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A Little Background

(This was originally published on January 6, 2013 as a post titled: The Neglect of Democratic Learning.)

The idea of giving students more control over their learning has been around for a long time. Summerhill, a school based on students having freedom, was founded by A.S. Neill in 1921. In the forward to Neill’s book titled Summerhill, Erich Fromm explained the thinking behind the school as follows:

“During the eighteenth century, the ideas of freedom, democracy, and self-determination were proclaimed by progressive thinkers; and by the first half of the 1900’s these ideas came to fruition in the field of education. The basic principle of such self-determination was the replacement of authority by freedom, to teach the child without the use of force by appealing to his curiosity and spontaneous needs, and thus to get him interested in the world around him. This attitude marked the beginning of progressive education and was an important step in human development.”

John Dewey is possibly the person most associated with the term “progressive education”. In his 1938 book titled Experience & Education, he described it saying:

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.

In 1968, the Sudbury Valley School was founded on these progressive ideas and it described what it offered as “self-directed, democratic learning”. The term has since been shortened. Schools based on these principles are now referred to as “democratic schools”, and they are operating in over 30 countries.

With the rising interest in democratic learning, organizations have formed to help share experiences. Five of these are the European Democratic Education Community (EUDEC)International Democratic Education Network (IDEN)Australasian Democratic Education Community (ADEC)Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO), and The Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA). These groups run annual conferences and in 2005 the participants of one titled the International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC) agreed on the following statement:

“We believe that, in any educational setting, young people have the right:

  1. to decide individually how, when, what, where and with whom they learn
  2. to have an equal share in the decision-making as to how their organizations – in particular their schools – are run, and which rules and sanctions, if any, are necessary.”

Despite the significant number of democratic schools, there does not appear to be a single public community school among them.* This produces a serious threat to public education. Parents who want a democratic education for their children, parents who need to be kept in the public system for the leadership they can provide, are going to send their children to private schools if they have the option. It is therefore imperative that people who want to preserve the public system address what is becoming a trend towards democratic learning environments.

Offering a democratic education to students in their neighborhood school is something that has to be finessed. It is not as simple as just declaring a school to be democratic. Traditional schools are not going to suddenly become democratic because some authority declares them to be so. They are full of students and teachers who are used to doing things one way, and many of them will not want to change. These people are as entitled to have their preferences respected as those who want change and so traditional schools need to provide for both worlds. The conditions for evolution to something new are established by providing equally visible and accessible choices in the community schools. With time, the best choice will become the choice of the majority and the school will be transformed.

Similar to how traditional schools cannot suddenly become democratic, students, even those who want a democratic education, cannot be expected to suddenly transform themselves. Unlearning one set of behaviors to adopt a new set takes time, but there are ways to ease the transition from dependent to independent learner. Daniel Pink in his book Drive described this problem saying,  “If we pluck people out of controlling environments, when they’ve known nothing else, and plop them in a ROWE or an environment of undiluted autonomy, they’ll struggle.” (ROWE stands for “results only work environment” where there are clear performance objectives that employees are free to achieve in the way that suits them.) It is suggested that some kind of “scaffolding” be used to help people with the transition, and that is what the Vision 2020 by 2020 pilot projects do by maintaining the requirement that students obtain four course credits. The courses provide a familiar agenda with clear objectives, but students work on them in a ROWE instead of through the traditional teacher-centered process involving 110 hours of mandatory class time paced in lockstep with other students. From this view of democratic schools, one can see the likelihood of students passing through them becoming more suitable for the modern workplace than students with a traditional education.

In time, as students become capable independent learners, the pre-determined course requirements could be lifted to free students to learn what they see as most benefitting them. This automatically eliminates the problem of antiquated curriculum and the costs of highly paid personnel trying to keep it current. It also provides for students, with the help of qualified facilitators, to practice setting and achieving clear performance objectives based on real world conditions.

Thomas Kuhn became famous with his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions from which the term “paradigm shift” originates. He used Copernican Revolution as an example of how shifts in public thinking can take centuries. The shift from thinking of teachers as the center of learning to students being the center has many parallels to the shift from the geocentric to the heliocentric view of the universe. There are people who respond to talk of democratic learning with an ill-considered “been there, done that” attitude when the educational establishment has hardly been there or done it at all. It is been abandoned by public educators at the stage aviation was at when people flapping homemade wings were jumping off of rooftops. The job of thoroughly exploring democratic learning for public education purposes is still to be done.

* Although there may be no community public schools that can be described as democratic schools, there may be public schools-within-schools like the ones proposed by Vision 2020 by 2020. If anyone is aware of such programs, please inform us of them by using the comment box below or by emailing to:

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