What is a democratic school and democratic education?

Democratic schools are sometimes called Free Schools, but usually, they’re one and the same philosophy-wise. To be clear, democratic schools are not anti-republican or other parties. Democracy, in this case, simply means school power is not handed over to one teacher or one administrator, but that power is given to the entire school body, including students, staff and parents. The Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA) defines democratic education as, “Learning that equips every human being to participate fully in a healthy democracy.” IDEA goes on to say, “A democracy is a system in which the people have power and are able to exercise it. Democratic education incorporates the principles of a healthy democracy: students have an active role in shaping their own learning, rather than being passive recipients of knowledge. They are participants and citizens, each with unique gifts, not empty vessels or products on an assembly line.”

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+ An in-depth look at democratic education

Democratic schools individualize the learning process

Public school curriculum and classes are typically set in stone, determined by age, along with school, state and national rules. In most instances, students do not get to decide if they participate or not. This isn’t totally the fault of individual schools or teachers though. Government funding for public schools dictates what kids learn and when they learn it and teachers are expected to follow through. If a child can’t learn how the school is designed to teach or a child isn’t ready for a specific topic by a specific age, it’s simply too bad for that student. There are too many students, too few teachers and not enough time in public schools to individualize the learning process.

Democratic school philosophy considers that all humans learn differently and staff must adjust to a student’s personal abilities and needs vs. teaching everyone in the same cookie cutter manner. Democratic school students are encouraged to think for themselves and play a major role in developing their own educational goals. Staff and students work together to plan a meaningful curriculum and activities that fit individual needs. For example some kids learn best via structured worksheets or textbooks while others learn best by participating in hands-on activities. Some kids like lectures  but other students have trouble sitting still for an hour just listening. Some students are ready for algebra at age 12 while others aren’t ready until age 15 or older. Democratic education philosophy also believes that people learn all the time, while playing, reading, cooking and doing any number of other activities.

Will youth really learn if not forced?

To say that, “Kids won’t learn unless forced,” isn’t giving kids much credit is it? Plenty of research shows that kids do learn well when not forced. Still, it’s easier to explain with an example of how an adult learns a new skill. Say you’re an adult who wants to learn how to play guitar. At first maybe you’ll find a guitar and mess around with it a bit. You may decide to get a book about it, take a class or simply have your friend show you some chords. You either like the experience and continue with the learning process or you decide it’s not for you and drop it, choosing to learn about something else. If the task is necessary you may decide to continue, even though it’s hard. If you do drop it, it’s up to you if you return to the guitar later in your life. What many people seem to forget is that kids have just as many interests as adults, and are just as capable of learning new skills, if given support and if they’re not made to hate the learning process. At my son’s school and other democratic schools, kids take algebra class, history, science and learn skills like cursive and reading – without force or arbitrary rewards or punishments in place. And yes, just in case you’re curious, democratic students do get into college.

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Knowledge is not based on memorization or test taking abilities

Most public schools base useful knowledge on some fairly arbitrary concepts, such as how well you memorize or how well you score on a test. One public school high school student I know told me recently, “I memorize what I need to know for tests, then forget it. I just need to do good enough to stay in sports.” This student, and many others in public school, aren’t learning for the sake of learning. They’re memorizing facts and doing the bare minimum needed to get by so they don’t get in trouble. That’s not useful learning, which is likely why research shows that only 25% of high school students are college-ready and most aren’t prepared for work either. College, work and life success involves critical thinking and being able to tackle tasks on your own. Success does not mean simply memorizing facts for tests or doing as little as possible to get by. Democratic education allows students the chance to become as fully immersed in a topic as they wish. There’s no memorizing facts for standardized tests and no arbitrary homework – democratic school students have the time to really dig in deep to important topics without worrying about all those useless tasks.

Democratic schools respect youth

Students in public schools are required to listen to adults and must ask to speak, ask to use the restroom and aren’t allowed to change the rules for the most part. Public school students must earn respect, yet oddly are still required to respect adult authority without question. In a democratic school, students are not only allowed to speak their mind, it’s highly encouraged. At my son’s school, if youth don’t agree with a rule, they can call a meeting to discuss (or debate) changing the rule and majority vote wins. Youth at democratic schools are given the same respect as adults and aren’t expected to keep quiet if they question an adult’s motives. The benefit here is that youth learn early on that they can make a difference and that they do have control over what happens in their life. Quite a lot of research shows that when students are given power in how their school and lives are run, they develop a greater sense of direction of their own lives, experience better mental health and are more likely to avoid harmful behaviors, such as drug use and violence towards others.

Many people think that giving kids too large a voice will result in total chaos. That’s not true though. Very few situations in life are 100% rule-free, and neither is my son’s school. While the school does advocate that democracy is a basic right, even for kids, the school also makes sure that youth know that with these rights comes responsibility.

+ Freedom to Learn – an amazing blog about youth, freedom and education

Challenges of democratic school

Democratic schools aren’t perfect. Before you look into this type of education for your child, be aware, that like anything, there are some cons.

  • Very few democratic schools exist in this country and it may be difficult to find one near you.
  • Democratic schools are tuition based. Most offer financial aid, but democratic school costs are hard for some families.
  • Most people will not like that you don’t send your child to public school, or a well-known private school, and you’ll spend half your life defending your choice.
  • Because kids can opt out of classes, sometimes they do. I think some come to democratic education thinking that every second of every day will be filled with meaningful projects. Be realistic. No one, not kids or adults spend all day, every day doing something meaningful.
  • Older kids who come to democratic education from another type of school, usually have a deschooling period that can be rough on the family.
  • Democratic education won’t work for all kids. I’ve seen all sorts of kids thrive in democratic schools, but not every kid fits into this type of educational environment. Some kids want more structure than a democratic school may offer.
  • Parent involvement is vital and sometimes exhausting. I help the school fund-raise, I attend meetings, I’m on the school council board and I’m extremely involved in helping my son plan his educational and life goals. For democratic education to be successful, you have to be involved. When I look at my friends with kids in public school, and realize that most of them don’t even know what classes their kids are taking, I get a bit jealous. I don’t mind being involved, but it can be tiring.

Other quick perks of democratic schooling

As noted above, democratic schools have some cons, but also noted above democratic schools have plenty of perks. Beyond the perks mentioned above there are dozens of other reasons why I send my son to a democratic school. Below are just a few extra reasons.

Lastly, keep in mind that the average child spends eight hours a day in school. That’s 13,680 long hours during their early years (not including college). If school isn’t the absolute best part of your child’s world, then your child has a big problem. Every day my son says, “My high was school” which is how it should be, so there’s no reason to send him anywhere else.

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All Village Free School image ©Flickr user artfulblogger