Democracy Schools

About five years ago, in one of my final conversations with Sasha Rabkin (whom I’ve mentioned before), I learned about his conceptualization of “democracy schools,” different from democratic schools. This isn’t the same as some national programs already at work, but they aren’t entirely different, either.

The idea is a school where students do more than simply learn about democracy or make decisions through democracy; rather, they lived democracy in its myriad forms and functions. This features the attitudes and values of democracy while allowing the mechanisms and outcomes to be present without being dwelt upon. I think about this primarily in relationship to the schools whom I’ve studied in the past, and the educator/students I’ve had the privilege of learning from in the recent past. From this learning I have come to understand that we need a more deliberative, a more committed model of democratic practice within public schools than what has been practiced before, and what is being practiced outside the walls of public schools today.

I know there are already existent models that begin to touch base on this, and Sasha’s work with the Institute for Community Leadership is not the least of these. I also know that these models are not wholly ascertainable to the average educator and/or student, either because of their complicated nature, because of their inaccessible verbage, or because of their obtuse outcomes and program goals that aren’t aligned with governmental goals for schools.

My own model of meaningful student involvement was originally intended to serve as a framework to assist schools in self-designing new approaches towards democracy in learning, teaching and leadership in schools. However, after five years of working the model that way I am inclined to begin to systematize the model in order to bring it into more schools as a holistic model of democratic schooling.

There are dangers inherent in this type of approach, not the least of which being the tempation to romanticize student voice and isolate it, much as the proponents of “non-coersive” education do. (Note: there is no such thing as non-coersive education; everything that influences us is coersive in its nature – humans are reactive creatures who create in response, rather than in absence.) This may fly in the face of adults who believe in the “purity” of young people, arguing that “pedastaling” the experience of being young is more important than having a responsible citizenry engaged in the vibrant, essential struggle of democracy. I think this tendency places students’ experiences – at least as adults see them – as holy institutions in and of themselves.

The risk of this adultism is that it perpetuates the notion of child-as-innocent without addressing the urgency of the changing nature of childhood. Despite the pleas of well-intentioned advocates such as Neil Postman, the fact of the matter is that our society is progressive by nature: we are inventors, prodginators, developers and schemers, all because we are each creative. True, that nature can be squelched out of us; unfortunately there are forces on both sides of this argument that are responsible for this. On the right there are those who argue that the evolutionary nature of childhood and youth is a prime location for consumerism and consumption; on the left is the notion of childhood as a prime location for innocence and perfection. Somewhere in between there is a reality that offends parents everytime their children dress and act differently than them; it confronts teachers and employers who wrangle over technology access; it confusese politicians and leaders who are used to appealing to people from their own self-interest, and identifying the self-interest of young people today is not an easy task.

This leads me to believe that the only way schooling can succeed is by engaging all young people – every student – as a deliberative learner, as an intentional teacher, as a knowledgeable researcher, as a critical evaluator and as a central decision-maker throughout their formal and informal educational experiences. This blows up the historical notion of the young person as passive recipient; rather, it turns that notion inside out by placing the student as the central player in the pantheon of educational actors. Suddenly, students are responsible for more than showing up for class, choosing whether to engage or deciding to not turn in their homework. Instead, they become responsible for identifying their self-interest in learning and its connection to their lifelong well-being. They become co-drivers and co-leaders throughout the leadership component of schooling, as educational research, teacher evaluation, curriculum planning, classroom management and school improvement become the pervue of each learner. In no short terms, they become partners in education.

This is more than foisting adult-driven measures for student success upon the shoulders of young people and telling them its their job to make it happen. Let’s start from a simple understanding of where we are today: young people are segregated from adults. In schools this is manifested as adult-led administration, adult-led classroom learning, adult-led learning evaluation, adult-led systemic decison-making, adult-led building management, and even adult-led advocacy for school change. From that perspective, I am proponenting the complete integration of students into the life of schools. Again, this is far and beyond “listening to student voice.” Instead it is complete integration. From that place we re-envision learning as a democratic experience itself, embodying the principles of participatory democracy to the core, thereby radicalizing schooling and democracy at their core. The outcomes of this innovation would be far-reaching, to be sure; however, they would be tempered by the reality that, at least initially, schools would simply be catching up to technological developments that envelope the lives of young people today. The participatory nature of the Internet today, as summarized by Tim O’Reilly’s phrase, “architecture of participation,” proves that young people are powerful actors in their own education, as well as that of others. We will likely never know how many eight-year-olds are authoring Wikipedia articles, and how many times do students send Facebook invites to thousands of people every day? When we will realize that this exact same energy can be harnessed for the good of learning in schools?

By adopting this wide-ranging stance I believe the education system can supersede any simplified notions that might actively be undermining the appeal of democratic schools to educators today. One of the most frustrating criticisms I’ve heard from within the democratic education movement is the notion that somehow public school teachers are bad guys because they enforce the governance thrust upon them. On the flip side of the coin, public school teachers I have talked with about D.E. have been dismissive of what they consider to be the narrow visions of democracy and the limited appeal of democratic schools. And so I’m beginning to concern myself primarily with the notion of the middle ground, the place where the worlds meet.

This post began from a dialogue I’m having with Dana Bennis regarding the development of the Institute for Democratic Education in America. After beginning our communications only last summer, Dana spent several hours with me in Manhattan considering the depth and possibilities for our individual works this last winter. I have readily admitted to him that it was his implicit acceptance of my perspective that gave me the permission I needed to attend IDEC. Now I feel an exciting revitalization towards this effort. Combined with my new position, I believe that through Dana’s Institute I will see the development of new works in this area within a short window of time. Here’s to the near future!

2 comments

  1. Hey Adam,

    I think you are on to something here, carving out a different conception of democratic education and democratic schools than is considered either by those involved with “pure” democratic or non-coercive education, or those involved with more mainstream progressive education efforts such as The Forum for Education and Democracy and the Coalition of Essential Schools.

    But I want to provoke you a bit more. You write of the difference between the purity of youth perspective and the educational implications of actively building towards “a responsible citizenry engaged in the vibrant, essential struggle of democracy.” What is this difference? Those involved with non-coercive education and democratic schools such as Summerhill will say theirs is a vibrant democracy that deals with all kinds of struggles. Is there something else you are envisioning in your conception of “democracy schools”?

    Another way to get at this question could be to look at your comment in our last interchange:
    “Critical democracy moves beyond the platitudes of modern democratic government, like voting, representative leadership and whatnot. Instead critical democracy incorporates radical self-reflection, tolerance, power sharing, critical thinking, responsibility for self, social responsibility and connectedness.”

    Could democratic schools a la Summerhill or Sudbury Valley be practicing mainly the platitudes of democratic government while missing the practices and values you mention above as critical democracy?

    My initial thought is that the “best” democratic schools incorporate both the tangible elements of democracy AND the more critical, intangible signs of democracy, namely radical self-reflection, power sharing, social responsibility, etc. By implication, then, some environments may have only the tangible elements, much as some educational places lacking in the tangible elements might have some of the critical practices of democracy by virtue of certain strong personalities or embedded cultural values. I’m just musing here, though I think there is some basis for this!

    One final and important thought, though, is that even those places that incorporate both tangible democracy and critical democracy for young people may not be expressing this complete conception of democratic education in such a way that can engage and interest those new to these ideas or those working in public and conventional education.

    What I believe you may be on to is that this notion of critical democracy and the values and practices from your quote above might be very helpful in the work to open people’s awareness about the value and power of democratic education, and to bridge that unexamined disconnect between a democratic society filled with undemocratic schools.

    Because if there is one thing we cannot do, it is to simply be complacent that a few “pure” democratic schools exist out there while ignoring the fact that the large percentage of young people are not in those environments.

    – Dana

  2. Hi Adam,

    You are definitely on to something here. This notion of “the place where the worlds meet,” meaning democratic education and public schools, is exactly where we need to place our collective thought.

    Most importantly, I want to focus on your comments about how democratic education is perceived by others. You write that some democratic school “models are not wholly ascertainable to the average educator,” and that public school teachers (among others) are “dismissive of what they consider to be the narrow visions of democracy and the limited appeal of democratic schools.” I’m curious about these comments and reactions. How are democratic schools presented to others? Is there an incorrect assumption about democratic education out there that some people are responding to? Are democratic schools (or some of them) deserving of this critique?

    I think this line of thinking may be tied to what you, Adam, described as “critical democracy” in a follow-up comment to your “Why Schools Fail Democracy” post, namely:

    “Critical democracy moves beyond the platitudes of modern democratic government, like voting, representative leadership and whatnot. Instead critical democracy incorporates radical self-reflection, tolerance, power sharing, critical thinking, responsibility for self, social responsibility and connectedness.”

    I would wager that most, if not all, democratic schools endeavor to live up to this deeper understanding and practice of democracy. Some, for various reasons that would be very interesting to consider at some point, may not live up to that goal. I believe that many, however, do.

    What I wonder about, and which may be connected to the critiques mentioned above, is whether or not we discuss democratic education often enough in terms of the critical democracy you outline in that comment. Are those of us dedicated to democratic education preventing greater public understanding of and acceptance (if not enthusiasm) for democratic education by virtue of how we discuss and present it? Is the version of democratic education and democracy discussed by democratic school supporters one that is superficial, overly simplified, or in any other way alienating to those who may not immediately support the idea of student-directed learning and student involvement in school decision-making? And, if so, how can we reframe how we present democratic education?

    This notion of how we frame and discuss education is a huge one, I believe, and can indeed have an impact on how people think about young people and learning. A challenge, then, is to frame democratic education both honestly and accurately, while also presenting it in a way that resonates with others.

    Lastly, I want to bring up what you describe as the myth of non-coercive education and the “purity” of young people. I wonder if the tendency to think of young people in that way may be a partial cause of the negative reaction to democratic education among public school teachers and others, and I think we need to explore this some more.

    Adam, your experience with youth voice and adult-youth relationships brings an important perspective to those involved with democratic education, and I think there is a lot that folks in democratic education can learn from you about the subtleties of adultism and the treatment of young people. Could you examine a bit further what you mean by the romanticism of youth voice and the “purity” of youth? Are you thinking that democratic schools take or can take a distorted “pure” look at youth self-direction and voice, in their publicity materials if not in practice? Is it possible that such a perspective might ignore or reject other essential aspects of democracy and critical democracy, such as “radical self-reflection, tolerance, power sharing, critical thinking, responsibility for self, social responsibility and connectedness”?

    In short, I think you are onto something regarding the meeting of democratic education and public schools, and a big piece of this potential connection is how democratic education is presented. How can we best frame democratic education in order to present it in the most welcoming and inviting manner to students, public school teachers and administrators, parents with students in conventional schools, and others?

    Just a minor question… 🙂

    Dana

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