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Democratic education, with effort

5 min read


I recently traveled to Boulder, Colo., and lived on the campus of the University of Colorado for the annual International Democratic Education Conference. Since returning, teachers have been asking me, “What’s democratic education?” To me, this is almost like asking, “What’s love?” These are big concepts!

Have you ever considered whether your students should have a democratic education? Is your classroom democratic? Should it be? Let’s give this some consideration. For starters, democratic education is not easy. Democracy is essentially the effort to give everyone a voice. In democracy, whenever you make a decision, everyone deserves a chance to weigh in with his or her opinion. This can get really inefficient, really frustrating, and really messy!

Now consider this: Teaching is easier if you just set up a million rules, have “zero tolerance” for the big issues, shift the focus from freedom to accountability, and download a required, standardized curriculum. In this non-democratic set-up, the information kids “need” to learn may already be set in stone before the year even starts, regardless of their inclinations, talents and sensibilities. Even teachers have relatively little say in non-democratic education, since the district, state and nation often control the content to be taught and they monitor it with rigid testing requirements. The only way to “succeed” is to comply.

So what does democratic education mean in your class? It’s a great conversation that feels compelling, even though it is not something you might want to test kids on. It is a field trip to the gardens where students can create poems or drawings that are completely immeasurable. It’s a student proposal for a club or “alternative” project that no teacher or administrator ever thought to offer. It’s committees where proms and events are hatched and developed. Maybe it’s a student skipping class and walking over to a shady spot on the grass to dream … because they just need that right now — and you trust them to know what they need!

Democratic education is emails or letters the history-class students sent to the students of a school in Africa. It’s micro-loan proposals that your economics students selected as being worthy enough to fund. It is beyond the things we do or the facts we learn. It is the life meaning behind all those things and facts.

Most teachers aspire to democratic education as we aspire to other big values like love. We know we cannot achieve this in everything we do, and we know there are practicalities that need tending to. About all we can do is continually look for small pockets of opportunity where students can exercise their voices. If we are to become more democratic teachers, we must spend our days grazing for these pockets. We never know where we will find them, and this is part of the beauty, part of the love.

Of course, most of us have some required curriculum. We have exams and grades and grade levels. I receive many letters from teachers across the country who feel pressured and constrained about much of this — trapped even. I can only hope they will not spend their entire careers in regret.

There are a fair number of free schools in the United States — a whole movement of them. In free schools, students merely show up and have no requirements whatsoever, and are trusted to seek out learning simply based upon our belief that this is the most natural thing in the world to do. In a free school, we give our students a full voice and unlimited choices even if they merely show up and exert no effort. I can see advantages to this to some students — the highly creative, the transitioning, the disenfranchised, those who simply need some time. Can we learn anything from this? Can we find “open spaces” for our students as the year marches on?

Imagine a scale where one end is free, democratic schooling and the other end is compulsory, autocratic education. Where would your class and your school lie on this scale? Is that where you want it?

       1                 2                 3                 4                 5                 6                 7

No rules or requirements                             Strict teaching to the test

Free, democratic schooling                         Compulsory, rigid education

All healthy humans cherish freedom. Here is a comment one of my students made on the nationwide High School Survey of Student Engagement. What I find fascinating about this quote is the phrase “with effort.” Democracy is hard work. I leave it to you to determine the extent to which this student is describing democratic education.

“What I like about this school is the freedom to do things. You can basically create any club or sport that you want to even if it has never been made at the school. With effort you can do anything.” — anonymous student, HSSE survey

What do you think? At the end of this new school year, what will students cherish about your class?

Stuart Grauer is a teacher, founding head of The Grauer School in Encinitas, Calif., and founder of the Small Schools Coalition. He accredits and consults for schools worldwide. He accredits and consults for schools worldwide. His book, “Real Teachers,” seeks to inspire teachers to rejuvenation, liberation and joy.