Exploring the practice of democratic education in Chinese public schools
: An ethnographical study

  • Wenchao Zhang

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Having existed and being developed for more than two thousand years, democracy could be treated as one of the oldest political conceptions that is still vigorous and popular in contemporary. Despite the continuous evolution, the definition and practice of democracy are always in controversy, particularly under the background of globalization and multicultural. Such feature also influences the application of democracy in the field of education, which leads the interpretation of democratic education becomes diverse, especially in the context of different cultures.

Since the late nineteenth century, when the concept of democracy impacted on the feudal monarchical system and people’s political ideas in China, the development and evolution of democratic education was beginning. Within this background, many scholars and educators pay attention to this concept and try to apply principles of democracy in the terrain of education.

In recent years, the emphasis on democracy and democratic education is further reflected in some national governmental documents. The publication of the Core Values of Chinese Socialism explicitly raises democracy as one of the general goals of the whole country. In the 2001 promulgation of Basic Education Curriculum Reform Outline and the Outline of the National Medium- and Long-Term Program for Education Reform and Development (2010-2020), democracy is mentioned for the cultivation of informed citizens and the adjustment of teaching method and school management (Cui, 2001, Development, 2018). Align with these governmental policies, more scholars recognize the significance of democratic education and conduct an increasing number of research related to this topic. However, most Chinese studies of democratic education are conceptual - not empirical- studies, which suggests the real practice of democratic education is insufficient.

Given this context, many educators express their confusions about democratic education. Various questions emerge from both the theoretical aspect and the process of implementation. Such as, what is 'real' democratic education? What does democratic education include? What teaching behaviors are democratic? Does democratic education mean that teachers should allow students to keep silence all the time in class, or is it rather about encouraging students’ voice?
In consideration of these questions and the research gap, this research was designed as an ethnographical study to deeply explore the specific comprehension and practice of democratic education in Chinese public schools in the current context of China. On account of this research purpose, two Chinese public schools which explicitly advocate democratic education were selected as the research objects. The focus of democratic education was also expanded from the mere focus on classroom practice in previous research to the whole school life to identify more possibilities and paths in practice.

Throughout the fieldwork, I spent 190 days staying at research schools, which allowed me to observe more informally activities and engagements, and helped give me greater insight into school. Throughout the data collection process, various types of sources were collected by means of observation, interview, focus group, document/picture collection and reflection. Specifically, I conducted 31 interviews and 4 focus group, which involved 25 teacher participants and 19 student participants. I wrote 193 observation records and 120 reflective fieldnotes. In addition, 102 documents were collected and 755 pictures were taken in the field. With the method of thematic analysis, five qualities across six areas emerge as the important principles for the practice of democratic education in China, which specifically include the approach of participation, the approach of democratic centralism, the cultivation of a more reciprocal relationship, the simplification of the rule content and the diversification of the evaluation approach. It turned out such practice and comprehension of democratic education entail a group of strong roots in the field of society, culture, politics and education in China. With these qualities, a possible structure for the implementation of democratic education was constructed at the end of the research. This structure might be helpful for school practitioners in China to comprehend China’s democracy and take as an reference for their future practice about democratic education. It would also provide some material for educators in other countries to understand more about China and an alternative path to reconsider the conception of democracy in the field of education.
Date of AwardJul 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsQueen's University & China Scholarship Council
SupervisorTony Gallagher (Supervisor) & Gavin Duffy (Supervisor)


  • Democratic education
  • China
  • Public schools
  • ethnographical study

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