Human Rights Education: An Elementary School Level Case Study By Megumi Yamasaki Ph. D. Thesis Completed June 2002 University of Minnesota Education Policy & Administration/Comparative & International Development Education Chapter 1

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Education to Inform People

For people to understand their rights, they must be informed about what kinds of rights they have. Education is the one of the ways in which people can acquire such information. Sime (1994) points out the importance of educating citizens to be able to defend their own civil rights. In addition to knowledge, people who are educated about their rights need to accept responsibility to protect their own and others’ rights. If they use their knowledge to violate others’ rights, the social system and culture will never change. They must overcome their individual selfishness and contribute to the common societal good.

People Are the Key to HRE

If people are to freely exercise their rights and work responsibly toward the betterment of society, we must transform our environment. Misgeld (1994) states that HRE constitutes an action leading toward cultural transformation and the achievement of a just society. He believes that the method of HRE will equip students to work toward such a society, so that they can participate in the democratic process and organize a democratic climate with others. Even after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), nationally and internationally we still struggle with creating an ideal environment for human beings, especially children, to acquire humanness. If people want to transform societal values, schools implementing HRE are potentially effective environment for younger students, especially elementary school. The reasons are, the researcher believes, (1) elementary school education is compulsory to everyone in most countries and should be compulsory according to the Convention of the Rights of the Child, (2) elementary school has many different kinds of stakeholders, such as students, their parents, teachers, school staff members, administrators, and community.

The Purpose, Goals and Objectives of HRE

The overarching purpose of HRE is to create a peaceful and humane society based on equity, mutuality, and the inherent worth of all persons’ strengths, to be interpreted as the manifestation of global justice (Reardon, 1988). When we put the value of human life first, it creates the most powerful and dynamic current toward peace. HRE is “all learning that develops the knowledge, skills, and values of human rights” (Human Rights Educator’s Network, 1998, p. 21).

The first objective of human rights education is to make people aware of their basic rights, based on the UDHR and how countries are implementing it. In this way, people become aware of how others redress violations of their rights, as well as of how perpetrators are held accountable for rights violations (Reardon, 1995). These individuals who are aware of the UDHR can recognize “the problems that impede the realization of human rights, and [find] the ways to resolve those problems” (p. 4).

The second objective is, as Reardon believes, that at its base such education must be education for action (Reardon, 1988). Students must develop decision-making skills and a sense of empowerment to exercise their rights and responsibilities. Lister (1984) states that the aims for teaching and learning about human rights include “not only knowledge, but also skills (including action skills) and attitudes (related to particular procedural values such as freedom, toleration, fairness, respect for truth and for reasoning)” (p. 14). He believes that such goals and aims will lead to the reform and renewal of existing institutions so that people’s human rights are respected and protected.

Meintjes (1997) summarizes the goals of HRE at the elementary school level. They are to give students the ability to:

(1) recognize the human rights dimensions of, and their relationship to, a given conflict- or problem-oriented exercise;

(2) express an awareness and concern about their role in the protection or promotion of these rights;

(3) evaluate critically the potential responses that may be offered;

(4) attempt to identify alternative or creative new responses;

(5) judge or decide about which choice is most appropriate; and

(6) express confidence and recognize responsibility and influences in both the decision and its impact. (p. 78)

These goals give students an opportunity to process what is going on in the situation, analyze, and then make the best responsible decision according to the information they have. It encourages students to use their critical thinking skills and take responsibility for action when they encounter conflict or a problematic situation. Also, at the end, the students will see the impact of their decision making and their action which will lead them to a sense of responsibility and ownership of their actions.

Teaching Human Rights

How can we give students tools to examine situations and empower themselves? The guidelines for teaching human rights by UNESCO (1980) and content of HRE by Council of Europe (cited in Meintjes, 1997) will be introduced here. Within the content section, I will also give definitions of knowledge, practical knowledge/wisdom, attitudes, and skills in HRE. Further, there will be Reardon’s (1995) development/conceptual framework with other scholars’ points of view (Lister, 1984; Meintjes, 1997) and her approaches to HRE (1995), UNESCO’s (1980) role of school in promoting HRE followed by Lyseight-Jones’s (1991) role and goal of primary education in HRE.

Guidelines for Teaching HRE-UNESCO

The Recommendation, adopted by the General Conference at its eighteenth session, includes these principles and considerations that should guide the teaching of human rights:

1. [HRE] and teaching should be based on the principles which underlie the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenants on Human Rights and other international human rights instruments. Consequently, equal emphasis should be place[d] on economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights as well as individual and collective rights. The indivisibility of all human rights should be recognized.

2. The concept of human rights should not be formulated in traditional or classical terms, but should include the historical experience and contributions of all peoples particularly in relation to major contemporary problems such as self-determination and all forms of discrimination and exploitation.

3. [HRE] and teaching must aim at:

(i) Fostering the attitudes of tolerance, respect and solidarity inherent in human rights;

(ii) Providing knowledge about human rights, in both their national and international dimensions, and the institutions established for their implementation;

(iii) Developing the individual’s awareness of the ways and means by which human rights can be translated into social and political reality at both the national and the international levels.

4. While education should make the individual aware of his or her own rights, it should at the same time instill respect for the rights of others.

5. Care should be constantly taken to create awareness about the close relationship between human rights on the one hand, and development and peace including, inter-alia, disarmament, on the other hand. UNESCO should make it a priority task to promote the analysis and understanding of this relationship…

7. [HRE] and teaching should stress that a new international economic, social and cultural order is essential to enable all people to enjoy their human rights and to promote and facilitate education on human rights at all levels and in all countries…

9. It is not enough to dispense teaching and education in the spirit of a respect for human rights; human rights should also be taught as a subject integrated in the appropriate disciplines, and in particular in such fields as philosophy, political science, law and theology, and as an independent course.

10. In order for the teacher of human rights to be able to carry out his or her task properly, it is particularly important that his or her personal integrity and freedom of expression be guaranteed. (UNESCO, 1980, pp. 2-3)

The list is thorough and holistic, laying out the purpose of HRE and showing how teachers should be guaranteed their human rights in the school setting. However, since this is a guideline for the HRE environment, it does not touch on the details of what the contents of HRE are.

Contents of Human Rights Education-Council of Europe

The Council of Europe suggests the contents of HRE should be as follows:

(i) Knowledge of the major ‘sing spots’ in the historical development of human rights.

(ii) Knowledge of the range of contemporary declarations, conventions, and covenants.

(iii) Knowledge of some major infringements of human rights.

(iv) Understanding of the basic conceptions of human rights (including also discrimination, equality, etc.)

(v) Understanding the distinctions between political/legal and social/economic rights.

(vi) Understanding the relationship between individual, group, and national rights.

(vii) Appreciation of one’s own prejudices and development of tolerance.

(viii) Appreciation of the rights of others.

(ix) Sympathy for those who are denied rights.

(x) Intellectual skills for collecting and analyzing information.

(ix) Action skills. (Meintjes, 1997, p. 69; Torney-Purta cited in McNeilly, 1993, p. 111)

The contents listed go from knowledge, to understanding, to action skills.


Misgeld (1994) states that knowing about human rights is itself one of the people’s rights. Sime (1994) points out that in order to achieve an education which accepts and respects human rights, there must exist a culture that embraces racial, gender and other identities without negating and excluding others. Jorge Osorio (1989) says that social movement does not emerge from outside. It is fundamental for people to have knowledge about their rights and work proactively toward developing rights and respect (Sime, 1994). With people’s courage and knowledge, any situation can be changed in a positive way.

Lister (1984) says that human rights knowledge can be defined as what is in the UDHR. Students should know the main categories of human rights (civil, political, social, economic, cultural). He also emphasizes that the knowledge is not only about other countries and other times, but also about our own country and our own times. This can show students that human rights are still an issue that deserves our attention.

Misgeld (1994) believes the knowledge of human rights is the knowledge and understanding which help people develop and maintain a non-violent society. Such a society will create an environment for peaceful and open interaction and association, which make people feel secure about their fundamental rights.

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