Dream Bigger: Radically Democratic Education

There is a lot of conversation among democratic education practitioners about how democratic should a school be. The dilemma for me is that a lot of these conversations reflect ideas about participatory democracy in schools that no fewer than 80 years old (thanks A.S. Neill).  In this time of technological revolution we need a real educational transformation that will usher in radical democracy throughout our society! Here are some examples:
  1. Create Democratic School Cultures. This means no more student councils. All students in all grades in all schools need to experience democracy as a practical, tangible activity within their daily educational experience, without the tokenistic gesture of representation and the passive activity of voting being at the middle of their day. Instead, concrete experiences of dialogue, peer-driven conflict resolution and interactive learning conducted within a democratic culture and education can serve as the decision-making aparati apparently provided by student councils. 
  2. No More Tokenism. There should be no single seats for high school students on building-, district-, or state-level committees. Instead, all school committees at all levels should be operated in a way that deliberately engages students as equal partners, including using meeting techniques that are engaging, and having equitable positions on those committees, including numbers and representative power. 
  3. Student/Adult Courts Rule. When educators learn to use school rules as interactive educative tools for determining social interactions schools can engage students and adults collectively in determining appropriate outcomes for infractions.
  4. Student-Driven Learning. Self-guided educational practices are already the norm in some “alternative” schools; let’s make this practice normative throughout all levels of schools. There is a possibility in the relationships between all students and teachers to actually have all K-12 students design their own individual academic programs, and to utilize those experiences as educational and democratic processes. Rather than seeing this as a situation where adults are “handing over the keys to the car” to a 16-year-old, let’s use student-driven learning in a constructivist fashion from kindergarten forward.
  5. Constructivist Democratic Learning. Engaging students takes a deliberate process that should begin in their youngest years and extend through high school. It should build on students’ previous knowledge and be imbued by their cultural norms. In kindergarten learners can facilitate peer-to-peer conflict resolution, personal decision-making anddemocratic group learning experiences; by forth, fifth and sixth grades students can conduct original research on their schools, complete regular self- and teacher-evaluations, and participate in building-wide decision-making activities; by high school young people should have established clear and equitable relationships with adults throughout schools in order to participate in full student/adult partnerships.
  6. Reciprocal Accountability. The era of adults measuring student achievement without some form of mutual measurement is over. When ratemyteachers.com started mocking the power of students in the early 2000s teachers across the nation flipped out, finding their names and classrooms rated by anonymous users calling themselves students. Educators still haven’t identified a way en masse to use tools like this as teaching opportunities, but there has been some headway. And while assessments of student behavior have often been focused on negative perspectives, schools are finding ways to acknowledge positive student behavior and learning through student-led conferencing. So there is progress towards reciprocity- but educators must continue to move forward with students as partners.
  7. Full-Court Press. All student expression, positive, negative and otherwise, must be allowed space and opportunity within schools, and used towards teaching and learning. By embracing diverse and divergent student voice, educators can embrace the potential of learning led by students and learn new ways to relate to, teach, and encourage themselves and everyone in our communities.
  8. Equity and Equality. A common assumption among educators is that all student involvement should be actualized as complete equality. However, equity is often the just, fair and righteous route to take. Equity is about fairness in schools, equality of access in learning, recognizing inequalities throughout education and taking steps to address them. It is about changing school culture and structure to ensure equally accessible to all students.
  9. Make Meaning from Living. Curriculum should be based in every students’ experiences of living their daily lives as well as preparing them for tomorrow so that schools meet the purpose of enriching the present as well as enlightening the future. This validates the ideas, experiences, wisdom and knowledge young people have, ultimately positioning their voices as central throughout learning, which in turn reinforces the depth and meaning of democracy. This will secure learning for life, and a commitment to democracy that is unparalelled.
  10. Public Or Nothing At All. Democracy is inherently about inclusion. Private schools and charter schools are antithetical to the democratic levers of public control over public schools, as they generally operate with privately elected boards of directors or fully autonomous presidents. Admittedly, public schools generally behave as if they’re out of the purview of the masses; however, forceful, peaceful and powerful advocacy by students and parents will ultimately lead to stronger controls. 

One thought on “Dream Bigger: Radically Democratic Education

  1. Awesome list and analysis, Adam. This will be a great tool to discuss with students, educators, schools, parents, etc. Thanks.

    One point on the history of these ideas… While A.S. Neill is generally acknowledged as the pioneer in radical student-directed learning, the ideas were out there well before him, though not as clearly presented as by Neill.

    Going back to the late 1700s in England, William Godwin advocated for the government to get out of the schooling business and for students to direct their own learning. He was one of the earliest in a long line of “libertarian” educators, including Leo Tolstoy (who ran a free school in Russia in the 1860s, check out a book about it!), Emma Goldman, and Francisco Ferrer, who started The Modern Schools in Spain (which then came to the U.S. in the early 1900s). All of these thinkers and educators talked about radical (“to the root”) democratic education and youth directed learning.

    There’s also the “romantic” thinkers like Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Froebel, and the “transcendentalists” like Emerson, Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott, all of whom advocated for student-directed learning in varying degrees, though not to the extent of most of the libertarians or Neill and current democratic schools.

    It’s helpful to look back into history and realize that these ideas actually aren’t all that new. In fact, in 1862 (in this book, I think) Tolstoy wrote that these ideas are so new and different that he doubts whether they may become the norm for 100 years! Well, here we are 147 years later, and meaningful youth voice and democracy in schools is still the exception.

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