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A Sampling of Resources

The following references are provided to give an idea of the breadth of the groundwork already laid by people who believe in giving children more control over their learning. There are many other valuable resources that could be listed here. If there are others you feel deserve particular mention, please add them through the comments below.

  1. Democratic Education Collaboration
  2. Children’s Rights
  3. The Origins of Traditional Education
  4. The Abilities of Children
  5. The Benefits of Autonomy
  6. How to Create Change
  7. Earlier Days
  8. Videos


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1. Democratic Education Collaboration

Major national and international organizations that promote democratic learning.

  1. International Democratic Education Network (IDEN). David Gribble is a main contact person for IDEN. Visit his website for a wealth of information on democratic learning.
  2. European Democratic Education Community (EUDEC)
  3. Australasian Democratic Education Community (ADEC)
  4. Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO). Watch the TEDx video by AERO founder Jerry Mintz.
  5. The Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA)

Check out Wikipedia for a good write-up on democratic education.


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2. Children’s Rights

Ailsa M. Watkinson, Education, Student Rights and the Charter. Saskatoon, Purich Publishing, 1999.

When Canada’s Constitution was repatriated from the British parliament, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was included in the Constitution. Watkinson said, “It meant that for the first time in Canadian history fundamental freedoms and equality rights had constitutional status.” (p.18)

The following two statements made by Watkinson show her democratic orientation.

“If education is to attain its purpose of preparing students for life in a democratic society, the educational environment must emulate a democracy and empower students.” (p.38)

“If educators reject the traditional model and work instead to create a caring and democratic educational environment, then schools will be able to get on with the job of preparing children to take their places in a democratic society.” (p. 43)

Public education is in trouble in many countries where autocratic practices are used to raise children for a democratic life. It would be unfortunate if educators do not voluntarily reject the traditional model, but if they don’t, then the Canadian Charter could be invoked to force them to provide children with learning environments that more adequately serve them. The results could strengthen the position of democratic learning advocates in other countries and start a worldwide paradigm shift.

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3. The Origins of Traditional Education

John Gatto coined the term “dumbing us down.” His latest book is Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling published by New Society Publishers in 2009. He presents a compelling account of how the traditional school system developed from the need for obedient factory workers and soldiers, but the 21st Century has different needs and requires a different system.

The advent of the Occupy Movement lends greater importance to what Gatto is saying. The 99% of people who have generally been subservient and malleable are being awakened to the fact that the 1% cannot be trusted to act in their best interests. This is a good step for democracy because it invites people to demand equality and participate in the shaping of our future. Gatto gets one thinking that not only is traditional schooling failing us now, it may never have been a good choice.

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4. The Abilities of Children

Sir Ken Robinson is a powerful advocate for children. His views on their creativity are nicely summarized in an entertaining video of a speech he gave at a TED conference.

In one of his books, Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative, (West Sussex, Capstone Publishing, 2001, revised and updated 2011) Robinson presents his views not only on behalf of children, but also on behalf of industry. “Throughout the world, companies and organizations are trying to compete in a world of economic and technological change that is moving faster than ever. As the axis shifts towards intellectual labour and services, they urgently need people who are creative, innovative and flexible. Too often they can’t find them. Yet governments throughout the world are pouring unprecedented resources into the very process that’s meant to develop natural talent and abilities – education. . . . What’s going wrong?”

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5. The Benefits of Autonomy

Autonomy involves exercising equality. Daniel Pink in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, (New York, Riverhead Books, 2009) helps us to understand what this means. He says, “Perhaps it’s time to toss the very word ‘management’ onto the linguistic ash heap alongside ‘icebox’ and ‘horseless carriage. This era doesn’t call for better management. It calls for a renaissance of self-direction.” (p. 93).

Using computer language he describes how humans have used three operating systems. The need to survive was the first. He labeled it Motivation 1.0. Next came Motivation 2.0 – reward and punishment. About it he says, “For as long as any of us can remember, we’ve configured our organizations and constructed our lives around the bedrock assumption that the way to improve performance, increase productivity, and encourage excellence is to reward the good and punish the bad.”(p. 19) This is the modus operandi of our traditional school systems.

Motivation 3.0 is about autonomy. “It presumes that people want to be accountable – and that making sure they have control over their task, their time, their technique, and their team is a pathway to that destination.” (p. 107)

“We’re born to be players, not pawns,” says Pink. “We’re meant to be autonomous individuals, not individual automatons.” (p. 107)

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 6. How to Create Change

Chip and Dan HeathSwitch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. Toronto: Random House, 2010.

Vision 2020 by 2020 is modeled after a campaign described by the Heath Brothers. It saved over 100,000 lives by getting hospitals to change some of their practices.

It is often said that people don’t like change, but the following three quotes from Switch demonstrate that there is more to it, that we can have faith in people to do the right thing if the conditions for change are properly set.

  • “What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.” (p.3)
  • “What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.” (p.12)
  • “What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.” (p.15)

Vision 2020 by 2020 also takes into account what the Heaths say about “bright spots”. “If you’re trying to change things, there are going to be bright spots in your field of view, and if you learn to recognize them and understand them, you will solve one of the fundamental mysteries of change: What, exactly, needs to be done differently.” (p. 39)

If 2020 high schools undertake to run pilot studies of democratic learning, there are bound to be many bright spots informing us of exactly what needs to be done differently.

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7. Earlier Days

The following two resources show us that the democratic learning model has been around for a long time. The heliocentric view of the universe is an example of how a model can be known long before it is adopted. Signs are promising that the democratic model is coming into its time.

A. S. Neill, Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1960.

This is the story of a democratic residential school that was founded in 1921. It was a school for children in difficulty, children Neill described with these words: “The difficult child is the child who is unhappy. He is at war with himself; and in consequence, he is at war with the world.” (p. xxiii)

John Dewey: Experience & Education. New York: Collier Book, 1938.

This is a book John Dewey wrote after his experience with progressive schools and in light of the criticisms his theories received. Following is a taste of what it offers.

“The rise of what is called new education and progressive schools is of itself a product of discontent with traditional education. In effect it is a criticism of the latter. When the implied criticism is made explicit it reads somewhat as follows: The traditional scheme is, in essence, one of imposition from above and from outside. It imposes adult standards, subject-matter, and methods upon those who are only growing slowly toward maturity. The gap is so great that the required subject-matter, the methods of learning and of behaving are foreign to the existing capacities of the young.” (pp. 18-19)

Dewey compared traditional schools to progressive schools as follows.

“To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill, is opposed acquisition of them as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal; to preparation for a more or less remote future is opposed making the most of the opportunities of present life; to static aims and materials is opposed acquaintance with a changing world.” (pp. 19-20)

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8. Videos

– TEDx talk by Jerry Mintz of Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) –  The Power of Democratic Process in Schools

– There are three videos on the Human Scale Education (HSE) homepage. Two of them are interviews with HSE director James Wetz. The other features Linda Nathan of the Boston small schools movement. They talk about the need for teachers to know their students well.

– TEDx talks by Zoe Weil of The Institute for Humane EducationThe World Becomes What You Teach and Solutionaries

– TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson – Do schools kill creativity?

– An introduction to Social Ecology. “If you want to make change, and you want to do things differently, and you’re asking big questions, then social ecology is for you.” – Kathryn Mc Cabe.

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