Youth Engagement in Democratic Education


Way back in 2008, I presented a few workshops at the International Democratic Education Conference. I had dabbled in the “DemEd” community for a few years by then, and this was my first push to really inject the movement I stand for: Youth engagement. While it seems antithetical for democratic education to be anything other than engaging for youth, as a student and parent who has experienced democratic education for years, I have experienced it to be otherwise. At IDEC I wanted to share those experiences with folks.
Now, five years later, I’ve continued to be involved in a variety of ways, both locally and nationally. However, what I’ve seen in the last several years has shocked me as I’ve become more alert to the reality of democratic education as its practiced across the country.

What I have seen is that youth engagement in democratic education is still expressly focused on youth as consumers of learning. In this way, they’re granted a lot more leverage than traditional learners: Allowed to design and determine their own learning experiences in many ways, all democratic education experiences generally give young people a lot of leeway in learning what they want.

However, the experience of owning the democratic education experience generally belongs to the parents of students, the adults on the boards of directors, and the learning environment leaders (i.e. teachers, learning guides, etc.), instead of students themselves.

Generally, students in democratic schools…

  • Don’t have a say over the budgets of their democratic schools 
  • Don’t control the facilities 
  • Don’t generally hire the teachers 
  • Don’t vote on the boards of directors 
  • Don’t make operating rules 
  • Aren’t invited to review grant proposals 
  • Don’t determine whether or not they actually go to the schools in the first place. 

Generally.

Generally, democratic education is still done to students or for students instead of with students or by students themselves.

While a lot of people are resolved that democratic education generally respects learners, gets past memorization and standardization, and moves away from forced learning, they don’t recognize the reality of most democratic education environments. That is, in this way of doing education that is done for and to students, we generally aren’t addressing the real issues that face students in the long run. Instead, we’re focused on the day-to-day experience of learning. By trying to make schools as affable and immediately gratifying as we can, we deny their ultimate necessity in the democracy we live in.

Democracy is not borne overnight on the backs of angels; instead, its an active, interactive, and hyperactive exchange of passion, purpose, and power that happens over vast time and spaces. The Butterfly Effect is fully actualized within democracy. That’s why its vital to infuse democratic education, and all education within a democracy, with Meaningful Student Involvement.

Meaningful Student Involvement positions all learners as full partners with adults throughout the education system. Learn more about it here.

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