31 March 2023

Democracy Technologies: With the aula project, you implement digital participation projects at schools. What is the motivation behind doing this digitally?

Marina Weisband: I would say that the digital app is a means to an end – that as many students as possible get involved. For that, digital tools are useful on several levels. Firstly, I can conduct dialogues with the entire school. It’s very difficult to get all the students together so they can talk. But with a digital forum, they can discuss ideas online and all be involved.

The second aspect is inclusiveness. I give students the opportunity to express themselves even if they describe themselves as shy. Our evaluation has also shown that, in this way, we get more such pupils on board – or pupils who speak German as a foreign language. They have the opportunity to think about texts in peace and quiet or to use online translators. 

We also show them respect by meeting them on their level, with a tool that they are used to using.

The digital tool also has the advantage of making processes more transparent. With every idea, they can see, which phase it is in. How long does this phase last? What comes next? It’s very easy to structure processes clearly, even for newcomers to politics and people who don’t have a long attention span, like children or me. They always know where we stand. 

It also gives the possibility to present ideas in a completely different way. I can integrate videos and pictures. And it’s more accessible than if I had to do it on paper. So those are the most important advantages that come to mind. 

Then, of course, I can work independently of time. I can also write ideas in the afternoon because the school day is often very busy. 

DT: How does that normally work? How can we imagine a typical process with aula?

Marina Weisband: aula is a permanent participation system, which means that when we introduce it, it changes the school culture. The process is long. We usually start with a project group consisting of teachers and students, and often the school management.

First, they are trained. We now have online learning for this and we have ambassadors who can accompany local schools. This project team makes a draft contract which the school conference signs as a voluntary commitment, giving the students the power to decide things in aula.

That is negotiated. It’s a political process. It states exactly what the students are allowed to do on their own, for example, change the house rules or the food in the cafeteria. But it also explicitly states what the students are not allowed to decide on. I want everyone to go in knowing what to expect. This process takes about half a year.

Then introductory sessions are held for all classes. Currently, we are converting this to e-learning too so that the school has more freedom. Every child, pupil, teacher and employee gets a password and username. The first ideas are put on the platform and the participation starts.

DT: What mistakes can happen or what can go wrong in the process?

Marina Weisband: I think most mistakes are social. It’s a process of cultural change. I often encounter three categories of resistance among teachers. Firstly: ‘Oh God, another project,’ because schools are spaces of scarce resources and it is often perceived as an additional burden. It is our job to convince them that it is not just a burden, but an active facilitation of their work.

The second is that they already spend all day playing games on their smartphones – do they have to do that here too? At this point, we agree. This is the modern battlefield of capitalism. Do you really want to leave it at that? A trained educator can teach how to use such a device productively. We want to use it as designers for our surroundings.

The third is that the pupils could decide something that teachers don’t want. Fear of losing control. This is especially true in stressful professions. It’s our job to work with teachers and talk to them. What is authority for you? Does your authority come from the fact that you know more than the pupils? Or does your authority come from how you deal with ignorance? When we are preparing children for professions that do not yet exist, they need a role model who is thrown into an unexpectedly empty room and can find their way around.

In addition, software development remains a huge challenge because the thing has to be very easy to use, extremely stable, and very privacy-friendly. I’m not going to lie. These are things that often contradict each other.

DT: Yes, we often hear that simplicity and security can be contradictory. What compromises were made in this case?

Marina Weisband: We use native apps. It’s not the best from a data protection point of view, because students then have to enter into contracts with Google or Apple. There is also the web app. You can access it through any browser, but in the evaluation, it came out that the biggest technical problem was that students couldn’t remember passwords and the app stores the passwords. That’s mainly what it’s there for. It would be safer if they had to log in every time. But I can’t expect that. Not from sixth graders. 

DT:  A bigger aim of the project is also something like saving democracy. How does it have a greater impact on democracy as a whole? And what has to happen for that to become even greater?

Marina Weisband: Democracy begins on the inside, with the attitude that I am not a victim or consumer of my society, but a creator. If I have the role of victim or consumer, then I always need a strong uncle who creates good conditions for me.

That is the narrative that populists and authoritarian regimes serve. ‘The elites, they’re all evil. But here, we’re the good uncles, we’ll look out for you.’ It’s an enticing story, so democracy must also tell enticing stories.

The story I want to tell is: ‘You are an irreplaceable member of your society and how well you and your fellow human beings do depends on you and the world is your stage.’

This teaches skills that are not only important for mental health, especially in the situation of multiple crises, but also for interpersonal relationships. This ability to communicate with each other is very fundamental. But it is above all the mindset that democrats need.

I believe if it wasn’t me doing this project, but the government – if it were common practice in schools for students to have this power – then we would have a lot fewer problems with democracy.

DT: You’ve been doing this for a while now, and a lot of pupils have been through it for a while. What are the long-term consequences? Do you know stories of pupils who have become more involved in politics afterwards?

 Marina Weisband: Yes, definitely. I have students who were politicised through aula and who then went into their student parliament or who became very active as student representatives. Of course, it’s always the ones who stand out, who administer the process and organise panel discussions with politicians. And of course, that’s always cool, it’s talent promotion.

But I have also worked with schools where the student body was always described as difficult and described themselves as difficult as well. One student literally told me ‘here we are too stupid for this’. After a year, it usually seems as if the project has failed. It’s practically part of the process and probably has to be because that’s the point at which the students say: ‘Yes, I’ve come up with ideas, but somehow nothing happens’. Then they learn that democracy also requires work. You have students who have woken up and suddenly found the one thing that they are interested in and that they want to pursue and implement.

DT: Is it possible to transfer such a project from schools to big politics?

Marina Weisband: It is absolutely conceivable to use aula in other organisations, but they have to be organisations where people know each other, are physically in one place and can see each other. It would not be possible to do it nationwide.

aula’s function is to change self-perceived roles in society. For this, one has to have self-efficacy experiences, over and over again. Because we only learn through repetition. I can’t do that at the federal level at all. The processes take far too long and are far too complex and indirect. I experience self-efficacy in kindergarten, in primary school, in the family, at university, at work, and in my neighbourhood. These are the places where democracy can really be strengthened.

We can continue this at the federal level with slightly different means though, such as randomly selected citizen councils, complementary online participation, and direct voting. But that is working with the result of democratic work, not the core of democracy.

DT: There are participatory budgets in China or Russia, countries that we wouldn’t consider democratic in general. What are we to make of that? Is it a chance that they are democratic experiences that lead to more? Or is it rather a kind of democracy-washing?

Marina Weisband: No, it’s a kind of democracy-washing. First of all, it always depends on how binding these results are, and how influential these votes actually are. The second thing is that if I have a system that explicitly emphasises that it does not want to become a democracy and does not allow that under any circumstances, I must also assume that such participatory processes do not have this goal.

I don’t have to go to China or Russia. In 2012, I campaigned for a participatory budget in Münster and people were disinterested in it. I was completely confused. How come people are disinterested in determining what happens with their money? Then I found out that it’s not binding at all. It’s just advice. The administration says yes, very nice, thank you for your ideas, but no thank you. 

The city wonders why so few people participate, and only the same ones. It’s quite clear that as mammals we save resources and energy. Why should I inform myself, do research or hand in my ideas, if in the end, I’m just frustrated? I think this kind of non-committal participation is worse than no participation at all because it reinforces learned helplessness instead of reducing it. Instead of having self-efficacy experiences, I have frustration experiences.

Marina Weisband is a participation educator, psychologist and author. Co-chair of D64 e.V. She is an expert on digital participation and education and heads the democracy project “aula” at politik-digital e.V.. Speaker and former political director of the Pirate Party Germany.