Meet the lecturer: Dr James Weinberg

Each month we chat to a university lecturer about their passion for their subject – and for teaching

A lecturer in political behaviour at the University of Sheffield, Dr James Weinberg regularly explores the relationship between the electorate and the elected, and its effects on both.

He recently wrote a report, commissioned by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Political Literacy, on the (lack of) democratic education in secondary schools.

What might improved democratic education mean for young people individually and society more widely?

Democratic education is an umbrella term for education geared towards improving young people’s political literacy – their democratic knowledge, skills and values. A global research base shows that the teaching of politics and citizenship has the potential to elevate people’s interest, active engagement, and investment in a political system that gives them agency. These worthy objectives carry added meaning in an age of growing concern about climate change, mass migration across continents, Covid-19, etc. To move forward productively and collaboratively will increasingly require a global community of active citizens. Therefore, democratic education is worthy of concerted attention.

Your recent report on democratic education in secondary schools found that only 1% of teachers in England feel prepared to teach politics. Should this concern us and how might it be rectified?

It certainly should. Teachers themselves highlighted teacher expertise as the second biggest barrier to effective democratic education in schools and one of the reasons why a fifth of schools offer no provision in politics and citizenship. I also found that subject expertise makes a big difference to teachers’ use of appropriate pedagogies and their confidence when teaching sensitive or controversial topics. A critical mass of specialist teachers is crucial.

The government could take a number of comparatively low-cost, high-impact decisions, such as introducing training bursaries in citizenship education and/or politics; they already exist for other subjects. These specialist teachers can in turn provide CPD to staff in other subjects.

“Social media brings immense benefits… but politics is messy”

While we have lived in polarised times before, social media means people can be surrounded by confirmation bias and never encounter a challenging argument. Historically, we’ve always found our way back to consensus politics, but can the same happen again?

There’s no doubt that social media brings immense benefits, such as giving every citizen a voice and facilitating direct contact between governor and governed. But politics is messy, contingent and complex. It’s no surprise, therefore, that platforms designed to play to our system of thinking – fast, automated and intuitive – reinforce motivated reasoning and political polarisation. But I’m eternally optimistic; colleagues studying online communication have shown that people can be encouraged to prioritise the accuracy and quality of online content with scalable attention-based interventions, and regulatory discussions about the moral imperatives governing social media are under way. Political literacy education can help people online act critically, respectfully and self-questioningly.

Please give us an overview of your book, Who Enters Politics and Why?

It was a labour of love, almost four years of research into the psychology of politicians to try to answer three questions: Who enters politics and how are they different to the general public? Do politicians’ personality characteristics affect behaviour once elected to parliament? Do voters get the ‘wrong’ politicians? In sum, politics is a profession few ‘ordinary’ people care to enter, politicians’ personalities impact a range of legislative behaviours, and voters have clear psychological preferences when it comes to choosing their representatives (although they don’t always perceive when these preferences have been met).

If you could transport yourself back to a key moment in political history..?

The golden age of Athenian democracy, when reforms by the likes of Solon and Pericles created one of the first (and finest) examples of direct democracy.

Not quite government of the people, by the people, for the people, but not a world away. I’m also tempted by the US civil rights movement of the 1950s/60s, and the first successful fight for women’s suffrage in late 19th-century New Zealand.

Follow James on Twitter @JamesWeinberg1


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