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The Merits of Direct and Representative Democracies

  • Assess the merits of direct and representative democracies.
  • Write a persuasive letter recommending either a direct, representative or blended system.

Suggested Activities (selected) Outcomes References Related Resources

Suggested Activities

Students consider the merits of direct and representative democracies by deciding which would be most effective in a given situation. Each student writes a persuasive letter to the school principal to recommend which decision-making process to use to make a fair and equitable school decision.

A. Assess the merits of direct and representative democracies.

Analyze photographs of democratic participation
Remind students that democracy is a government of and for the people that requires active participation of citizens in the political process. Active participation can take many forms. Show students a variety of photographs that portray citizens involved in the political process. Include photographs of voters, protesters, someone delivering a speech, a town council meeting, election signs on lawns and a letter to the editor. For sources of photographs, see newspapers, news magazines and authorized student resources. Ask students to identify what is happening in each photograph and to describe the nature of political participation in each image.

Concept attainment activity: Direct and representative democracies
Tell students that they will consider two types of democratic participation but do not tell them the names of the types. Tell them they will be shown examples first. Their challenge is to determine what the examples in List A share in common and what the examples in List B share in common.

To begin the activity, show one statement from List A and one from List B. Ask students to work alone to identify the differences between the two examples. Show a second pair of examples. Ask students to continue to work alone to identify differences, but this time they will also consider how the examples in List A are similar to one another and how they are different from examples in List B. Show the third pair of examples and this time, ask students to work with a partner. Reveal the final pair of examples and ask students to share their conclusions about the commonalities and differences in List A and List B and how the examples in the two lists differ.

Next, provide students with two testers and ask them which list each tester belongs to. By this point students should understand that List A examples are of decisions being made by people chosen to represent a larger group, and List B examples are of decisions made through the direct input of people. Finally, reveal the labels used to describe each type of democratic decision making––representative and direct.

Concept Attainment

List A

List B

Student council decides on the theme for a winter carnival.

Your family is planning a vacation. Everyone sits down together to offer suggestions and help decide where to go.

The league you play hockey in is considering some rule changes. Each team is invited to send one person to speak on behalf of your team.

Your teacher agrees to postpone a test to a future date. There are three possible dates for the test. He invites all students to vote for the day that best suits them. Students agree to use the date that receives the most votes.

Parents on your block are concerned about increased traffic on the streets. They ask your parents to take their concerns to a town council meeting.

Your hockey team selects a captain by inviting all the players to vote for the person they believe has the strongest leadership skills.

Your class selects one student to be their representative at meetings with the student council.

Your school invites all students to vote for a new mascot.

Testers for Concept Attainment

Following a very successful fundraising event, your school has $5,000 to spend. Should the money be spent on computers, band instruments, playground equipment or sports equipment? All students are invited to submit suggestions on how to spend the money. Their suggestions will be considered by a committee that will make the final decision.

Your team needs to select a captain that will provide leadership and will be able to explain the team's concerns to the coach. The coach suggests all team members vote for the one person they believe will best be able to carry out this role.

For more information on concept attainment, see Concept Attainment (Support Material).

Review Canada's political system
Ask students to consider whether Canada's political system would fit better with Group A or Group B. If students need to review Canada’s democratic system, ask them to read a short selection from an authorized student resource or other source that outlines how government officials are selected and the nature of citizen participation. Encourage students to consider multiple perspectives.

Use Venn diagrams to analyze representative and direct democracies
Explain to students that Venn diagrams are often used to show relationships. Show them the three possible Venn diagrams:

Separate Circles Overlapping Circles Circle Within a Circle

Share nothing in common

Share some things in common
but some aspects are unique to each

One is a subset of the

Ask students to consider which Venn diagram best reflects the relationship between direct and representative democracies. To test their hypotheses, students may work with a partner or in small groups to complete the Venn diagram. They should use relevant, accurate and significant aspects of each of the models of political decision making.

Students might indicate that either the overlapping circles or the circle within the circle best reflect the relationship between direct and representative democracy.

If they choose the circle within the circle, they may organize their evidence to show that both are democracies, both are based on the interests of the people and, therefore, both reside inside the larger circle.

Alternatively, they may argue that the overlapping circles are a more accurate reflection. These students may use the common areas to capture the focus on the interests of the people and the side areas to reflect the different approaches to decision making.

If students are able to provide evidence and sound reasoning, either answer should be acceptable.

For more information, see Venn Diagrams (Support Material).

Introduce case studies
Tell students that they will be working in groups to prepare a recommendation for the most effective democratic decision-making process in a particular situation. Their group will recommend a direct, representative or blended system for their case study. They will need to explain why they recommend one system over another. If they choose a blended system, they need to explain which aspects of each system they would recommend.

Provide each group of three or four students with one of the case studies in Case Studies: Direct, Representative and Blended Systems (Lesson Material).

Remind students that in all of the case studies, the goal is to recommend the decision-making process that will best ensure an effective democratic process.

Rate the merits of direct and representative systems
Encourage students to use criteria when selecting an appropriate democratic process. Criteria may include:

  • allows decisions to be made in a timely and affordable manner
  • leads to informed decision making by citizens
  • reflects a range of perspectives and points of view
  • encourages thoughtful decision making
  • reflects the principles of democracy—justice, equity, freedoms, representation.

To help students apply these criteria to their case study, you may wish to provide them with a chart. See Rating Options in Case Studies (Lesson Material).

For more information, see Rating Options (Support Material).

Share conclusions
Invite student groups to share their recommendations. You may want groups working with the same case study to share with one another. Encourage students to ask questions about how they reached their decisions.

B. Write a persuasive letter recommending either a direct, representative or blended system.

Present a scenario
Tell students that your school has a projected surplus of $5,000. Last year, in a similar situation, your principal, without input from the student body, decided that the school needed new soccer posts. This decision was well received by a small number of students (the soccer fans) but most of the student population was unhappy with this decision.

This year, your principal has decided to gather student input on how to spend the surplus. However, he wants to ensure that the decision-making process does not become too overwhelming. He does not have a lot of time to sort through student responses but wants to ensure that all student voices are heard and that the maximum number of students is satisfied with the outcome. The decision needs to be made in a timely manner. The principal is unsure which decision-making process would be most effective. Because your Grade 6 class is studying democracy, the principal has asked your class to provide some advice.

Write a persuasive letter
Ask students to write a persuasive letter to the principal, recommending a direct, representative or blended system of democratic decision making. Remind students to consider the four principles of an effective democracy—justice, equity, freedoms, representation—and the relative merits of direct and representative democracies.

See Developing Effective Arguments (Support Material) for detailed suggestions on how to teach and assess the tools for persuasive letter writing.

Remind students of the criteria for an effective democratic decision-making process:

  • allows for timely and affordable decisions
  • leads to informed decision making
  • reflects a range of people's interests
  • encourages careful deliberation
  • makes people feel a part of the process.

Share letters
Ask students to return to their groups and to read their letters to one another.

Last updated: July 1, 2014 | (Revision History)
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