Recess all day?

Imagine a school where you could choose what you learn and how you learn it. Imagine having an equal vote, whether you’re age 5 or 17, on decisions like which teachers are hired, or what rules students and staff will follow. Imagine a school day where you could write a letter to the local newspaper, curl up and read your favorite novel, explore the woods, or create a computer program.

It wasn’t until my last year of college that I found out that schools like this exist. I came across the book Summerhill, now revised and published as Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood, about an English school that had been around since 1921. I mentioned the book in a class that I shared with Andrew Chen, and we began a friendship that drew us both — through a chain of events that now seems almost fated — into the world of democratic education.

Summerhill Students

Summerhill Students

If you’re not familiar with democratic education, it’s a philosophy and practice whose essence is “People of all ages have input into the decisions that affect them.” It seems like a common-sense idea, but most schools and families don’t operate this way. The adults make most of the decisions, and the kids have more input as they grow older. On the other hand, adults and kids at democratic schools (also called “non-coercive” or “free” schools) decide together how their schools operate, meeting regularly as a community and normally having a democratic system for decision making and conflict resolution. Students are in charge of how they use their time and direct their own education from a young age. If schools exist to prepare kids to participate in a democracy, this kind of education is crucial.

Since I discovered democratic education, I’ve visited schools all over the U.S. and in several countries, schools that “fit the needs of the child rather than fitting the child to the needs of the school,” to paraphrase Summerhill founder A.S. Neill. Of course some schools are more successful than others at finding the balance between freedom and license. I’ll describe my favorites in a separate post — the ones where even the youngest students speak their minds freely and with confidence, and explore what interests them with as much guidance as they want. Every time I visit a school that’s working well, I feel as if I’m home.

I’m spending the week feeling at home with my “tribe,” as I like to call them, at the International Democratic Education Conference in Vancouver, Canada. IDEC is an annual convening of folks from all around the world who are connected to democratic education: students, teachers, parents, people connected with innovative programs and projects. Our days are packed with a variety of “open space” workshops — led by anyone who wants to propose one — keynote speeches by inspiring educators, and conversations that I know will lead to big things. Through next Monday, I’ll be reporting on what I’m learning about at the conference: cool programs and projects that you may not have heard of, inspiring people, and ways of thinking about education that may challenge your own.

Read more at In future posts, I’ll be addressing common questions about alternative education, including:

  • Can it work in public schools, within government requirements?
  • Can it work with students from low-income backgrounds? Students from cultures who value strong parental authority?
  • Are labels like “democratic education” limiting?


YOUR TWO CENTS – Leave a comment!

If you’d gone to a democratic school, what would you have done more of, and less of?

Comments (6)

  1. Margaret

    I would have had: more nature learnin’, more quiet reading, more singing; less parental involvement in terms of money, fewer gigantic language arts assignments each week, less ugly uniforms.

  2. Melia

    I would have written more stories, looked under more rocks, acted in more plays and made up my own. I would have drawn portraits, learned to play the guitar and violin, and studied French and German. I would probably have done some of these things at off-site apprenticeships during school hours.

    I would have avoided geometry and chemistry and wouldn’t have done any homework — especially the chapter review questions where I paraphrased the textbook. And I definitely wouldn’t run the mile in P.E.

  3. djschwin

    In hindsight, I would’ve done more critical thinking in high school. My school didn’t offer really any opportunities for that. When I got to the critical thinking, question everything environment at Loyola New Orleans, I had a pretty steep learning curve initially.

    I would’ve read more books about resourceful men making hard decisions in post-apocolyptic futures, and less books about dreary British nannies.

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  5. Ide

    This is a really interesting approach to education, especially in terms of critical thinking. I was lucky enough to go to a high school that encouraged thought rather than memorization, but it required a bit of an adjustment after my hellish Catholic grade school experience.

    If I had done this when I was a kid, maybe it wouldn’t have taken so long for me to come out of my shell. I probably would’ve spent a lot of time reading, writing and studying languages and geography. I might’ve spent less time worrying about making mistakes. And I would’ve been spared the experience of sobbing in the corner during gym class because I was the only kid who couldn’t do a somersault.

    But I also would’ve skipped the books that turned out to be some of my favorites, even though I never would’ve scooped them up in the Bookmobile. I probably wouldn’t have done nearly enough math or science, which is a shame because those subjects eventually became more rewarding for me than the ones that came so naturally.

    I know the idea is that if you foster a child’s natural urge to learn, he or she won’t associate negative things with a particular subject or activity. Confidence and independent thought are invaluable qualities. But how do the schools make sure kids learn the skills they really do need? Is there a general curriculum plan for students that covers the basics in math, science, geography and English?

  6. Melia

    Ohh Lord, days of tumbling (a.k.a. gymnastics) in middle school PE were the worst. I still can’t do a cartwheel — if someone can teach me how to do that, I will bake that person a pie!

    I’ve also wondered about whether kids miss out when things aren’t required of them. When I started piano at 11 and Spanish at 13, I wished that I’d learned at age 4 like some kids and soaked those skills up like a sponge. After some thought, I realized that if they’d been imposed on me, I might have dropped them as soon as they weren’t required anymore. I think the risk that kids will avoid a subject for the rest of their lives is greater than the risk that they won’t ever take to it. Perhaps they’ll come to it later in life — taking up skateboarding at 30, or watercolors at 50 — or maybe it just won’t ever be their thing.

    I think that exposure — introducing kids to things, or merely having them in their environment — is the best bet. The trick is not having an investment in their reaction. If I want my kid to love Roald Dahl books as much as I do, and he senses that, he might either say he loves them to please me, or decide he hates them to rebel. My mom did offer me piano lessons at 5, and she respected my decision to decline. At 11, I asked for them.

    In regards to school curriculum, who decides what skills kids really need? How many adults can tell you what countries border Afghanistan, and during what years the Korean War took place? Most of us grown-ups couldn’t pass the standard high school exit exams.

    From what I’m told by folks who work in democratic schools, kids will empower themselves with skills like reading and math if they see how they’re useful, and are in a stimulating environment that helps them learn. Kids want to be able to read a joke book or save up for a Playstation, and from all reports they’ll pick up these skills as naturally as they learned to talk — if there’s nothing to rebel against. They’ll do this at their own pace (e.g. some kids talk at age 1, others at 3), so parents have to trust the process and not interfere. I’ve heard that the main reasons that kids don’t learn the “basics” they need to thrive are major learning differences like dyslexia, the lack of an engaging environment, or because someone tried to make them learn before they were ready.


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