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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Historical Approach


According to Reardon (1995), the historical approach is the most widely used and effective approach at school to introduce human rights concepts. Through Social Studies, the events and reasons why the UDHR was declared can be dealt with during world history and the home country’s history. Since Social Studies is already a main subject area that teachers need to teach, the historical approach will be a most efficient method for teachers.

Additionally, the students can understand “the human rights movement as a dynamic, living human endeavor” (Reardon, 1995, p. 7). Most importantly, the history of the human rights movement has not been completed. Therefore, they learn why their current society is as it is. Reardon also says that the students can take an active role in advancing human rights history for our time. The knowledge of human rights history gives them a frame of reference through which to look at the events that have happened throughout history and to create a better society to come.


International Standards Approach


Reardon (1995) says that one of the most effective conceptual approaches to HRE is based on the UDHR, which is the foundation of international human rights law as declared by the United Nations. “[H]uman rights standards provide criteria by which to define, assess, and determine the severity of these problems” (p. 10).

Lister (1984) states that the main reason for using the UDHR is to set ideals and “to acquaint young people with their rights” (p. 8). At the same time, being realistic is also important, to protect human rights idealism against cynicism. Lister believes that “the ideal exists both as an aspiration and as a measure against which the actual can be viewed” (1984, p.8). Without idealism or hope, education cannot achieve its goal. It is crucial to have an ideal in our heart as well as to know the reality.

Meintjes (1997) states that one approach is to adopt a general and abstract focus on 1948’s UDHR proclaimed by the UN General Assembly as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations. The UDHR indicates that through teaching and education, all people promote respect for the rights and freedoms for everyone nationally and internationally. The international standards of human rights allow students to see how we are interconnected to each other in the world, and how we are affected by the standards. It is critical for educators to make connections between international and national human rights and the students’ lives, especially when students are at a young age. Most of their knowledge and experiences are around their own environment and, therefor it is difficult for them to make a connection between things around them and national and international issues. In this way, students can utilize the knowledge they learned through their education, and knowledge does not remain as only knowledge.

The other reason why this approach is one of the most effective conceptual approaches to HRE, according to Reardon (1995), is that the UDHR includes not only the rights of individuals but also the rights of groups and humankind (such rights are called the third and the fourth generation). It reflects “the growth of an emerging sense of universality and provide[s] norms that strengthen the potential for a system of shared global values, an essential requisite to an authentic world community” (Reardon, 1995, p. 10). In other words, she states that this approach gives us a framework to think and “assess trends toward and away from world community and global social integration” (p. 10). The UDHR leads us to look at our responsibilities as well as our rights in order to create a humane society rather than a self-centered one.


Reconstructionist Approach


This approach is basically process-oriented and demonstrates “how societies learn to identify social wrongs, acknowledge how they violate human dignity and define and apply human rights standards to overcome them” (Reardon, 1995, p. 11). It demonstrates “how human rights movements emerge, gain social support, and produce both attitudinal and legal-structural changes in society” (p. 11).

All existing social and legal standards based on the UDHR are interrelated and universally applicable (Reardon, 1995). They form a system of norms, values, and hope that can lead to “the development of the healthy and just world social order, and provide the core of a reconstructive approach” (Reardon, 1995, p. 11). Reardon (1995) states that a reconstructionist approach can be used to fulfill the same purpose as the historical or international standards approaches.


Institutional Environment

Institutions such as homes and schools and government, need to be changed, of course, as well as actions by individuals (Sparks, 1994). Yet, we have to remember that home, school, government, or any other organization is a collection of individuals. It means that these institutional changes must start with individuals. When each person in an organization starts to change, the organization will change. Individuals need to have the courage to stand up for other people’s rights, when they witness human rights violations.

To develop students who will be responsible for their own and others’ rights, the environment for students to learn about human rights should be ideal. School X in this study looks upon HRE as a tool to examine the inequities in its own community and to empower students (Mission Statement). The educational environment must mirror the nature of human rights, which shows respect toward an individual’s human dignity.

The Role of School in Promoting HRE


The UNESCO Recommendation states that “human rights must be taught at all levels of the educational system, as well as in out-of-school settings, including the family and in continuing education programs, including literacy and post-literacy programs. States shall strive to improve and broaden human rights education and teaching and co-operate to this end” (UNESCO, 1980, p. 3). To operate at the elementary school level successfully with human rights principles requires that staff, pupils and parents recognize, agree to, and promote human rights (Lyseight-Jones, 1991).

In the case of School X, the concept of human rights is included in its mission statement. It means that staff, parents, and students are all aware that School X values human rights for all people, and it will be included in students’ learning experiences. This demonstrates the fact that a primary role of HRE is to help the school to “define the values which it shares, the unbreakable tenets of that value system, the negotiable elements of it, the operationalizing of it and the publicity which should surround its development, implementation and variation” (Lyseight-Jones, 1991, pp. 77-78).

Why is HRE needed at the elementary level? For most children, elementary school is the first societal unit where they are introduced to people outside their family. They learn social values through interaction with their peers, teachers and administrators. Hence, elementary school will be the ideal setting to reach out to fresh young minds, to the people who will be the leaders of our future society and the world. Of course, this is only if we believe in our children and believe that they are the leaders of our future. Lyseight-Jones (1991) sees a child as a whole being instructed by “academic, social, moral/spiritual and physical/creative factors” (p. 84). Thus, he states that primary education must use all these aspects in a human rights approach.

Tarrow (1992) points out the importance of starting from preschool and continuing through secondary and adult education. Humphrey (1987) urges us to get the human rights message to students when they are young and before they have absorbed prejudices. Torney-Purta notes that, on the basis of the primacy principle, the earlier an experience takes place in a child’s life, the more formative it is likely to be. She points out that opponents of this principle subscribe to the principle of postponing instruction in the field until students are able to see direct links to voting, election campaigns, etc. (Tarrow, 1992).

At the primary level there also are possibilities for involvement of more people to broaden the support and thereby to establish a solid foundation of HRE. The primary level provides a great opportunity to create a cooperative and supportive climate between school and society (Lyseight-Jones, 1991).

School has become a primary place where students can develop their characters through exploration and experience (Garbarino, 1992). Although Garbarino comes from a Moral Education perspective, that perspective shares the same goals as HRE, i.e., education to develop children who know, respect, and protect human rights. The education itself must reflect human rights in curriculum, methods, and environment. How can we provide such education?

First, we must provide students with the knowledge of their rights, their responsibilities toward others, and the boundaries of state power set in the various human rights agreements (Shafer, 1987). Without any information, students would have no frame of reference about human rights issues. Sparks (1994) says that education which develops youth mentally, emotionally, and cognitively should not overlook systemic violence and human rights violations. It is important to take a look at existing socially structured violence in an environmental context. Such education can enable students to recognize human rights violations in their daily life and to see the relationship between their own lives and human rights issues. Recognizing and acknowledging human rights violations in the U.S., in fact, brings students for the first time to a realization that human rights issues are not only for developing countries, the source of most cases presented for discussion of human rights violation. HRE must take them beyond such a narrow picture.

Second, educators need to understand the importance of creating an environment where students’ human rights will be respected and protected, as well as to understand the environment from which they are coming (Sparks, 1994). If the school environment does not reflect what students are learning about human rights, it only becomes hypocrisy. Lister (1984) states that the nature of a school must reflect and encourage a concern for human rights. He emphasizes developing a human rights school in order to accomplish the ideal of human rights education.

Third, it is important for teachers to know where their students are coming from. Knowing such information, teachers can control how students take the initiative to change in their environment, to move it away from one which does not respect or protect their human rights. Through such educational processes, students’ beliefs and attitudes will change, not only toward violence but also toward their sense of responsibility (Sparks, 1994).

The human rights school is in a state of becoming, not in a state of being. The characteristics of a human rights school, according to Lister (1984), are as follows:



  • its general structure and practices will reflect a concern for the procedural values which underpin human rights---freedom, toleration, fairness, and respect for truth and of reasoning;

  • it will respect the rights and fundamental freedoms of all its members, including the students, acknowledging that the members have these rights and fundamental freedoms by virtue of their common humanity;

  • all are entitled to these rights and freedoms because of their common humanity, and there will be no discrimination against anyone on grounds of race, religion, social class or gender. In particular, the human rights school will regard and respect children and women as part of common humanity;

  • no one in the school should be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;

  • any punishment must be preceded by due process and a fair hearing;

  • everyone will have the right of freedom of opinion and expression, and of peaceful assembly and association. Students will be able to form, and belong to, issue-related groups which respect the ideals and procedure of human rights;

  • the education practiced by the school of human rights will be directed to the full development of the human personality, and will show a concern for brain and hand, and for intellect and emotions;

  • through its structures and its curriculum, the human rights school will promote understanding, tolerance and friendship between people of different national, ethnic or religious groups and a concern for the maintenance of peace. It will help its students to acquire the attitudes and skills necessary to facilitate peaceful social change;

  • it will recognize that everyone has duties and obligations, as well as rights and freedoms, and that these will include duties to the community and obligations to respect the rights and freedoms of others;

  • it will be aware of the relationship of rights and freedoms and duties and obligations, and that the relationship between the rights and freedoms of one (or of one group) and the rights and freedoms of another (or of another group) may be contentious issues. The human rights school will not be without - or seek to be without - conflicts and issues, for they are an essential element in political and social change. However, the human rights school will have the procedures to enable conflicts and issues to make a productive and positive contribution to its reformation, and a dialectic to facilitate its own development. (pp. 29 - 30)


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