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.