“What does this word mean, teacher?” is commonly asked in classrooms. Classroom practice should enable pupils to reflect upon and discuss what key concepts such as “democracy” and “human rights” mean and how they apply in everyday communication and in public debates. However, the answer to “what does this concept mean?” is too often a closed definition, a ready-made answer and relevance for a forthcoming exam.
Key concepts are always contested. They are, in other words, sites of social, political and cultural disagreement and even conflict. In educational activities in the fields of Education for Democratic citizenship (EDC), Human Rights Education (HRE) and Intercultural Education (ICE) one often experiences that after a while of working together the question: "Are we talking about the same things?" occurs, and soon the call for clarifying "definitions" or a comprehensive glossary can be heard. Different people can fill key concepts with very different meanings, depending for instance on a person’s background – age, nationality, political orientation – and on the cultural influences she/he is exposed to.
The starting point of CLEAR is that the variety of ways of “making sense” of concepts is an important resource for learning processes aimed at critical thinking, reflection and intercultural competence. CLEAR is thus not meant to clarify misunderstandings through authoritative truth by trying to give definite answers to questions considering meanings and definitions of terms, concepts and understanding. Rather, CLEAR provides a concept-learning methodology that fosters learning processes of (self-)reflexivity, multi-perceptivity and information literacy for concepts central for political debate and societal change. The CLEAR methodology enables learners to investigate the possible meanings of concepts, to reflect on the conditions, which form their own and others' ways of understanding and to negotiate “reasonable” and “adequate” definitions (which, by nature, have to be working definitions, dynamic and bound to contexts) with others.
Summing up, CLEAR is based on the following principles:
Democratization/collaborative construction of knowledge. Encouraging learners to take their own notions and understandings of concepts seriously and giving them the authority to take part in the social construction of knowledge/the critical investigation of existing understandings and to generate new knowledge.
Shift of focus from truth to meaning. Instead of trying to get rid of misunderstandings by providing definite truths, the focus is directed towards better understanding of the different meanings that can be associated with a concept. The learning processes aim at clarifications, not in the sense of consensual definitions but awareness of the contextual character and historicity of concepts. This creates awareness for the contextual character and the historicity of meaning. The capacity to explore different facets and layers of meaning with different contexts is a crucial aspect of intercultural competence.
Fostering critical judgment. Even if the project is based on a “weak” notion of truth, it does not imply an absolute relativism. Through its working methods, it aims to develop the learner’s capacity to compare and critically judge different assertions, their validity and to take part in the social construction of understandings reliable in given context/their validity and, not the least, the consequences certain notions of concepts have on social reality and political power.
“[W]e came to the conclusion that concepts should not be taken for granted. And really, for the first time I was made aware of the importance of historicizing concepts and its reflection on identity and how they influence and create reality.”