Democratic Education in Public Schools: The Hope for a Hybrid

As you know, my heart is in democratic education (though I’d like to come up with a more inclusive term). After working closely with public schools for the last five years, the question for me has become, “How do we incorporate the values and practices of democratic schools into public schools?” Here are some of the reasons it’s much more of a challenge — though definitely not impossible:

  • Large classes. It’s nearly impossible for a teacher to customize the approach to the student when there are 20-30 kids in the class. I found it challenging to do so with 12 kids at a time at Spark. I often had to put the needs of the group over the needs of the individual.
  • Standardized curriculum and testing. The state and federal government requirements have become outrageously demanding under No Child Left Behind (I can’t even say those ironic words without wanting to vomit). In order for public schools to keep their doors open, they must continue to raise their test scores so that every child is deemed “proficient” in math and reading by 2014. Oh, the insanity. Future posts on this topic to come.
  • Lack of exposure. Most people haven’t heard about democratic education — I hadn’t myself until I’d almost graduated from college, even though I majored in Psychology. Information about successful alternatives in education and answers to frequently asked questions still haven’t hit the mainstream.
  • Lack of practical methods for incorporating student-centered learning into public schools. The reality is that most schools simply aren’t able to adopt a purely democratic model and may not know how to customize the approach and still meet their requirements. They need models for practices such as student-led parent conferences and after-school programs that give kids choice and voice in what they learn.

I want to assure teachers — especially at my own schools — that I understand the challenges they face, because I’ve worked in public education myself. This year, I hope to research programs and schools that have successfully applied democratic principles in traditional settings, and share what they’ve been able to do within their circumstances.

Comments (7)

  1. joe

    who gets three hours of sleep because they stayed up preparing for KINDERGARTEN?! i bet neither the teacher nor the students spent as much time “preparing.” wtf were you doing?

  2. Melia

    Hahaha, it occurred to me after posting the video that it must have sounded pretty funny that I was “preparing” for kindergarten until all hours of the night. To answer your question, I spent many long hours of fingerpainting, reciting the ABCs, and eating paste. The teacher said that I was the most prepared kindergartener she’d ever had in her class.

    What I should have said was that I was “preparing the WEBSITE” for starting kindergarten — writing and adding features to the site for the official project kickoff. And by not knowing what to expect, I meant I wasn’t sure what emotions and memories would surface, and if I was ready for them.

    Looks like I should reschool myself in Communications. Or perhaps just get more sleep?

  3. Dana Bennis

    Hey Melia – This is an important topic to delve into, the notion of democratic education in public schools and the complexities involved in that question. I look forward to future posts and conversations and more, and I just wanted to comment here that your emphasis on the difficulties facing schools and teachers in bringing the values and practices of dem ed is very important…

    Most teachers and those working with young people do want education to be more personalized and self-directed but are held back because of the kinds of hurdles you mentioned. There is much work to do to change this, but if we see current teachers and administrators as anything but colleagues in this challenge then I believe we are defeating ourselves before we begin.

    So, thanks for the important reminder!

  4. Casandra

    I left my school, a charter arts high school, because I just couldn’t see the people involved in administration valuing democratic educational practice beyond ‘talking points’ or superficiality. For my school, decisions on ‘whole-school practice/principles’ were largely made by the founder of the school- a man with a penchant for systems theory and a strict orientation toward ‘top down’ approaches (despite his own words to the contrary), and these decisions were nearly ALWAYS made in order to raise the profile of the school in the greater community- to make it more attractive as an option over other traditional public schools.

    Having said that, there is a prevailing attitude in the teacher education programs in my community that master teachers ‘control’ the classroom; that, first and foremost, that ‘order’ is maintained. Implicit in this is the assumption that teachers determine standards for order in accordance with the demands of their administrations, who are constantly aware of how their classrooms compare with those in other schools. The standards movement has exacerbated this atmosphere, but is not solely to blame.

    Many of my young progressive friends have become teachers along with me, simultaneously. Though they have been exposed ONLY to teacher training programs which emphasize ‘order’ as priority #1, I’m actually shocked to see that they largely agree with this model- especially because we’ve had nearly identical schooling histories (and they are ALL fervent activists for social justice in other arenas) and my opinions are so radically different. Maybe they REALLY want to please their superiors, and so perpetuate the classic public school power patterns… or maybe they just don’t see any cause for alarm because the populations they work with are SO comfortable following directions in order to succeed.

    [The only exception is the young teacher who taught WITH me (at my school, with my kids, etc), but she never saw education as a career path- it was just something to do at that time… now she’s out of school again.]

    Its weird, but I kind of get the feeling you have to play the game in order to change its rules, and I hate it.

  5. Don Berg

    HI Melia,

    Great to meet you at IDEC.

    In response to the comments about control in the classroom and the sense that order is paramount I wrote a piece on the two contrasting images of democratic versus traditional classroom schooling. In the introduction to the series I contrast the images by presenting some portrayals of each kind. For democratic schools I had an article, a podcast and a video, that each show how disorderly and uncontrolled that environment seems to be. On the other hand I had a video and a set of resources from the NEA on maintaining control in the classroom showing the opposite.

    What the rest of the article explores is why these images are actually completely misleading because of a shallow conception of what is considered to be the ideal educational environment. This is from the article:
    “In the mind of the average U.S. citizen today an industrial classroom is considered the ideal learning environment, whereas a democratic community might be considered a strange arrangement for children because it seems to lack the necessary leadership of adult authorities.
    These images and the usual judgments that result are very ironic and would be funny if the personal and moral stakes for each family weren’t so high.
    The judgment demonstrates a fundamental confusion about what education is and how schooling can serve to bring it about.”

    Here’s the URL (I hope it becomes a link since it seems I can’t preview this and therefore cannot test it out):

    I hope you have a chance to read the article, which you can download as a pdf from the top of the intro page.


  6. Melia

    Dana: I agree that most of the teachers I met have the kids’ best interests at heart, and many would like to take more progressive approaches but find themselves stymied for various reasons. I think sometimes ultra-progressive folks assume that teachers buy into the traditional system, but often times they come from progressive backgrounds themselves.

    Casandra: I’ve heard so many stories of people entering mainstream teaching to change the system, but the system ends up changing them — at least in practice. Perceived order and teacher control are expected ingredients of a “successful” classroom. Rewards and punishments are normally a key part of this, e.g. names on the board, stickers and stars, etc.

    You bring up a good point about folks sometimes paying lip service to the “whole child” or “student-centered” approach, which is even more subversive than an outright authoritarian model. One example: student councils that have no real power to make changes and decisions in their school. When students — and adults, for that matter — are told they have power but don’t really, they become even more disempowered.

    Don: Thanks for sharing the article about our limited way of thinking about the ideal classroom environment. The systems thinking approach talks about “mental models” of school — the idea in each of our minds about what school looks like. Many people think of desks, a teacher standing in front of the room, assigned homework, a quiet atmosphere with hand-raising, and so on. If we want to expand what classroom education looks like, we’ll have to help people expand their mental models of education and school.

  7. Don Berg


    One “mental model” that I suspect stands in the way of reforming schools is the mental model of a “student.” This is a problem that Paulo Friere repeatedly lamented but never seemed to resolve (at least in what I have read which included his first and last books.) Just by using the term we have implicitly assumed that this fundamental role requires another person who fulfills the role of a teacher. This is a false assumption under a great many circumstances, but as long as we refer to some people as “students” then we invoke that assumption, even if unconsciously.

    What I suggest as a more powerful set of fundamental roles for describing what is really happening in the learning process is to consider learning agents, learning catalysts, and learning contexts. Everyone in a learning community (a.k.a. a school) is a learning agent simply by being a human being in the community. Every one of those agents can also act as a learning catalyst for others. Learning catalysts can also be inanimate objects, like books, or rocks. The role a learning catalyst is assigned by a learning agent deciding to give that person or object a certain quality of attention that will enable them to solve a problem, pursue a goal or have fun. A child in a school is obviously a learning agent, but so are the adults. Paulo Friere repeatedly said that the teacher who is not also learning is not really teaching. These different terms will enables us to get past the limiting implications of the limitations of the conceptual duality of the teacher/student pairing.

    Some people in the community are assigned organizational roles, such as staff, to enable the organization to meet it’s needs, therefore I actually consider two different kinds of catalysts, intimate catalysts which I described above, and organizational catalysts. An organizational catalyst is acting in the interests of the organization, rather than acting exclusively in the interests of the learner. An organizational catalyst in a learning community is necessarily charged with seeing to the organization’s interests in a manner that supports the relationships of learning agents with their intimate learning catalysts. I don’t know if you see this like I do, but just posing the language to refer to the roles of learning agents and both intimate and organizational learning catalysts generates in my mind a powerful critique of traditional classroom schools. For just a brief example consider that time-on-task studies have shown that the majority of traditional classroom time is actually spent on “non-learning tasks” (by which they mean the teacher/school’s presumed agenda for learning) then comparing that to the efficiency and effectiveness that Daniel Greenberg reports from Sudbury Valley School it is evident that Sudbury has achieved a better system of learning catalysis than classroom schools. (He says he can teach 6 years worth of elementary math to the kids who ask him to teach them math in something like 6-8 weeks. He’s talked about it in articles that are available on the web, though I don’t have the references handy.)

    The learning context (the final component of my mental model) is everything in and around the learning agent and his/her chosen learning catalyst that has an effect on the relationship between the agent and the catalyst. There are three kinds of context to consider: intimate, organizational and societal.

    Intimate context is the aspects of the world that are in immediate proximity to the learner.

    Organizational context is the aspects of the groups the child is embedded within, i.e. family, school, clubs, neighborhood, county, country, religion, etc.

    Societal context is the groups-of-groups aspects that shape the child’s relationships with catalysts, such as language, gender, ecological conditions, etc.

    In my way of thinking about learning there are three things that every experience teaches, even if we are not aware of them: 1) how we manage our own and other people’s behavior, 2) how and what we exchange to meet our needs and the patterns of consciousness that result from being embedded within those power structures (1) and exchange processes (2). The organizational context of democratic schools is about creating a particular kind of context for learning these lessons in a way that encourages the best human qualities to emerge from the school community.

    The challenges that the German and Australian democratic schools face are examples of how the societal context impinges upon children’s lives in democratic schools. In Australia the founder of a school was criminally charged for operating his school following democratic principles and the German democratic school people are struggling not to be shut down for doing what they know is right for their children, simply creating a context in which the learning agents can be held responsible for their actions instead learning to manipulate those who want to take responsibility for their actions away from them.

    Teaching is ultimately, for me, the job of aligning the learning context to best support the relationship between a learning agent and the learning catalysts s/he chooses. Instruction, on the other hand, is the transmission of knowledge, skills and information. As you can see I have a very different mental model of education than is typical. But, this mental model makes a lot more sense out of the patterns of behavior in both traditional classrooms and democratic schools than anything else I have come across. And only after we can make sense of all forms of successful learning (regardless of the context in which that learning took place) can we formulate a sensible plan for re-forming schools and the whole educational system.


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