Ms Paula Gerber

Deputy Director, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law

"The 4th R - human rights education


The papers presented at this conference have, to a greater or lesser degree, all been about the law relating to human rights. For a bit of variety this paper is about education rather than law (albeit education that is mandated by international human rights laws).

The data I analysed here was collected as part of my PhD research on human rights education. When I first started teaching human rights at university, I was surprised to discover that my students lacked even a basic understanding of human rights including an awareness of things like the UDHR, the core human rights treaties or the way the UN operated. This made me curious about whether there were any legal requirements that school students learn about human rights. I started investigating the position in international law and was amazed to discover a plethora of provisions regarding the right to be educated about human rights, including:

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Art. 26);

  • International Covenant on Economic Social & Cultural Rights (Art 13)

  • Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (Art. 7);

  • Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Art. 10);

  • UNESCO Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination in Education (Art 5);

  • Convention on the Rights of the Child (CROC) (Art 29).

Article 29(1) of CROC provides:

Article 29

States Parties agree that the education of the child shall be directed to:

(a) The development of the child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential;

(b) The development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and for the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations;

(c) The development of respect for the child's parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of the country in which the child is living, the country from which he or she may originate, and for civilizations different from his or her own;

(d) The preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin;

(e) The development of respect for the natural environment.

I decided to focus my research on Article 29(1) of CROC, specifically on paragraph (b). I refer to the concept set out in this provision as Human Rights Education or HRE.

I was curious to discover whether this international law provision was being implemented, and so I developed an empirical research methodology to analyse the nature and extent of HRE occurring in secondary schools in Melbourne and Boston. I chose cities in Australia and the United States as I wanted to determine whether international human rights laws make a difference. Only by comparing education in a country that had ratified CROC with a country that had not, could I make such findings.

Of course, human rights education has recently become very topical in this state because of the Victorian Charter of Rights and Responsibilities which is coming into effect next year. S.41 of the Charter provides that:

  • "The Commission has the following functions in relation to this Charter… (d) to provide education about human rights and this Charter."

I think the most significant aspect of this provision is that it refers to human rights AND the Charter, and not human rights IN the Charter. Of course, the Charter only includes civil and political rights, and thus if the education was limited to human rights in the Charter, economic, social and cultural rights would not fall within the scope of the required HRE. However, I think the language of s.41 will actually encourage more inclusive HRE because it invites analysis of what human rights are not in the Charter; why that might be etc…. I am therefore optimistic that the quantum and quality of HRE in Melbourne will improve in the coming years, provided that the Government makes adequate resources available to train teachers in HRE, and various other obstacles discussed below are overcome.

This paper focuses on the findings from the data collected from Melbourne secondary schools. Teachers were asked to complete a survey about the HRE they provide in their classrooms and follow up in-depth interviews were conducted. The result was a wealth of data gathered from 30 surveys and 20 interviews. The findings discussed in this paper relate to:-

  • Teachers’ understanding of the term HRE;

  • Teachers’ Knowledge of Article 29 of CROC;

  • Impediments to incorporating HRE into the Curriculum; and

  • Teachers’ motivation for teaching students about HRE.

Teachers’ Understanding of the term ‘Human Rights Education’

As part of this research staff at Departments of Education (Federal and Victorian) and at NGOs were interviewed on how they understood the term ‘human rights education’. The responses from government employees was that it related to civics and citizenship; education about democracy and maybe civil and political rights. NGOs on the other hand had a much broader understanding of the term and saw it has a means of generating more human rights activists. Both of these groups tended to define human rights using a legal framework, particularly international law. However, only 32% of teachers used international law instruments such as the UDHR when defining HRE. The majority saw human rights in more general terms and spoke of ethics and morality and compassion. Some examples of how teachers defined human rights education are:

  • The teaching of human rights is not confined to teaching students about documents which are supposed to give rights to individuals, but about attitudes to others at age specific times, which broaden their concepts not only of rights, but responsibilities. These ideas should be explored and discussed so that a personal philosophy of inclusiveness should be developed.

  • To learn about treating people with respect and compassion on a physical and emotional level within the immediate/local and international areas.

  • Human rights education to me is being able to impart a sense of responsibility towards other human beings within your community, and to me it is developing strategies that make us able to see that not everything is in black and white, that there are shades of grey and that not everybody is the same, and that we need to respect and understand those differences. So it’s breaking down the barriers between different groups so that we can co-exist.

Thus teachers see human rights education not in terms of rights articulated in legal instruments, but rather about using the philosophy of human rights to create better human beings.

Another interesting dimension to teachers’ understanding of human rights education is the distinction between what I call positive and negative definitions of HRE. The negative depictions of human rights education focuses on past or present violations of human rights and uses as case studies scenarios of genocide, slavery, torture etc. Positive depictions of human rights education focuses on empowering the student to respect and promote human rights. Therefore instead of focusing on apartheid, teachers focus on Nelson Mandela; instead of focusing on child labour they look at the work of Craig Keilburger, the 12 year old Canadian boy who in 1995 founded the organisation ‘Free the Children’ to campaign against child labour around the globe. However the overwhelming majority of teachers tended to focus on negative examples when discussing human rights.

When you analyse the positive and negative depictions of human rights against Article 29 of CROC, it is apparent that the positive definitions bear a closer resemblance to the HRE mandated in that treaty. Article 29 refers to aims, such as "The development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms" and "The preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples." Teaching students about past human rights abuses may be a way of achieving these aims, but I suggest that positive definitions align more closely with the objectives of Article 29 of CROC. Positive depictions move the analysis of human rights away from the ‘victim mentality’ and towards empowerment of the individual.

Overall the data revealed that there is no common understanding amongst teachers as to what human rights education means or entails. But none of the teachers involved in my study defined HRE in a way similar to the UN, that is, they did not frame HRE in legalistic terms or base their understanding on international human rights instruments.

The lack of a single consensus definition of human rights education may be due to the relative newness of HRE as a discipline, and over time a more harmonious approach to what HRE entails may emerge. But until that happens one must ask: What are the consequences of this wide disparity in understanding of what HRE is? There are several effects. First, it provides greater freedom for those working in the field; with no widely endorsed mandate about what HRE is, organisations and individuals have extreme latitude to teach whatever they want and call it HRE. They are not constrained by some prescriptive definition.

Another consequence of the lack of a single definition of HRE is that it makes evaluation problematic. With so many different understandings of HRE it is difficult for a researcher to assess what genuine human rights education activities are taking place. Some teachers may not identify their work as HRE and therefore chose not to participate in a study of HRE, while others may consider their work to be HRE when it does not actually fit within the definition employed by the researcher.

Finally, this lack of a common understanding of what HRE is should be of concern to the UN who for the last ten years has made HRE one of its priorities declaring the Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004) and the World Program for HRE (2005 - ongoing). It has devoted considerable resources to advocating for HRE and yet despite this there remains significant confusion and misunderstanding about what HRE entails. The absence of a common understanding should also be of concern to governments since their inactivity in this area is creating opportunities for NGOs to fill the void with their own more radical definition of HRE.

Teachers’ Knowledge of Article 29 of CROC

One of the issues explored in interviews with teachers was the level of their awareness of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and Article 29 in particular. Teachers were shown a copy of Article 29 of CROC and asked whether they had seen or heard of this provision before. The overwhelming response from teachers was one of shock that such a provision existed at all.

Australia ratified CROC over 16 years ago, and it could reasonably be expected that teachers would by now be familiar with the provisions that relate to education. However, the interviews with Melbourne teachers revealed high levels of ignorance regarding this international law provision. Only five teachers (25%) had any prior awareness of Article 29. Some of the responses to Article 29 were:-

  • INTERVIEWER: Have you ever seen this before [Article 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child]?

    TEACHER: No. What is it? Is it something that we should be adhering to as teachers

    INTERVIEWER: It’s part of an international treaty that Australia has ratified…

    TEACHER: So why are we, myself as a teacher, not aware of this?
  • INTERVIEWER: Have you ever seen this before [Article 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child]?

    TEACHER: No… It’s surprising that I haven’t actually come across this particular Article, even though I’ve read bits and pieces of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Based on the level of ignorance of Article 29 of CROC among Melbourne teachers, the overwhelming conclusion is that the Australian government is failing in its obligation under Article 42 of CROC to "make the principles and provisions of the Convention widely known, by appropriate and active means, to adults and children alike."

The logical place for teachers to learn about the provisions of Article 29 would be in their teacher training. However, there is a distinct lack of human rights in teacher training, and lack of training about HRE is one of the obstacles that teachers identified to more widespread human rights education.

Impediments to Incorporating HRE into the Curriculum

In both the survey and interviews teachers were asked to identify what they perceived to be the major impediments to HRE in their school. A broad range of responses were given but five particular obstacles were repeatedly identified namely:

  • Crowded Curriculum

  • No Government Mandate

  • Lack of Resources

  • Where/How to Incorporate HRE

  • Lack of Training

This paper now briefly elaborates on each of these.

1. Crowded Curriculum

A recurring theme was that teachers were already expected to cover more material than was possible in the time available. The general sense is that teachers are overwhelmed by what they expected to achieve in terms of learning outcomes. If HRE is to become more widespread it will have to be done in a way that doesn’t unduly increase the burden on teachers. One way of doing this is to adopt a ‘whole of school’ approach to HRE, so that all teachers, regardless of the discipline they work in, introduce HRE into their lessons.

2. Lack of Mandate to Include HRE

Another common explanation for the lack of widespread HRE was the absence of any direction or mandate from government or the school administrators that this was a priority area that teachers should focus on. Teachers feel compelled to teach to the Curriculum Frameworks published by the Department of Education. The absence of HRE in these documents left teachers feeling that they could not, or should not, incorporate human rights into their teaching. In response to a survey question asking teachers why they think their school does not provide HRE, teachers expressed opinions such as:

  • Lack of Support from DET;

  • People mean well but the C.S.F. controls content and method; and

  • Most classes follow the curriculum frameworks which are not, to the best of my knowledge, dedicated to human rights education.

Similar views were expressed in the in-depth interviews, for example:

  • INTERVIEWER: If you could get some assistance in human rights education, what would be of greatest assistance to you?

    TEACHER: Well a directive from DEET [Commonwealth Department of Employment, Education and Training] to the principal would be good, so the principal can say at the next curriculum meeting "We’ve got to incorporate human rights." That would be good.

3. Lack of Resources on HRE

A further impediment to incorporation of HRE that was expressed by teachers concerned the availability of resources. In particular, two themes emerged. The first was the difficulty that teachers had accessing materials for teaching HRE, and the second was how dependent teachers are on human rights NGOs to support them in their HRE work.

One would have expected that in the age of the internet, accessing resources on HRE would not have been an issue. However as the following exchanges demonstrate, that is not the case.

  • SURVEY QUESTION: What do you perceive to be the obstacles to human rights education in your school?

    RESPONSE: Resources – up to date/accurate information.
  • INTERVIEWER: What would you identify as the biggest obstacle or impediment to more widespread human rights education?

    TEACHER: Lack of resources, but not in the sense that they are now out there. Just in the sense that they’re not talked about and they are not offered to teachers… So it’s out there but you’ve go to go hunting for it, and a lot of teachers aren’t willing to put in the time, or just flat out don’t know.

Most of the materials that teachers identified as resources for their HRE were publications of NGOs, or even speakers from NGOs. The result is that the materials have an activist bent i.e. they are not just about raising awareness or critically analysing human rights, but focus on changing attitudes and behaviours so that students take action.

Some teachers may be reluctant to use NGOs’ materials in light of this strong activist bias. HRE materials developed and promoted by the government would likely ease this perceived impediment to HRE in schools. The Victorian Department of Education this year published the booklet Ideas for Human Rights Education which contains over 100 suggestions for ways teachers can introduce human rights education into their work. This booklet has received some positive feedback, although I still have some doubts as to how widely it is being utilised. The Commonwealth Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) has also developed some very good modules on human rights, but none of the teachers interviewed for this study identified this as a resource they accessed.

4. Where/How to incorporate HRE

Some teachers expressed frustration with not knowing where HRE fits within the broader curriculum. Examples of responses to the question "What do you perceive to be the obstacles to human rights education in your school?" included:

  • A classroom context – what ‘subject is it in’

  • Disappearance of real humanities subjects (history etc…) to be replaced by the wishy washy nature of SOSE [Study of Society and the Environment];

  • Where you fit it into the curriculum? Do you make a subject called Human Rights? Do you link it into Civics and Citizenship? Does it fit within English? Does it fit within Geography?

This obstacle could be overcome by greater clarity/direction about HRE in the curriculum frameworks. There were two schools of thought expressed by teachers about the form this should take. One philosophy is that human rights should be a separate subject (which is, for example, what Carey Baptist Grammar School does). Dealing with HRE in this way allows for depth of coverage, but unless it is made a mandatory subject (unlikely), students who don’t take the elective miss out altogether.

The other approach is that human rights should be integrated across the entire curriculum. Arguably, this creates less burden for teachers, but runs the risk that HRE ‘falls between the cracks’; with individual teachers feeling they don’t have to address human rights because students will be getting it in all their other classes. My view is that you need to integrate both approaches, that is, have an elective subject where human rights are analysed in depth, and also have human rights integrated across the entire curriculum, so for example use statistics about refugees in maths classes, and in science classes explore the background of great scientists for example, what would be the state of physics if Einstein hadn’t fled Germany in the 1930s?

5. Lack of Training in HRE

From both the survey responses and interviews, it is apparent that teachers see a lack of training as being one of the main impediments to more extensive HRE in schools. This data is important because teacher training exposes what the state considers to be important skills that teachers must possess. Since the enactment of the Victorian Institute of Teaching Act 2001 (Vic) teachers in Victoria are required to be registered, and in order to obtain their registration must satisfy a number of formal requirements. However, training in HRE is not a requirement for teacher registration. It follows that if teachers have no training in HRE they cannot be expected to teach human rights.

One of the questions on the survey was "Have you received any training in how to teach human rights?" In Melbourne 23 teachers (77%) responded in the negative. Teachers who indicated they had received training in how to teach human rights were asked to provide details of such training. The overwhelming majority indicated that the training they had received was by way of short courses run by NGOs e.g. Amnesty International and World Vision. A couple of teachers indicated that their training was ‘self-taught’. No teacher indicated in their survey responses that they had received any instruction about HRE as part of their formal pre-service teacher training.

One would hope that with the Charter of Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 coming into effect, there will be an effort to provide teachers with appropriate training about this important new legislation. However, my observations are that the Victorian Department of Education has not yet come to grips with the Charter or what it means. While there are government departments and entities such as the Department of Justice and the Equal Opportunity Commission which are developing training around the Charter, if the Charter is to filter through to schools the Department of Education needs to be actively involved, for it is this Department which teachers look to for professional development, resources etc..

Teachers’ motivation for teaching students about HRE

One of the advantages of conducting interviews with teachers was that it permitted more in-depth interrogation about their personal experience of HRE. A question asked of all interviewees who had indicated that they included human rights in their teaching was: ‘Why do you teach your students about human rights?’ Upon analysing their responses, a common theme emerged, namely that they were motivated by deeply private reasons that had nothing to do with what the UN mandated, or what the Department of Education specified in the curriculum frameworks, or even what their school policies dictated. Rather they were driven to raise issues of human rights in their classes because of their own personal background and experience. The following excerpts from interviews exemplify this:-

  • I suppose I’m driven very much because I come from a Jewish background, and even though my people have been here for many generations, so they weren’t caught up in the Holocaust, learning about the Holocaust as a boy was stunning.… And to rescue something from it is very difficult. If, as an educator and a schoolteacher, I don’t move people a tiny step down the path away from that horror, I shouldn’t be here.

  • [I teach human rights] because of my background. My heritage is Lebanese. And there are a lot of human rights abuses in Lebanon, even now more so than during the war. And so I can relate to the problems that people are experiencing, both here and in overseas countries, in developing countries.

  • When I was growing up I always wanted to do stuff to make the world a better place… and being aware of my own Asian identity and realising that there’s a lot of messed-up stuff out there and becoming passionate about changing those perceptions.

  • I grew up with a father who was an Anglican Priest. My mother was a schoolteacher. During the sixties my father was a socially active priest and we spent a lot of time living off the same amount of money that they gave welfare recipients, and donating the rest of our money to charities and proving our solidarity with those who earned less than we did. So for me it just comes out of the social justice work that my family had been involved in; this idea of human rights was something that was ingrained in me.

As these extracts demonstrate, teachers introduce human rights concepts into their classroom because of some personal motivation or drive, not because anyone has directed them to. What are the implications of this for the future of HRE? Education about human rights will remain extremely limited if it is only addressed by teachers who, because of their background, have some deep personal commitment to human rights. Although the research indicates that the majority of teachers working in HRE share a dedication to human rights, this does not mean that such a commitment is a prerequisite to working in this field.

As previously indicated, the majority of pre-service teacher training does not include HRE. The result is that a lot of teachers lack the formal knowledge and skills that would equip them to teach human rights. The ideals of Article 29(1) of CROC could be incorporated into the educational experience of secondary school students, without teachers having a personal passion for human rights, if teachers were just trained in HRE.


The wealth of data obtained through the surveys and interviews of teachers revealed many interesting issues, which I have only been able to touch upon in this paper. What is clear is that:-

  • HRE is not widespread and is only incorporated into the curriculum in an ad hoc manner and is dependent on the motivation of individual teachers.

  • There is a high degree of ignorance amongst teachers regarding Article 29 of CROC;

  • There are many obstacles to widespread HRE in schools including: the crowded curriculum; lack of government mandate; lack of resources the dearth of training in HRE; and confusion about how/where to incorporate it into the curriculum.

One of the aims of the research was to ascertain whether international human rights laws such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child have an impact at the grass roots level i.e. in the classrooms of schools. In particular does ratification of CROC suggest that a state will have a greater commitment to human rights education? Overall the results demonstrate that HRE in schools in Melbourne falls well short of that which is mandated under international law. Although small scale qualitative research of this kind cannot provide a definitive answer to this question, the data collected and analysed suggests that the ratification of CROC has had little impact on how or why teachers engage in HRE.

In the United States, the Bill of Rights plays a pivotal role in HRE in schools. It provokes education about rights because it is so embedded in the culture and psyche of the nation. One of the findings from this research is that domestic human rights instruments are much more effective at generating HRE in schools than international laws. It will therefore be interesting to see whether the Victorian Charter of Rights and Responsibilities, over time, motivates Victorian teachers to engage in HRE.