by Felisa Tibbitts


 "Change is easier for children than adults," is certainly a truism. However familiar as it may seem, this clique about children has great predictive import during this transition period in Central and Eastern Europe. Consider that:

The conclusion is that educating young people about the conditions for democracy and the importance of protecting human rights is one of the most valuable investments that a society can make in its future. Schooling is a natural mechanism for forwarding the values and knowledge necessary for participating in and forwarding democracy and civil society.

Human rights education specifically raises consciousness about the meaning of human rights. Human rights education promotes a culture of respect, acceptance, care and justice in classrooms themselves. People also learn to participate in the political processes that affect their lives, and the ways in which laws can be made more just and effective.

The remainder of this chapter will concentrate on curriculum development and policy, text development, and teacher training -- the three components of any human rights education campaign that is integrated into a schooling system.

Because each national educational environment is different, it is impossible to be prescriptive. Therefore, I can only offer a set of questions for those conceptualizing human rights education programs, plus some reflections of my own, based on experiences developing similar programs in Central and Eastern Europe in collaboration with human rights groups, other non-governmental organizations, research institutes, Ministries of Education and universities. These names may conjure up images of large buildings, dedicated activists, academics or bureaucrats. I have one request of the reader: as you develop projects and "think strategically," stop every once in a while and imagine a typical classroom in your country. Picture a teacher in the front of the room, about to begin the day's lesson, with thirty or so young people looking attentively forward. What do you want this classroom to look like? How can you appeal to this teacher and the children? Your plans may be wasted unless you know what you are after, and who you are ultimately trying to reach.


Curriculum and Policy

There are two, complementary ways in which schools can be reached through curricular policy. The first is through the formal curricula, that is, through subjects sanctioned as either required or optional by the Ministry of Education. The second is through informal educational opportunities that are left to the discretion of the teacher or schools. We will start with the formal curricula.


Formal Educational Opportunities

Human rights themes can be included in the authorized curricula in several ways: (a) as a separate course altogether; (b) as a subsection within an existing subject, such as civics or moral education; and/or (c) as a set of themes that can be integrated into numerous subjects. Here are some potential advantages and disadvantages to each of these approaches.

The separate course has the advantage of highlighting the importance of human rights principles in the school curricula, and the prospect that there will be greater latitude for trying new experimental methodologies (since there is no precedence for the course); however, the disadvantages are that the course will probably be optional, so there is no guarantee that many students will be exposed to it, plus there is always the possibility that the course will be canceled at a later date. My advice would be to accept the opportunity to develop a human rights education course if the Ministry offers this possibility, but use this position to try to infuse human rights principles into other, more stable courses.

The advantage of the second option, the subsection within a required course, is that it will receive maximum exposure with students. However, if the subject is taught in a lecture, content-oriented fashion, then there is the possibility that human rights principles will also be presented in a similar fashion-- that is, in the letter but not in the spirit. The risk is then great that the ideas will sound hollow to children. My advice would be to insist that the human rights ideas -- as well as others presented in the civics or moral education classes -- are presented through the use of activity-based methods. If these are too unusual or difficult for the average teacher to imagine using, then at least promote the idea of a genuine discussion between teacher and students, including open-ended, self-reflective questions.

The third option, the thematic integration, is the approach that many human rights educationalists endorse, because of the notion that respect for human rights should be a way of life, evident in the values and discussions that take place in different subject areas. The promotion of tolerance, conflict resolution, respect for life and human dignity are certainly themes that can be linked with formal human rights instruments and infused into many subjects. This approach is laudable, although not necessarily immediately realistic in educational systems in a great deal of flux. Also, numerous questions remain about what human rights and democracy really are. Until these concepts become more rooted in reality, it will be extremely challenging to imagine how these ideas can be thematically integrated into several subject areas. This third option, therefore, may be a goal for the long-run.

These three approaches are not mutually exclusive. Oftentimes, however, there are only limited opportunities for trying to introduce human rights principles. Therefore, one must respond pragmatically to the environment.


Questions to Ask:



Informal Educational Policies

Non-governmental organizations can have considerable flexibility in how they present human rights themes in schools, especially if they choose to work in less formal educational arenas. For example, human rights lessons may be presented during weekly open-hour sessions, which are under teachers' control. After-school clubs and school-wide events, such as forums, artistic events and celebrations can also be organized. Art work, particularly those done by the children themselves, can convey themes of dignity and inclusiveness, as well as a concern for social problems. Educationalists are no doubt familiar with the multitude of informal ways in which children' s experiences in the schools can be affected outside of the formal curriculum itself.

The only caution I would give about using informal educational approaches, is not to preclude other direct outreach to teachers in the school. It is essential that school communities understand the significance of your efforts, so that human rights activities are not taken as primarily symbolic. Given the heavy socialization that took place through celebration and ceremony during the Marxist-Leninist period, human rights educationalists should be especially cautious about seeming to 'fill the ideological void' left behind.


Questions to Ask:


- Competitions and celebrations?
- After-school events and clubs?


Text Development

It is important to emphasize that texts developed within human rights education programs should not be scripts for teachers. Human rights education is about democratic culture in the classroom; this means that increased teacher autonomy is likely to precede that offered to students. In practice, this means that a concerted movement must be made away from a single, mandated script for teachers. The ideal human rights text would not be purely content-driven, but include a variety of lessons and activities from which teachers can choose, and adapt creatively to the classroom environment.

There are several options for developing materials, including direct translations from abroad, adaptation of preexisting texts, and the development of original texts. Generally speaking, it is easiest for a new human rights education program to simply translate materials that have been "tried and true" in a variety of inter-cultural settings. Such lessons would obviously need to be selected with great care, since one risks that "imported" content and instructional methodologies will not be relevant for classrooms. Use such materials selectively, therefore, and always be aware of copyright standards. Permission from the author or publishing company needs to be solicited before translating materials, even if these will be distributed free of charge; sometimes, human rights materials will state explicitly that duplications can be made without special permission.

If the text is to be used as a part of a regular subject, then the content will need to be consistent with curricular frameworks developed by working or expert groups. In some instances, the books themselves can help to establish such frameworks. In any case, it will be essential to become familiar with the policies that surround text development, approval and publishing in the respective country. Most countries in the post-communist context are moving towards a less centralized publishing field; depending upon whether texts will be authorized and subsidized by central educational agencies for use in the schools, alternative publishing mechanisms may need to be found.

It would behoove the reader to acquire and review samples of exemplary human rights education teaching materials. Some of these are listed in an annotated bibliography in the appendix to this manual. Other potential sources of ideas are civics education texts that have been developed in Central and Eastern Europe since 1990, and which incorporate some activity-based methodologies; as of 1994, Poland had a particularly exemplary curricular framework, developed with the assistance of the Mershone Center of Ohio University (U.S.), and Romania had an alternative civics education text under development with the Institute of Educational Sciences (Bucharest).

Although it will be important for the reader to personally review potential textual resources, I can recommend some general principles. First, the texts will ideally be stand-alone. They will include not only lesson plans, but also background information, definitions and even tips on activity-based instructional methods for teachers, so that the text is not only a source of lessons but also a general resource on human rights and pedagogical techniques. It might be desirable, for example, to include a 'how-to' section for teachers on leading discussions, since lecture-oriented classrooms have been the norm in much of the region over the last decades. Objectives for the lessons should be clear, and a variety of instructional options presented for the teacher to choose from. In these ways, the texts can be a source of professional development for the teacher.

Second, goals for students should explicitly highlight not only the cognitive, but also the affective and skill domains. It is not satisfactory, for example, that students memorize the Universal Declaration for Human Rights; they should ideally exhibit caring, responsible and tolerant attitudes towards others in their classroom and school communities. Some activity-based instructional methods are highly unfamiliar to teachers; a "middle ground" is to encourage teachers to use open-ended questions with students (which do not look for a single, correct answer) and to encourage discussion between not only the teacher and students, but the students themselves.

Finally, in the emerging democracies, many associated political and human rights concepts can seem abstract and irrelevant. They are not always evident in common practice or understanding. This condition makes it challenging for educationalists to draw on local examples and children's previous experiences in conducting human rights lessons. One solution is to problematize such concepts so that they are treated as principles seeking realization in the national environment. Such a vantage also reinforces the critical, formative role that children can play in their own societies.

One way to help ensure that translated, adapted or newly developed materials are clear and relevant for teachers, is to conduct pretesting with teachers and students in schools. The goal of the pretesting research is to find out if the target group understands, accepts (socially, culturally, economically), and finds appropriate the developed materials. Some basic pretesting questions are contained in the Appendix to this manual.


Questions to Ask:



Teacher Training

Alike any new curricular program, human rights education will require both pre-service training (for those preparing to become teachers) and in-service training (for those who are already in the classroom). Since building local capacity in this area is essential for the long-term, national programs should build in a series of trainings that allow local trainers to become progressively more involved, and eventually, independent of, trainers brought in from abroad.

It is also critical that those cultivated as local trainers are able to reach a variety of regions and schools in the country, particularly those in rural areas. A human rights education program, therefore, might from the outset keep in mind the importance of establishing networks of training and support. Such system might be comprised of a newly developed network of teachers who become interested and experienced in human rights education, or use of an existing network, such as a human rights group, teacher union, or professional association.

Ideally, support for human rights education would not stop with the development of classroom materials or a single teacher training. Both are crucial conditions for motivating teachers to undertake such activities in the classroom. However, follow-up support is also critical, through phone calls, newsletters or, even better, personal visits to classrooms. New instructional methodologies and concepts such as human rights are extremely difficult for teachers to grasp. Ongoing moral and technical support can be crucial in supporting an educator's personal foray into infusing human rights and democratic principles into daily classroom practice.


Questions to Ask:



One Last Word

Undertaking a human rights education program in schools is likely to be one of your most daunting undertakings. However, it may well be one of the most rewarding -- not only for the teachers and children, but also for you. Classes filled with openness, creativity, freedom of thought and expression -- these images, even if rare, will serve as ongoing inspiration. Good luck with your important work.



[1] This article appeared in: Raymond Swennenhuis (ed.), Handbook for Helsinki Committees: A Guide in Monitoring and Promoting Human Rights, and NGO Management. Vienna: International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, 1995.

International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights








Many fine human rights education-related materials were available in 1994, with several practical guides under development by Amnesty International and others. The handful of books listed here have been useful to educators in Central and Eastern Europe, and might be considered a good start for any human rights education library. However, this list is by no means exhaustive.


Primary Level 

Amnesty International Human Rights for Children Committee (1992) Human Rights for Children: A curriculum for teaching human rights to children ages 3-12 (Alameda, CA: Hunter House, Inc.). 70 pages.

This teaching manual is designed around the ten principles of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Each section contains a variety of age-specific teaching activities for each of the principles, with an accompanying book list. Concrete and provocative activities, suitable for adaptation.


William J. Kreidler (1984) Creative Conflict Resolution (Glenview, Ill: Scott Foresman and Company). 216 pages. 

This book contains over 200 activities to help students understand and resolve interpersonal conflicts in their daily life. A variety of activity-based methods are employed.


David A. Shiman (1994) The Prejudice Book: Activities for the Classroom (New York: Anti-Defamation League) 2nd edition. 176 pages. 

This exercise-filled book has 37 activities to help students in Forms 3-8 understand prejudice and its negative effects upon society. A second section features 60 self-examination questions for teachers to help them plan more effective lessons in combatting prejudiced thinking and behavior.


Secondary Level

David Mcquoid-Mason, Mandla Mchunu, Karthy Govender, Edward L. O=Brien, Mary Curd Larkin (1994) Democracy for All: Education Towards a Democratic Culture. (Durban, South Africa: Street Law, Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, University of Natal, National Institute for Citizen Education in the Law (NICEL), SE Washington DC). Students' handbook: 131 pages; Instructors' Manual: 82 pages. 

These unique texts were designed to promote practical law-related education in the South African context. The chapters are organized around such themes as democracy, checking the abuse of power, human rights and citizen participation, and contain numerous student-centered activities including case studies, role plays, simulations, small group discussions, opinion polls and debates.


Amnesty International - Education for Freedom (1994) Shopping List of Techniques in Teaching Human Rights (Manila, Philippines: Amnesty International - Philippine Section). 115 pages. 

This book was developed by trainers in the Philippines, and focuses on the methodology for teaching human rights. After briefly describing the experiential, activity-centered, problem-posing, participative and analytical teaching strategies, these approaches are illustrated in a variety of activities. Although all the human rights education manuals recommended in this appendix have exemplary methodological approaches, this book is especially suitable for those interested in focusing on the pedagogy of teaching human rights.


Primary and Secondary Levels Combined

United Nations (1989) Teaching Human Rights: Practical activities for primary and secondary schools (New York and Geneva: Centre for Human Rights). 56 pages. 

This book provides a brief introduction to the goals for human rights education, with selective activities for the primary and secondary schools that illustrate how to address a variety of related attributes and contents. The Annex contains additional United Nations references and basic human rights instruments. Good introduction to the general domain of human rights education.


Hugh Starkey (ed) (1991) The Challenge of Human Rights Education (London: Cassell Educational Limited). 264 pages.

This useful book contains a series of case study articles concerning the conception and development of human rights education programs at the nursery, primary and secondary school levels. Related programmatic and thematic chapters touch upon teacher training, gender issues, multiculturalism, and education of the handicapped. A practical overview, with many concrete local examples.


Contact the following organizations for additional resource listings:


Human Rights Internet

Human Rights Education: Annotated Bibliography

c/o Human Rights Centre

University of Ottowa

57 Louis Pasteur

Ottawa, Ontario K1N 6N5 CANADA


Documentation Centre

Council of Europe

F-67075 Strasbourg Cedex FRANCE


Human Rights Education: The Fourth R. A twice-yearly newsletter for human rights educators, jointly published between Amnesty International-USA and the Human Rights Centre of the University of Ottowa.


Local Amnesty International chapters may also have bibliographic listings available.










Feedback On Sections: ______________________

Pages: _________


Name of Teacher ______________________

School ________________________ Town/City ________________



1. General reaction to the lesson(s). _____ Excellent ______ Good _____ Poor



2. Do any terms need further explanation? _____ Yes _____ No

If so, which ones?


3. Were there any problems in understanding the text? _____ Yes _____ No

If so, what were they?


4. Could assignments be made on the basis of the material? _____ Yes ______ No

If so, what did you assign students to do?


5. Needs you as a teacher had in preparing the lesson(s)




Methodological elements:





No needs. ______



6. Were any passages particularly interesting to students? If so, which ones?



7. Where can the text formats be improved?


Language. pp. ____




Illustrations. pp. ____




Layout. pp. ____





8. Other reactions.




Back to Index HREA Publications

International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, 1995