This site has been hurriedly reconstructed in preparation for the 2014 AERO Conference (New York, June 25th – 30th). It is very much a work in progress.
There are two basic models at play in education. One is autocratic, the other democratic. Between them is a continuum full of various blends of the two. The vast majority of students have to attend the autocratic schools of public education, while a growing number of private schools are offering a democratic learning environment. As will be revealed in these pages, the autocratic model contains inherent injustices. Despite the kind intentions of educators, the typical public school abuses children. Change in imperative. The right of every child to a publicly funded democratic education has to be the guiding principle of this change. It is change that is doable and this website presents a practical process for making it happen.
Something to acknowledge from the outset is that a fundamental change to how people think is a growth process. It takes a willingness to change; it takes effort; and it happens gradually over time. Ideas that can at first appear to be too idealistic and unworkable become common sense and essential to implement. It is therefore important to read and reread the contents of this site. Take the ideas a step at a time. Discuss them with others. Define where your thinking differs from them. Work to resolve the differences, and always entertain the possibility that no matter how extreme the ideas might seem, they could be right. As you work through this site, keep a constant eye on how the proposed changes benefit not only children, but also their families and society in general.
For people who are uncertain as to what the democratic model involves, the essence of it is captured by Dorothy Nolte in her poem titled “Children Learn What They Live”. Children need to be living what we want them to become. If they are to be self-sufficient adults concerned for the common good of all people, and if they are to believe their voice matters, then they need to be living lives that allow them to be self-directed and welcome participants in making decisions that affect them.
There is no mystery as to the kinds of lives these are. For more than a half-century, living legends like Daniel Greenberg, David Gribble, Chris Mercogliano, Jerry Mintz, and many others have built on the work of past visionaries like John Dewy, Adolphe Ferrière, John Holt, Maria Montessori and A. S. Neill to provide a clear picture of these lives. The only place they are still mysterious is in the minds of people who have not yet fully considered them.
You will find here a steadfast belief in public education. In general, it is thought of a as a system for providing children with the skills they need to get a job, but it has a bigger purpose. It is our best tool for cultivating a healthy society, and a single public education system for all students is necessary to obtain the optimum results. The modernized system described here consists of districts of interconnected, democratically operated, neighborhood schools to which children walk wherever possible. It is a system that supports the development of strong communities that collectively form the foundation of the larger society; it makes life simpler for families with brothers and sisters heading off to the same place, and it addresses environmental and financial concerns by getting buses off the roads.
Although one school system for all is the goal, existing democratic private schools are not under attack. Most of what we know about democratic learning stems from private schools started by people who saw no way to provide the desired learning environment working inside the public system. To assault these people would be unconscionable, but it would also be counterproductive. Their guidance is needed, and it is easy for us to all work together. Private schools could continue to operate as they do, but they could become publicly funded. Gradually, as people become aware of the benefits of democratic learning, students will increasingly come from the neighborhoods surrounding these schools thereby transforming them into community schools without altering their nature. There is the fear that accepting public funding would result in a loss of freedom for these schools, but this concern goes to the heart of the entire democratic reform movement. Collectively, we all need to stand against the people who want to control other people’s learning.
No school can be all things to all children, but democratic schools, like good families, provide a stable base from which children go off to other places for adventure and to pursue special interests. When they return to their neighborhood schools they enrich the lives of others by sharing what they have learned. This launch pad capability is a powerful potential for schools that do not constrain students with timetables. It works to bring more of the big world to the attention of students, and it prevents schools from becoming insular. This vision is made clearer in the pages that follow.
Of particular note also is that the democratic schools described here have a different relationship with parents. Control over children’s learning is returned to families. They are trusted to do the right things for their children. These schools do not dictate what, when, where, how and with whom children will learn. Those things become the decisions of families, as do the lengths of the school day, the school year, and even when they can take holidays. It is a partnership that naturally accommodates parents who want to homeschool their children. There is nothing to prevent children from being homeschooled some days and sent to school other days, nothing to prevent children from going to school only on those days when parents have other things they have to do. The occasions where parents do not do right for their children are already happening and autocratic schools exacerbate those situations. The schools described here do not marginalize parents. They are community builders that encourage the participation of parents, providing support for inexperienced ones and for those in difficulty. They are places where parents can find mentors, and where the adage that “it takes a community to raise a child” becomes more than an idealism. If this seems too utopian to you, please read on to gain an appreciation for how a democratic approach to learning makes it possible.
For well over half a century our schools have changed little. Grandparents walking into a typical school today find the same basic structure they suffered when they went to school. The lack of change is not, however, a result of a lack of trying to reform public education. Many significant efforts by dedicated educators have been made to change the system. Sometimes these efforts are ill conceived, like the current drive for standardized testing. Others have been more thoughtful, but all have failed to produce lasting, beneficial results.
Reasons given for these repeated failures to remake public education are that the system has gotten too big, too cumbersome, or too top heavy to change, and some people believe the only way to fix it is to blow it up. Blowing it up is basically what the privatization and charter school movements are attempting to do, and we need to put the brakes on them before they do more damage. They splinter communities with a “me first” mentality that has parents competing to get the best for their kids, and they lead to a multi-caste society where the people who are most well off send their children to the best schools, and where those a little less well off get second best, and so on. The democratic learning environments advocated here are the opposite of divisive. They create learning cultures that bring communities together, that bring together people from all walks of life in appreciation of their diversity.
The main reason good reforms have not taken hold is because educational authorities have failed to understand how to implement change. They think that change by decree works and that everyone will flip-flop to a new way of doing things simply because they are instructed to do so. The result is misunderstanding leading to resistance that kills reforms within a few years. At times the authorities attempt to gain buy-in from teachers and students, but the way they go about it is totally inadequate and accentuates that they don’t know what they need to do. Their actions are also influenced by a misconception of equal opportunity. They tend to believe that equal opportunity in education means giving every child the same program. The practice of applying reforms to everyone at the same time is a consequence of this misconception. Equal opportunity is emphatically not about giving every child the same education. It is about providing for each child the educational opportunities that best suit him or her. No two children’s needs are identical and it is only through the democratic model that the necessary individualization is possible.
Fundamental school reform needs to occur much the way people adopt a new product. With the cell phone, for example, people have a choice whether or not to adopt it, and it is proving itself. People are buying them in great numbers and it is likely they will replace landlines within the foreseeable future. The school reform process presented here creates this kind of occurrence. It provides people with choice – they can move along the continuum towards democratic learning, or they can stick with what they have. There are enough parents and teachers wanting to provide democratic learning environments for children to start the process and the shift will occur as these environments prove to be superior to those now in use. It is a matter of getting the ball rolling by creating the conditions that invite change.
The shift in public thinking required to go from autocratic to democratic learning should not be under-estimated. The rethink it calls for is a great as the one that led to the Copernican Revolution, but there is a very significant difference between these two shifts, one that makes the educational shift far easier to orchestrate. In education the shift can be evolutionary. It is not an all or none situation as was the case with the Earth being, or not being, the center of the universe. Children’s education can be a little more democratic, or a lot more democratic, depending on how people view it. It makes it possible to handle the movement to democratic learning as a series of steps that people take as they feel ready. That is the basis of the change process presented here. The first step makes learning a little more democratic. The next moves a little further along the continuum, step after step until the final one completes the journey to a full-blown democratic learning district. With this process, people take a small step and remain there until they feel good and ready to take the next one. Some people may only take one step in their time, but even one step is a favor to children and it can open others to the possibility of doing more. A caution is in order – it is best not to rush the process. Moving too quickly can cause the kind of uncertainty and dissention that destroys reform efforts. It compares to successful businesses that go bankrupt because they try to grow too quickly. Change takes time. Without being obsessive or too fearful of some risk, feel comfortable with a step you have taken and what the next one demands from those involved before moving on.
Vision 2020 by 2020 has been chosen as the title for this website with the hope that by the year 2020 the benefits of providing children with a democratic education, and a process for providing it, will be clear in the minds of enough people that a tipping point will be reached, that the systematic process leading to fundamental change will be underway for those who want it. The process described here begins with secondary school students, but change does not need to be on hold for younger students. There are examples of public elementary schools offering alternative programs that implement elements of democratic learning. These programs could be first steps of an evolutionary change process that begins with lower grades. The more that younger children are provided with democratic learning experience, the faster they will be able to handle the steps of change in higher grades.
This website represents a call to action for democratically minded pioneers of public education. The pioneering spirit is found in students, parents, teachers, administrators, community leaders and Ministries of Education, and all are being asked to assume some responsibility for democratic change. There is a frontier out there to be discovered. There is still much to be learned. The blog provided here is to help with the sharing needed for us to learn from each other. Please contribute when you think you know something that could benefit others.
Pillars for Pioneers
The following ten pillars of the reforms advocated here are provided to succinctly outline the territory to be chartered.
Ten Pillars of Public Education Reform
- Public education systems comprised of community schools attended by all neighborhood children are not only the best way to educate children; they are also the best way to build the strong communities that form the backbone of a healthy society.
- Community schools can consist of schools within schools thereby making alternative learning environments readily available to all students.
- The route to evolutionary change involves real choices, but they do not include what is commonly known as “school choice”. Choices are offered within community schools with the options being equallyvisible and accessible to all students.
- Change is not dictated, and it is not driven by coercion. It is the result of awareness building, and the speed of change is determined by the readiness of people to adopt it.
- Reform can be accomplished through incremental change managed at a pace that does not scare away potential participants.
- A person’s education is not governed by majority rule, but rather by individual rights and freedoms.
- Age-segregation is an obstacle to children’s healthy development and must be discarded.
- Individual freedom to learn requires doing away with mass scheduling.
- Schools need to be small enough that nobody is anonymous.
- With today’s technology and a rethink of how to provide students with learning opportunities, small schools can expose students to a vast variety of quality learning experiences that far exceed those of any massive composite school.
Three reasons for establishing these pillars are summarized as follows:
Three Motivators Driving Democratic Reform Efforts
- The Need to Get It Right
Despite the determined, decades-long efforts of intelligent people to solve the problems in public education, the problems persist. A fundamentally different approach is required.
- The Need to Cut Costs
Tapscott and Caston in their book “Paradigm Shift” said: “If you want to control, you design organizations for accountability. If you want to accomplish, you design for commitment.” Accountability is expensive. It involves management layers along with constant assessment and record keeping. Autocratic school systems consequently direct large parts of school funding to pay for these coercive practices. Democratic systems operate with flattened hierarchies where the learners hold themselves accountable. This means that the cost of public education can be greatly reduced with no impact on the quality of learning and no tampering with student/teacher ratios.
- The Need to Cultivate a Strong Citizenry
Repeating from the introduction, if children are to be thoughtful citizens who assume responsibility for themselves and contribute to making the world a better place, then they need to live in democratic environments where they acquire the skills to effectively participate in decision-making while they develop the attitude that they can make a difference. Children with such skills will be valued citizens who do not add to the social costs incurred when schools fail them.