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A Note to the Apprehensive

The biggest obstacle to the democratic learning model is the belief that children are not capable of managing their own learning. Important to remember is that black people were once thought to be incapable of managing their own affairs, and that women were once considered to lack what it took to operate in the boardrooms of big business. If we are making the same mistake by under-estimating our children, we need to correct it as soon as possible.

There is a not so funny joke that pertains to this issue. It goes like this: “I was such a great learner, and then I went to school.”  Albert Einstein’s comment reinforces this view. “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education,” he said.  The lack of interest in learning that we see with school children may stem largely from them being required to learn things in which they have no interest.

Views on self-discipline usually enter discussions about children’s ability to manage their own learning. Self-discipline, however, is not just a childhood problem. It is everybody’s problem. We all battle with ourselves over doing what we know we should do versus doing what we want to do. The answer is not to use coercion on children in ways that we would not dare to use it on adults. Rather, it is to help them learn how to take charge of themselves, how to make good choices and how to accomplish things that require personal fortitude. There is a set of skills that people need and it is by being in charge of their own learning that children get to practice them. The skills can be thought of as “the art of self-discipline,” or “the art of accomplishment”, and it is not about cultivating raw willpower. It is about establishing effective incentives for oneself, something adults might be better at doing if they had learned how to do it when they were children.

Studies to date do not sufficiently support the view that children are capable of managing their own learning. More studies are needed and Vision 2020 by 2020 describes how these studies can be done in a way that does not put students at risk. Participation is on the basis of choice. Students who believe they need to be in control of their learning, or who believe that we need to get a clearer picture of what happens when they have more control, may choose to enroll in a pilot study. Other students can carry on in their regular program. Students who decide to participate in a study can do so for as little as one semester during which time they will have a thought-provoking democratic experience and still obtain their credits. It’s a no-lose situation.

These studies have the potential to also inform us more about optimum learning times. Current thinking is that the learning of a second language or a musical instrument needs to start when children are young, often before they appreciate the value of them. This points to the possibility that a fully developed democratic learning environment could resort to some coercion where optimum learning times and a child’s aptitudes suggest some intervention is warranted. If some coercion is deemed necessary then how to handle it without diminishing children and damaging relationships can be studied. It might turn out that simply making children aware of optimum learning times would be sufficient for them to commit to some learning before they would otherwise pursue it.


The point is that we need to find out more about democratic learning. We may be making a huge mistake not to be actively evolving to that model for public education. People don’t have to believe that it is the answer to our educational dilemma. They just have to appreciate that it has not been properly investigated, and then lend their support to getting the needed studies underway.


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