A term unfamiliar to others demands an explanation. And, that is so with “Democratic Education” as it is a model of formal learning known to only a few, unfortunately in my opinion. This blog entry re-writes, edits and re-posts much earlier ones to provide a general explanation of the concept in one post.
Defining Democratic Education:
Democratic Education rests on its conviction of children as owners of their own course of learning and as full participants in their school governance.
Democratic Education sees children's native curiosity as a powerful learning driver making unnecessary any adult coercion to engage learning activities. It also fully acknowledges the draw of childern's different talents to pursue different aspects of knowledge. Through their native inclinations, then, children within a Democratic Education school self-select what is learned, when what is chosen is learned and the depth, scope and duration of leaning. This intrinsic motivated self-directed engagement in the accumulation of knowledge ultimately leads Democratic Education to an individualized and emergent rather than a uniform and mandated course of study over a term and over a school residency.
Additionally, Democratic Education views children as principal stake holders in school governance. It places its school governance in the immediate learning community where adults and children have equal voices and equal community decision-making powers on all issues open to community decision. Through democratic participatory practices the learning community self-governs its school.
Yaacov Hecht (http://www.yaacovhecht.com/) developed the principles of Democratic Education in the mid-1980’s and in 1987, in Hadera, Israel, he founded the first Democratic Education school. To spread the word and to advocate for this model of formal learning he founded the Institute for Democratic Education (http://www.democratic.co.il/en/).
A brief history of Democratic Education in the U.S. starts with Francisco Ferrer, as my friend and colleague, Cooper Zale, maintains: “The ideas of ‘non-coercive’ and ‘learner-led’ schools have roots in the educational philosophy of Spanish educator Francisco Ferrer (1859-1909)…” (if still available see “What is a Democratic-Free School?”, http://www.leftyparent.com/blog/category/our-ongoing-strategy-for-learning/)
Ferrer looked to develop children’s knowledge and skills according to each student’s abilities rather than through drilled instruction and uniform lessons. He opposed religious and nationalistic indoctrination, but frequently instructors in Ferrer schools would instill values of liberty, equality, and social justice into students, and Ferrer’s textbooks had a general anti-statist, anti-capitalist, and anti-militarist line. He was a firm believer in what today is called life long learning which impelled him to institute adult classes at his schools.
Ferrer’s ideas in the U.S. sparked the Modern School Movement which established a handful of schools beginning in 1910. The small number of Modern Schools shrunk as the founders either died or moved on with most closing during the 1920’s. The Ferrer Modern School in Piscataway, NJ, was the longest lasting, not closing until 1953. (http://themodernschools.wordpress.com/)
The Modern School Movement was a reaction in education to the moves by the American industrialists of the Guided Age to concentrate power, to be authoritarian bosses in their factory fiefdoms. But, as history rolled on, the Modern School Movement dissipated and disappeared leaving reaction to authoritarian social and economic structures for another time. Then in the fullness of another time there came to the surface another group of folks reacting in the same vein to a similar creeping authoritarianism. And in the arena of formal learning they discovered their own path to rebellion, to restructuring the education process: They found A.S. Neill and his Summerhill school.
From Mary Leue, founder of The Free School in Albany, NY, to Daniel Greenburg, founder of Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts and to many other Americans in the 1960’s, there was a flat out rebellion against the authoritarian, conventional school. Like the progressive educators of John Dewey’s time, the rebels were looking to structure schooling as a mirror opposite. Thus, the confluence of vectors in time and in culture landed Alexander Sutherland Neill and his book, Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing on an American shore prepared to take from it everything fitting their rebellion. And so, regardless of Neill’s insistence that day schools could not be free schools at all, the Americans of the 1960’s founded free day schools.
These “free schoolers” latched tightly to the freedom in Neill’s notion that freedom to choose means doing what you want to do, so long as it doesn’t interfere with the freedom of others. They as well focused on Neill’s idea that freedom to choose that which affects the child individually, that which is of interest, of passion, of felt need, is essential for only under this kind of freedom can the child grow in his/her natural way.
Under their rebellious zeal to construct a mirror opposite of the authoritarian, conventional school, free schoolers fixated on elevating child impulse over self-regulation, in my view, and, thus, confused and excused license for freedom. Free Schooling includes self-selected learning and community self-governance, of course, but it extends far greater sufferance to child impulse than the preponderance of other Democratic Education schools ever have to date.
Hecht, not a free schooler, but like many before credits Neill and Summerhill with opening his mind to children’s intrinsic motivated self-selection of learning. What Hecht saw when he visited Summerhill school during the 1980’s were the youngsters’ ability to choose what to learn and when to learn what was chosen to be learned and the school’s policy of non-compulsory instructional attendance. He saw that even conventional learning happens well when children decide for themselves to, in my words, freely accept the conditions of inclusion in such instruction.
What Hecht also found was the control over the relationship life of the school being vested in a school community governance structure using a democratic process. Neill’s contention was that only in a residential school, where there is a social life, can there be a self-governance of relationships applied. Day schools, Neill insists in his book, have no equivalent to residential life and therefore have nothing over which to govern. Neill did not consider what in this country is called “student life”-clubs, intramural sports, school socials, etc.- embodying the spectrum of living necessary for community self-governance and thus, student governments, which are everywhere here tasked with governing student life incapable of governing interpersonal relationships within a school. Yet, Hecht took away an appreciation of the power of a school community to regulate relations within it.
Thus was formed the foundations of Democratic Education where the unique biology, unique gifts, of each child act as fundamental drivers of individual education without adult coercion visited upon youngsters, where students decide the course of their learning, and where all in the learning community fully participate in the governance of the relationships within the community.
There are different ways by which to be a Democratic Education school. Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, MA, (www.sudval.org/) represents the “free school” end of the spectrum where what students want to know is totally up to the them and where school policy and administrative governance is largely controlled by students. Summerhill School in Leiston, England, (www.summerhillschool.co.uk/) holds a middle ground with a conventional curriculum and administrative governance retained by the community adults, but with its social life governed by the learning community as a whole and with non-compulsory class attendance. Lehman Alternative Community School in Ithaca, NY, a public school, (www.icsd.k12.ny.us/lacs) offers a mostly traditional discipline curriculum but with a community shared policy and administrative governance.
The Democratic Education Learning System:
Regardless of where on the spectrum of Democratic Education a specific learning community is, there are common qualities marking the learning system as Democratic.
The Democratic Education learning system is driven by the individual social, emotional and cognitive needs of the students as manifested and understood by them, not by an interpretation of them by the adults in the school. Indeed, in Democratic Education schools the child is the definer of his and her own need and the decision maker as to how to satisfy the felt need. This goes counter to the traditional school adult over child relation where the adult is the one to define child need and is the decision maker on how to meet the interpreted need with the result that a Democratic Education school would look quite different in four critical ways from what people have come to expect in schools.
First, Democratic Education individualizes knowledge acquisition and use, that is, learning would be intrinsically self-directed. Children possess different neurological constructions, interests, abilities, temperaments, learning and communication styles and rates of emotional, cognitive and social development. These natural inclinations and individual differences drive differentiated information seeking, acquisition and use yielding quality differentiated outcomes over the course of a term and over a school residency. An authentic intrinsic self-directed system would put in the way of children the widest possible range of subject matter and let the children’s natural inclinations and differences drive what is learned, when it is learned and the depth, scope and duration of leaning. The course of study over an entire residency, then, emerges unique to every child as each engages learning through his and her talents, passions and interests.
However, unlike the Sudbury Valley free school model of intrinsic self-directed learning which removes the adult from almost all of the child’s decisions, the more prevalent Democratic Education intrinsic self-directed learning fully acknowledges the need for a mentoring relationship of adult to child. All students need the support of deep mentoring relationships with those thoroughly versed in the social-emotional and cognitive styles of the school’s population, and in the negotiation among student native inclinations, intrinsically motivated self-direction and credentialing decisions to assist students in maneuvering through the channels of the academy and to help them help themselves to work through their natural inclinations, individual differences and intrinsic motivation to achieve healthy personal growth and schooling success. Here, an adult mentor and a youngster enter a process mutually respectful of the wisdom of each to attain a common understanding of and an agreement on learning goals and the action steps required to reach those goals. The agreements on what is undertaken to be learned and when and how learning is to happen is known as a “negotiated curriculum”. Mentoring also includes a mentor working with children on social-emotional, psycho-dynamic and learning deficit issues.
Second, in-school engagement within a negotiated and an intrinsic self-selected curriculum during a Democratic Education school day would be through the student choice of one or more of three ways: through independent, individual or small group engagement with the materials and activities open to students; through self-selected small, whole group adult facilitated topic study or activity; and/or through self-initiated one-to-one instruction either with another student or with an adult. However, since the community as a whole has the responsibility of structuring learning, it can, as in Lehman Alternative Community School, agree on conventional whole group classrooms and a more conventional looking class schedule. Still, in the authentically child-decision-centered learning environment of a Democratic Education school the initiation of learning engagement, including instruction, is up to the child's felt need to connect with the knowledge, the materials, the activities, the adults and the classmates, rather than the fully adult initiated whole group classroom process of the traditional taking all decisions away from the youngster.
Third, the adults in the room of a child-decision-centered environment of a Democratic Education school have an additional role beyond being facilitators and mentors in intrinsic self-directed study: They are to model passionate life long learning and the meanings of collaborative work, goal setting, task acceptance and completion by undertaking learning activities of interest to the adult, inviting youngsters as helpers, as apprentices, in what is being done rather than as “students” being told what to do, and to in equal measure with the children of the learning community maintain behavioral norms according to both individual child and whole community needs through The Democratic Process, peer mediation, Non-Violent Communication (http://www.cnvc.org/) and LEAP pocess(http://leapinstitute.org/).
And fourth, Democratic Education schools are self-governing, like Summerhill. As A.S. Neill states: “Summerhill is a self-governing school, democratic in form. Everything connected with social, or group life…is settled by vote at the Saturday General School Meeting. Each member of the teaching staff and each child, regardless of his age, has one vote…Our democracy makes laws…The function of Summerhill self-government is not only to make laws but to discuss social features of the community as well. (Alexander Sutherland Neill, Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, New York: Hart Pub. Co., 1960, pp 45-47.)
In Democratic schools the community comes together in regular meetings of the whole to decide all issues. Adults and children have equal rights to speak and to persuade within community forums. Each has a single vote on questions up for community decision. The community can decide policies on such as curriculum and assessment, projects and assignments, advancement and graduation requirements, ceremonies, expectant behaviors consistent and inconsistent with the norms of the school as well as the means by which inconsistent behaviors are resolved.
Democratic Education Curriculum and Assessment:
Democratic Education resets the conventional schooling structure and the relationships of adult to curriculum, child to curriculum and adult to child. Democratic Education insists on students taking responsibility for their education choices by self-selecting what is learned, when learning happens and the depth, scope and duration of leaning.
In the conventional structure what is learned, the curriculum, is broken down into compartmentalized disciplines which are further broken down into subjects which themselves are divided into units which again are divided into smaller accumulations of specific facts and concepts available for the learner to take up into ready recall memory.
A basic outline of disciplines is as follows:
-English Language Arts
-Arts (a sort of catch all for everything not included above)
The sociology of knowledge as discipline division is an inheritance of the expansion in knowledge from the late Middle Age European Classical grammar school trivium and the university quadrivium. Indeed, the growth in the complexity of the sociology of knowledge under the agency of print dramatically increased information circulation, popular understanding and intellectual discovery requiring ever more differentiation of knowledge into distinct disciplines which were taken by generations of school folks as the basis for general study, preparing the young for a world where such knowledge was supposedly required.
The more conventional academic end of the Democratic Education spectrum honors this history by providing standard discipline study. But the more free school parts of the spectrum act on their understanding of the contemporary knowledge society.
Indeed, with the growth and societal saturation of electronic information technologies, three distinct effects are recognized: 1) that the pace of information production exploded to the point where it is no longer possible, even if it were in times past, to hold the resulting amounts of information in memory; 2) that the need to hold vast amounts of information in human memory has been eliminated as information is now stored in immediate access, digital memory; and 3) that the connectivity of digital media has broken down discipline barriers to recombine specialized knowledge at intersecting points.
Thus, it makes far more sense today for school folks, especially at the free school end of the Democratic Education spectrum, to make available learning experiences whereby children can master learning rather than to master content, and what content is offered can take full notice of the recombination of specialized knowledge.
Leaning to learn in a child-decision-centered environment of a Democratic Education school is to provide a wide range of opportunities for children to engage using their native instincts and individual differences, their intrinsic motivation and self-efficacy, to slowly gain skills as they test hunches/hypotheses, as they explore, discover and unfold, as they bring to consciousness through meta-cognitive development the mindfulness necessary for intentional learning decision making.
Such a process would begin with the readiness to acquire learning skills as the objective of an early childhood program while the acquisition of learning skills would be the focus of the elementary. The mastery of learning would be the province of a secondary education.
Taking full notice of the recombination of specialized knowledge is to provide an integrated, interdisciplinary thematic curriculum which at the macro-level can be ordered through Curriculum Strands, such as:
-The Life Cycle in the Natural World
-Communication Between Individuals and Within Groups
-Identity Within Groups and Institutions
-The Nature of Time and Space
-Our Response to the Aesthetic
-Our Relationship to Nature
-Our Role as Producers and Consumers
-Our Efforts to Live with Purpose.
Broken down into theme categories the curriculum strand of The Life Cycle in the Natural World, for instance, might include Ecology. And the category Ecology itself can be broken down into themes such as: Geography-life’s web of place and climate, and their affects on the development of plants, animals and people; Change-evolution and extinction, natural and man-made; Conservation-soil, air, water, energy; Micro and Macro Environments-explorations of the smallest and the largest ecosystems. The curriculum strands and their theme categories and individual themes constitute the structural framework of the intentional learning community’s curriculum which the school constructors and governors are obliged to populate richly with resources and activities in order to provide the knowledge sets open to intrinsic self-directed and negotiated learning.
The curriculum strands, as suggested above, would supply the knowledge categories youngsters engage in the abstract and in the experiential. So, as a further example, within the curriculum strand of Our Relationship to Nature might be the theme category of Bugs and Other Creepy Crawly Creatures-explorations into insects and the role they play in ecosystems-whereby those exploring the theme could select a few square feet of property, describe the micro-ecosystem there, observe and note over a certain period all insects in the air column over the property, the creepy crawlers on and around the ground and under the surface to approximately 18 inches. Then they would investigate to uncover the roles within that micro-ecosystem the creepy crawlers and flying insects have. Having noted the findings, a report in a medium of choice would be produced and presented. And on to the next theme, the next inquiry and on the education in this manner goes.
Democratic Education leans heavily on what is generally called “authentic assessment” of student learning progress: Thus, Descriptive Process evaluates behavior (see http://cdi.uvm.edu/resources/ProspectDescriptiveProcessesRevEd.pdf); Performance Assessment evaluates academics (see http://www.performanceassessment.org/). Ultimately, the methods of assessing student progress in behavioral and academic growth are a school community decision. However, the individualized nature of Democratic Education so heavily favors evaluation such as Descriptive Process and Performance Assessment as to nearly eliminate conventional testing regimes.
-has the mission to cultivate in all its youngsters a solid psychological foundation for future growth and a cognitive dexterity for life long adaptability to life’s challenges;
-by its twin pillars of Mindfulness and Empowerment supports a consistent personal responsibility response to the learning environment rather than through compliance demanded of children by the adults in the class rooms;
-develops the healthy, happy growth in self-awareness, self-regulation and self-actualization so in this century and beyond citizens can leverage these qualities in which ever way they discern is in their best interest and in the best interest of family, community, country and civilization;
-realigns relationship of adult to child from adult over child to an adult and child in partnership respecting the wisdom each possesses;
- recognizes individual social, emotional and cognitive needs of youngsters as manifested and self-identified by them, not by an interpretation of them by the adults in the class rooms, indeed, where the child is the definer of his and her own need and the decision maker as to how to satisfy the felt need, and where, through a deep mentoring relationship, the child will be helped to help him-herself to satisfy the full range of need;
-alters the relationship of adult to curriculum and child to curriculum where what is learned, when learning happens and the depth, scope and duration of leaning is both child intrinsically self-directed and adult-child negotiated;
-fully acknowledges learning as being a child decision driven through an individual’s neurological constructions, interests, abilities, temperaments, learning and communication styles and rates of emotional, cognitive and social development individualizing curricula and yielding quality differentiated outcomes;
-greatly elevates the mastery of learning over the mastery of content, and what content is offered takes full notice of the recombining of specialized knowledge through an integrated, interdisciplinary, thematic curriculum;
-uses authentic assessment such as Descriptive Process and Performance Assessment evaluating student progress in behavioral and academic growth;
-institutes school community self-governance.