Two Questions About Democratic Education

05 October 2016
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Laura Quick

We easily forget how controlled children are in schools  - one study found that teachers make 1500 educational decisions every day. And this is on top of all the non-educational decisions, such as when pupils can and can't go to the toilet, can and can't talk to their friends, get up from their chairs or have a drink of water.

As a primary school teacher, I have experienced attempts to move away from this level of micromanagement both in democratic schools and in conventional state schools. Much though I support such efforts, they raise some questions for me.

The Albany Free School, where I spent 6 months in 2008, is a fully democratic school in upstate New York. The children there could choose how they spent their days. They really could, and quite often did, spend the entire day playing with their friends. At regular 'activity meetings' pupils might request a course or class and teachers would probably provide it. Teachers also offered classes at these meetings but they only ran them if pupils signed up. The 'curriculum' therefore reflected the enthusiasms of both pupils and teachers.

Our school meetings were attended by everyone in the school and were where rules were made. One that seemed never to change was the 'stop rule.' If anyone asked someone else to stop doing something, that person had to obey  - although they were subsequently free to argue about it. This applied equally to teachers and pupils. It was a simple rule that seemed to me to cover pages of a conventional school behaviour policy. It had come out of long pupil discussions; I cannot imagine such a rule ever emerging from a staff meeting.

As I came to Albany straight after teaching in a UK state school, it took some adjustment. I realised, to my shame, that I was used to relying on my pupils appreciating the fact that I treated them with more respect than many of my colleagues did. At Albany, such respect was not a 'gift' but simply taken for granted. No-one was interested in 'pleasing the teacher,' and I had to earn the children's respect.  No-one came to my first few classes and I was devastated.

I could go on about Albany for pages, but instead I am going to contrast what I experienced there with my own attempts to create a more democratic atmosphere in a British state school classroom, and then point out two dilemmas that democratic practice can raise.

When I returned from Albany, I was determined to give my Year 6 class some of the freedom I had seen in democratic schools. I encouraged pupils to run lessons, had class meetings chaired by pupils with agendas created by pupils and tried to be responsive to suggestions or ideas the pupils wanted to pursue.

By the end of the year many of my pupils had blossomed. I was proud that they had relished the opportunities I had allowed them and they seemed to feel increasingly empowered.  Their initial interest in 'greening' our classroom gradually extended. They had meetings with various members of staff to make changes, such as setting up a school-wide recycling scheme, and I had to fight hard to stop them doing all their work on scrap paper, which I thought Ofsted wouldn't be too impressed with.

But when I reflected on this, I realised something both embarrassing and problematic: not all my pupils had relished these opportunities, and those that did were largely the most articulate, confident and motivated,  - who were also disproportionately (though not exclusively) middle class and white.

This raises two important questions for me:

First, can we find ways of democratising classrooms that work for all pupils rather than privileging the already privileged and risking teaching the less privileged that others are their natural leaders?

Many teachers have tried to find ways of making sure that all pupils participate equally, and avoiding a classroom atmosphere that reflects and reproduces the hierarchies of society. One example is the Kagan Cooperative Learning method, which was developed in the US to address the under-involvement of black pupils in mixed classes. Using Kagan, a class might be asked to discuss a topic in groups of four, each child having a turn at chairing the discussion for an equal length of time, and no child being allowed to speak twice until all had spoken once.  There is evidence that such approaches are quite effective in increasing participation of all pupils, and this was supported by my own experience working in a school that used Kagan structures but it was at the cost of moving away from giving children space and freedom and back into micromanagement by adults.  

Even if we could somehow overcome this dilemma, we would be left with  another very important second question: Is there a risk that democratic education can end up promoting values we may not be fully comfortable with?

I ask this because I think that the original concern of democratic educators to rescue children from inappropriate control and domination, and to respect their abilities and rights, risks leading us into problems as our society changes.  A lot of the words that we find ourselves using when we talk about democratic classrooms - such as autonomy, self-expression, individuality, self-worth and self-determination  resonate closely with a neoliberal idea of  'freedom of choice' and admiration for autonomous, entrepreneurial individuals, go-getting, able to argue their corner and pursue their own interests.  Although 'community' is a popular concept, words like 'teamwork' , 'solidarity' or 'collective responsibility' have come to sound almost old-fashioned.

This dilemma was brought home to me recently when I visited Sands School in South Devon and attended their school meeting.  This was not compulsory - pupils had the freedom to come or not as they chose. This contrasted sharply with Albany, where anyone could call a meeting at any time, and everyone had to drop what they were doing and attend. Although this could be very annoying when you'd just got your maths group really happy and engaged it was completely accepted that everything should stop if, for example, a 6-year-old felt she needed to sort out the fact that she was being repeatedly denied her turn on the swing. It seems to me this embodied a very different set of values and priorities; it was a living model of the importance of collective, rather than individual, needs. It also, I remember, made children extremely good at helping others sort out their disagreements, to avoid unnecessary meetings.

So I conclude with these two questions.  How can we make sure that democratic education reduces social differences and does not become an inadvertent ambassador for the values of neoliberalism?  And how can we not only celebrate the individual but also put collectivity, solidarity and interconnectedness at the centre of our democratic practice?

 

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