What Is Democracy?

From Vote Democracy! collection, lesson plan 1 of 7

(90-120 minutes + assignments)

Grade level: 9-12, College

Subject areas: Government, Political Science, Social Studies, Current Events, Language Arts, Debate, Sociology

Purpose of the lesson: Definitions and conceptions of democracy are many. In this introductory lesson, students attempt to define for themselves what democracy is and what it means. Students are also exposed to how people around the world view democracy and what democracy looks like in other countries. The other activities will further expand this study of democracy.


Students will:

  • analyze and critically read background information
  • analyze and critically view film as text
  • participate in small group and class discussions
  • create their own media

Skills: Stating and supporting opinions in class discussion and in writing, critical reading and viewing, research, writing, note taking and oral presentation


  • Board or overhead projector
  • Chart paper
  • Please Vote for Me Film Module
  • Please Vote for Me Discussion Guide
  • Student Handout A
  • Art supplies

National teaching standards addressed:

Grades 9-12

National standards from the following organizations were used in developing this lesson plan. See Recommended National Standards available in the Educator Guide for full descriptions of standards employed.

  • National Council for the Social Studies
  • National Council of Teachers of English/International Reading Association

Writer: David Maduli

David Maduli is an independent educational consultant who has contributed many curriculum guides and conducted various workshops for PBS programs. He has a master’s in teaching and curriculum from Harvard Graduate School of Education and continues to work as a veteran Bay Area public school language arts and social studies teacher.

  1. Present this short survey in which students rate the degree to which each factor is present in a democracy: (1 = never, 2 = somewhat, 3 = always)

    • Citizens vote for their political leaders.
    • Citizens have freedom of speech.
    • Citizens can criticize their government without repercussions.
    • Political leaders represent the needs, opinions and attitudes of the people.
    • Citizens are patriotic.
    • Most citizens vote.

    Call on students to share different responses.

  2. Have students read “From the Filmmaker” and “Background Information” from the Please Vote For Me Discussion Guide. Discuss the filmmaker’s purpose and the questions he raises in his statement. Discuss the background information and make predictions as to what primary school children in China might say about democracy.

  3. View the Please Vote for Me Film Module. Have a class discussion around the following guiding questions (consult the Please Vote For Me Discussion Guide for additional questions):

    • Why might the children have a hard time defining democracy?
    • Would it be as difficult for a child in the United States to create a definition of democracy? Why or why not?
    • Do you agree with the teacher’s description of democracy? Why or why not?
    • Do you think the class election in China was a good way to learn about democracy? Was it similar or different to school elections in your experience?
    • What might children in other democracies say?
  4. Break students into small groups and have each group brainstorm what comes to mind — images, people, words, songs, movies, books, events and so on — when they think of the concept of democracy. Have them choose two ideas that they will describe to the class. The descriptions should include why they chose that example, what it says about democracy and whether or not they agree with the depiction.

  5. Assignment: Students create their own vision or statement of what democracy means to them. It could be visual art, collage, poetry, a testimony, an advertisement, a song, a performance or any other idea they have. They should also include a short definition (one to two sentences) of what democracy means to them based on what they created. Have students present their conceptions and comment on and discuss themes, similarities and differences.

  6. As a class, develop a composite definition of democracy that will be the working consensus of what the concept means when used in class. Compare the class definition with the dictionary meaning of democracy, and then have a class discussion around the similarities, differences and the ways in which democracy in actual practice can differ from written ideals. Display the class definition prominently during this unit and refer back to it.

  7. Now that students have had an opportunity to create their own idea of what democracy means, have them examine some examples from the Enlightenment thinkers and compare and contrast their different ideas:

    Thomas Hobbes, born in England, 1588 (d. 1679); famous quote: “Fear and I were born twins.” – In 1651, Hobbes wrote his most famous work, Leviathan. He argued that people are naturally selfish and in a constant state of wanting power, of “a war of every man against every man.” He proposed that the best form of government is a government that has great power, like a leviathan (sea monster). He believed in the rule of a king or queen because he felt that a country needs a strong authority to provide direction and leadership. (monarchy)

    John Locke, born in England, 1632 (d. 1704); famous quote: “All mankind … being equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health or possessions.” – Locke wrote Two Treatises of Civil Government in 1689. He believed that people have the gift of reason and thought and that they therefore have the natural ability to govern themselves and to look after the well-being of society. He believed that governments should only operate with the consent of people. He also believed that an ideal government should be divided into three branches so that there is no absolute power and that if any government abuses the rights of the people, then the people have the right to rebel. (representative democracy)

    Jean-Jacques Rousseau, born in Switzerland, 1712 (d. 1778); famous quote: “Man was born free and everywhere he is in chains.” – Rousseau wrote The Social Contract in 1762. He believed that society’s institutions, such as governments, schools, the arts and the media, corrupt naturally good people. He believed that man must vote on laws himself, without anybody representing him, that even a representative democracy in which you vote for people to represent you is corrupt. According to Rousseau, governments should exist on the basis of a democratic “social contract” in which people have direct say in the way their society is governed. (direct democracy)

    NOTE: See Student Handout A: Enlightenment Thinkers

    • Discuss the similarities and differences of the three Enlightenment thinkers.
    • Whose views are closest to your personal definition of democracy?
    • Whose views are closest to the class definition of democracy?
  1. Students survey classmates, staff and school community members on their idea of what democracy is. Students gather the data and present a school-wide composite of their findings.

  2. Students read further about China’s education system from the fact sheet on the Independent Lens website and write a first-person narrative about a Chinese student’s first day of school. They can select a level of education and do additional research to inform their writing.

  3. Students write an essay describing how democracy is important to them and how it is reflected and manifested in their daily life.

  4. Students research and present information about countries that can be considered modern-day examples of each of the Enlightenment thinkers’ ideals for government.

  • Film module:
    Please Vote for Me

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