Examining democratic education through an international lens: Chingfu Lan

The fact that Chingfu Lan, a PhD student in the Social Studies program, hails from Taiwan gives him a unique perspective when it comes to civic education. After teaching civics in his home country for several years, Lan’s interest in democratic education was piqued.

“The reason is that Taiwan is a young democratic country. In the beginning, people were excited, we got to vote, which is just entry-level. It’s important, but that doesn’t mean it’s enough. I’m always very interested to see what a more mature model of democratic education could be, and am intrigued by the theories and practices of democratic dialogue, civic participation, and multicultural education. Those three components are to me the most fundamental parts of democratic society.”

Currently in his sixth year in the program, Lan is working on data analysis and writing his dissertation, which he plans to defend in the spring. “Sometimes I wonder where all these data sets I collected (interviews, observations, print and digital documents) will lead me, and what findings I’ll get from these data. To address that concern, I try to keep a balance between analyzing data and reading relevant literature, so that I won’t get lost and be overwhelmed by the huge dissertation data.”

One thing that has helped Chingfu on his path to success in the program is the feedback he received from the defense process, which he considers to be an important step along the way. “You have your own idea and your own conceptualization, but it’s always good to join the academic conversation and have people from different perspectives to criticize.”

Lan has felt the support of the Social Studies faculty members and fellow doctoral students along the way. “In that environment it’s easier to go through the process, so that’s a good thing. They give you some directions to keep working on it.”

Being from Taiwan does influence Lan’s perspective and approach to his work. “I would say to some extent in Taiwan we don’t have enough deep theorization about these democratic education components such as democratic dialogue and civic participation. So I explore as much as possible and put those components into my own research. Also, in the United States, I believe there are many innovative practices happening now.”

Lan feels lucky to have the opportunity to study abroad. “I think people in Taiwan always feel like we don’t know the world enough and should see the world more.” As an international student, Chingfu is able to gain the unique experience of seeing his studies through a new lens. “Because I’m interested in civic education, studying here gives me a different social position to conceptualize democratic education and to understand the world. It’s good to just have a different position to look at the world and reflect on your identity.

In addition to working on his PhD in the Social Studies program, Chingfu works in EdLab, an experience he believes has impacted his research. “I am very interested in democratic education, but there are a lot of directions you can take in the research of democratic education. I work at EdLab, so I’m starting to get familiar with technology and social media, and how digital media technology can be used in education. So that’s where I start to pay attention to digital media in civic education.”

Once he’s done at TC, Lan feels this is a direction he would like to continue in. “I think this is an area that has lots of potential, but research needs to catch up with the rapid development of innovative practices in this area. Some programs look fancy and cool, but from a researcher’s perspective it is crucial to conduct empirical investigations on what students have actually learned from these practices. I think research in this field is definitely  needed. I am very interested in continuing research in this direction, and if I have the opportunity to become a teacher educator I think it would be very interesting to do some experimental practice with teachers and educators.

As for where Lan plans to go next, he says, “I’m very open. I would try to find a teacher educator position here in the United States. I think that would be another great learning experience to teach here in the United States. Of course, in Taiwan I have opportunities. I am open. I would say now with the economy, it’s just difficult to see where the opportunities are.”