic education looks like in the primary classroom. Pre-service teachers would benefit from a greater emphasis on content within the lessons. This content should be based in the discipline as well as on democratic concepts, including multiculturalism. The course’s focus on democratic IDEALS tended to emphasize instructional process rather than content, a balance that needs to be established and maintained in the education of teachers.
  • The outcomes of the course and of our study indicate the need to guide pre-service teachers in building authentic connections between course content and democratic classroom processes. The earlier this happens in the group planning, the more effective the result.

Educational Importance

This study provides some ideas for how teacher educators can incorporate democratic ideals in curriculum courses. The study suggests that explicitly teaching students about democratic IDEALS can help them plan curricula that include democratic practices. Additionally, focusing on service learning—classroom projects that are high in both service and learning—can help pre-service teachers create curricula that include democratic practices such as inquiry and authentic instruction.

In addition, this study exemplifies how teacher educators engage in reflection to improve practice. Throughout our collaborative research, we engaged in meaningful dialog and emerged with new insights into practice.

Action research such as this aligns with accountability movements in teacher education. In fact, programs that wish to attain national accreditation from the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) must show that their teacher educators regularly assess their own effectiveness as related to candidate performance (Standard 5, NCATE, 2002). Furthermore, programs must systematically study the efficacy of their courses (Standard 3, NCATE). As teacher education programs address demands for assessment and accountability, action research should be considered.

Finally, this study illustrates how teacher educators can model inquiry processes for pre-service teachers. More directly than in any other professional preparation, teacher educators exhibit that which they want their students to be. Richert (1995) asserts that “the cultural milieu of teaching renders it exceedingly important for teacher educators to reveal the learning requirements of their work and to model these learning processes in their practice” (p. 5). It is vital that teacher educators are willing to engage in the democratic processes that pre-service teachers are expected to use. The action research process in this study gave us an opportunity to show future teachers that effective educators are constantly engaged in reflection to improve practice.


Apple, M., & Beane, J. (1995). Democratic schools. Alexandria, VA: Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Beane, J. (1993). A middle school curriculum: From rhetoric to reality. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.

Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. (1993). Inside outside: Teacher research and knowledge. New York: Teachers College Press.

Dewey, J. (1966). Democracy and education. New York: Free Press.

Dewey, J. (1904). The relation of theory to practice in education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gutmann, A. (1999). Democratic education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (2002). Professional standards for the accreditation of schools, colleges, and departments of education. Washington, D.C.: Author.

O’Hair, M., McLaughlin,H., & Reitzug, U. (2000). Foundations of democratic practice. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace.

Richert, A. (1995). Introduction: Learning to teach teachers. In Russell, T. & Korthagen, F. Teachers who teach teachers (pp. 1-10). Washington, D.C.: Falmer Press.

Youth Service California (1993, revised 1996). Service learning 2000 quadrant. Oakland, CA: Author.

Smith, G. (2002). Place-based education: Learning to be where we are. Phi Delta Kappan, 83, 584-94.

Wade, R. (1997). Community service-learning. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Posted April 5, 2006.

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2006 by Mimi Miller and Ann K. Schulte.

·· exchanges ·· reviews ·· top of this page ·· | ITL home