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.
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 www.democraticeducation.com. 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?