What Is Democratic Education?

In what do we believe?

We over at IDEA have struggled mightily with “our” unique definition of democratic education.  Wiki defines it.  Amy Gutmann defines it.  How do we–if we’ve got it in our title–describe it?

In other words, in what do we believe?

As a founding board member of an organization that tries to promote this concept, here’s mine.

“Democratic education is learning rooted in meaningful challenge to the individual learner, while also responsive and relevant to the larger community.  It celebrates the adventure of learning, while cultivating personal and social responsibility.  It helps individuals and communities find their voices.”

Going further, here are some notes I made at our first IDEA Board Retreat.

1.  Democratic education requires meaningful challenge to learners, and the larger community.  (I value challenge–a sense of rigor created by real curiosity and real world circumstances.)

2.  Democratic education aims for authoritative, not authoritarian, relationships between students and adults.

3.  Democratic education emphasizes learning as a process of human development.  Learning happens through development, development occurs through learning.

4.  Democratic education grounds the process of education in respectful, responsive relationships between individuals in schools.

5.  Democratic education sees greater social justice as a natural outcome of an approach in which individuals of many statuses and backgrounds are valued equally, and treated equally well.

6.  Democratic education seeks to highlight a broader range of voices in educational settings than we currently experience.

7.  Democratic education sees human beings as naturally primed to learn.

What have I left out? In what do you believe?


4 thoughts on “What Is Democratic Education?

  1. I love your definition of “democratic education”! Of course democratic education may or may not involve schooling, but In response to the question “What is a democratic school?”, we at the National League of Democratic Schools make the following suggestions:

    What is a “democratic school”?
    A democratic school is a learning community characterized by a pervasive commitment to democratic goals and values. This commitment is apparent not only in the curriculum used, but in the school’s policies, practices, and organizational structures as well.
    Democratic schools work to engage students in the development of satisfying and responsible lives, both as unique individuals and as effective participants in a democratic society. By providing environments rich in experiences, opportunities, resources, and relationships, democratic schools help students grow in the following areas:

    1) Competence – the skills needed to maximize independence, quality of life, and community participation.
    2) Character – personal traits such as honesty, courage, kindness, and integrity.
    3) Communication – the ability to both understand and to be understood by others.
    4) Critical thinking – the ability to ask questions, make decisions, and solve problems.
    5) Collaboration – the ability to work well with others towards a common goal.
    6) Creativity – the ability to think for oneself and generate new ideas, actions, and products.
    7) Connection – meaningful relationships with other people and organizations.
    8) Caring – thoughtful respect for the well-being of others and the world around us.
    9) Citizenship – effective participation in and contribution to the larger community.

    Here are just a few things you might find at a democratic school:

    * Commitment to democratic values is evident in goals, policies, practices, structures, and curriculum.
    * Intentional efforts to foster the skills and habits necessary for effective participation in a democratic society.
    * Inclusive participation in planning, decision-making, and problem-solving.
    * Maximum individual self-development in the context of community.
    * Collaborative efforts across age and ability groups.
    * Cultivation of diversity and understanding of others.
    * Mechanisms in place for open, inclusive, and ongoing dialogue about issues that impact the school community.
    * A clear commitment to continuous renewal and the practice of stewardship.
    * Curriculum that is emergent, integrated, and connected with the larger community. Includes approaches such as service learning and place-based education.
    * Holistic approaches to assessment that are in line with democratic values and mission.
    * Commitment to nurturing growth in curiosity, creativity, critical thinking, communication, character, and citizenship.
    * Climate characterized by trust and a deep respect for the learner.
    * Regular opportunities for self-directed learning.
    * Education that is directed to “the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26).
    * Young people are meaningful participants in their own education.
    * Democratic means are used to achieve democratic ends.

  2. February 3, 2011.

    We believe democracy must be experienced to be learned. So we don’t talk about “democratic education,” but about “democratic schools.”

    Subtleties of a democratic school

    Certain nuances in the operation of democratic schools usually emerge during the years they exist, which are essential in defining them:

    * Political neutrality

    These schools are apolitical. These are schools which consciously do not pay attention to the political views of the people who seek to become members of the community: party affiliations, philosophy, class, about any of the features that separate political factions in society. These schools do not endorse or support or involve themselves with any local projects programs or activities that have a political agenda, while alternative schools and other democratic schools are virtually all identified with specific political movements. These schools practice the idea that people of divergent political and social views can work together in a common enterprise where they have common goals other than politics, that political and viewpoint ideas will naturally develop and be discussed by people among themselves, and that the ‘law of the land’ is fairest and most reasonable when it is pluralistic, and do not formally take sides in aesthetic or political choices.

    * The existence of rules of order

    Official meetings of any group in these schools operate according to some set of explicit, formal procedures. The chief function of rules of order is to protect all views and to give them as detached and thorough an airing as possible enabling for decision making, as opposed to the most prevailing models of decision making in schools, the authoritarian model, and the one run as a continuing encounter group, including other democratic schools, which some of them operate without rules of order. Rules constitute the main protection for reason, intellect, objectivity, detachment, and minorities in a group context, as opposed to feeling and emotion. It is the existence of a clear, explicit procedure that protects and encourages people to introduce motions, thence coming to feel that there is access to the political process to all.

    * The rule of law

    The Rule of Law is generally acknowledged to be a cornerstone of orderly, organized society. In this school, laws are always promulgated in writing, and careful records are kept of the body of precedents surrounding each rule. There is a simple process accessible to all members of the community. There is no opening, however small, for arbitrary or capricious authority to step in.

    The public schools remain one of the last bastions of autocratic rule in our society. There is in fact no rule of law, by and large the same as in alternative schools where power resides in the momentary whim of the majority at a given instant. They hold the unity of the community to be of prime value and to take precedence over everything else. So they will usually undermine any attempt to institute the rule of law, since that would tend to make an individual feel secure and protect him when he chooses to stand apart.

    * Universal suffrage

    This is the idea that everybody, every member of the school, student and staff, has a vote. It is really a simple idea, as opposed to the idea of democracy as it is sold in Academia, in the heart of our educational system, where the idea is a Greek one: democracy is for the privileged. Confusing the issue of subject matter with the issue of political power.

    * Protecting the Rights of individuals

    These schools have a strong tradition that there exist rights belonging to every individual member of the school community, and that these have to be protected in every way possible, for example the right of privacy. Because of this right there is no intervention in the private affairs of students — intervention that characterizes other schools, including other democratic schools.

    Protecting the rights of individuals is not an absolute concept; it’s a much more subtle one where the line is drawn between community interest and private interest that involves a great deal of judgment. The idea of individual rights is absent from schools, because the rights of people in schools, other democratic schools included, are simply not respected, even if there is occasional lip service paid to this.

    Five subtleties, all essential to defining the particular character of these schools, and marking clearly their place in the history of the democratic experience.

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