125 Ways To Make Your School More Democratic

Back in December, on a couple of blogs, I asked folks to contribute how they’ve made their schools or classrooms more democratic.

Within days the list went from 15 (what we went live with) to hundreds, with contributions from educators in England, Israel, Puerto Rico, Brazil and all over the United States.  And they’re still coming in.  A couple of folks asked for a comprehensive list, so here it is.  Crowdsourced and growing…

Check out the list…


What have you done, as a classroom teacher, a student, a parent, administrator, to make your school more equitable, less hierarchical, more welcoming to everyone, and more like a place where real thinking happens?

1.  Invite 5 students to a faculty meeting

2.  Eliminate staff and student bathrooms

3.  Ask students to facilitate important school wide meetings

4.  Start each day with a morning meeting and check in, and listen to each other. (How are you? How are you feeling today?)

5.  Ask students to develop rubrics for judging “excellent” work

6.  End courses/units with a culminating projects designed by students, about something that really matters to them

7.  Have students read each other’s papers and comment on them, directly to each other

8.  Get students to determine the homework policy (even in the early grades)

9.  Charge students with deciding what goes up on the walls at school

10.  Pass a “talking stick” during intense discussions so that everyone gets a chance to speak

11.  Eat lunch with kids (or teachers) you rarely talk to

12.  Ask students to attend parent/teacher conferences

13.  Ask students to evaluate themselves prior to parent/teacher conferences

14.  Ask students to run parent/teacher conferences

15.  Have everyone practice “yes/and” more than “no/but” (because success is available to everyone!)

16.  Use participatory budgeting to engage the whole school community in setting budgets and involve students in staff appointments

17.  Make sure any school inspectors or visitors talk to any students, not just those staff select or who are self-selecting (e.g. student council)

18.  Keep track of student involvement as well as attainment (Who is taking on what leadership roles? Who is engaged in programmes that allow them to be involved in decision-making?)

19.  Make sure your student council isn’t just a fundraising or school improvement club, but is a students’ union – – make it clear that its primary role is to represent the views of students.

20.  Get students to research what helps them to learn

21.  Get them to present their findings to staff

22.  Give students the funding, trust and time to set up and run their own extra-curricular clubs and activities

23.  Get students involved in planning lessons

24.  Get students involved in teaching lessons

25.  Get students involved in evaluating lessons

26.  Make sure your School Development Plan has a ‘student voice’ column, so that every issue has a ‘student voice’ from reducing truancy to improving attainment. ‘Student voice’ should not be a line that is separate from anything else

27.  If you don’t have a School Development Plan, look at all your other policies, add in a student voice element

28.  Train students and staff together.

29.  Have student mediators

30.  Have student mentors

31.  Have student play and sports leaders

32.  Don’t have a staff room – or allow students free access to it

33.  Uniforms: if you’re going to be democratic they need to be as free/restrictive for staff as they are for students

34.  Invite students to budget meetings, listen to their unique perspective on what is important

35.  Let students be in charge of organizing school assemblies and gatherings

36.  Invite students to help plan learning

37.  Ask students to define what powerful learning looks like, and commit to implementing findings (see Harris Federation ‘Commission for Learning’)

38. Make students co-designers of projects

39.  Train students to coach each other to become better learners

40.  Instigate a ‘right to roam’: if students would better learn from someone else in (or out) of schools, let them (with responsibilities to report back)

41.  Set up staff/student research programmes

42.  Start a democratic school meant to take on traditional public schools in your community

43.  Focus on democratic education, rather than school, and credential experts and community volunteers to serve as circuit teachers meeting with a variety of students at a variety of sites for authentic, project and service-based work in communities. Let the credentialed experiential instructors pitch courses for students to choose, as is done at Steve Miranda’s school.

44.  Give students and parents equal votes and/or shares in consensus decisions about budget, facilities, catering, curriculum, materials, and staffing

45.  Allow students to leave classes that suck

46.  Ask all adult community members and interested students to read Doing School, Wounded by School, and The New Global Student

47.  Provide leave time for all community members to visit undemocratic schools and to discuss how similar and different their democratic schools are to and from the undemocratic ones

48.  Accept for credit (whatever that means) all service work and self-directed learning evidenced outside school

49.  Allow students to define “credit” individually

50.  Abolish seat time requirements

51.  Secure and defend self-pacing rights for students, including graduation plans, portfolios, and requirements

52.  Allow specialization

53.  Allow students to use public and private transportation to attend the school of their choice

54.  Study the sustainability of a democratic model within the context of your school and division given the predispositions of the rest of the staff, faculty turnover, and community values. Don’t do democracy to a community unwilling to participate in it. Start slowly unless you are in the perfect place

55.  Leave schools that aren’t democratic

56.  Abolish grading and resist all norm-referencing products and practices, including state tests which, while seemingly criterion/standards-based, are actually validated and scored by norm-referencing student performance on each item each administration

57.  Allow communities to democratically elect their teachers and administrators, as well as to democratically authorize new schools

58.  Look past your school, which is likely unrepresentative of all of our kids

59.  Turn off the damn bells! Feels like we are teaching inside a Skinner box! Let’s encourage kids to respond to their inner voices, to human requests, not to bells. While we’re at it turn off the intercoms too. Too Orwellian.

60.  Take the kids outside the classroom. Nothing democratizes like a natural setting. No overheads pointed to the front. No teacher at the board. If it’s not possible to take ‘em outside, how about the hallway. Can you at least arrange the seats in a circle or somehow allow students to see each other’s eyes?

61.  Create choice in any way you can. Ask yourself honestly, how many legitimate options does a given student have in any one moment? For example: they can raise their hand and answer the question. They can ask to use the bathroom. They can sit quietly. Challenge yourself to increase the range of acceptable moves exponentially. No secret formula here; what is possible depends entirely on your specifics. Be creative.

62.  Allow for physical movement. This needn’t mean anarchy. Establish whatever boundaries you need to on this, but again challenge yourself to allow for stretching, standing, circulating. This can be done without losing time, focus or completion of tasks. Truly.

63.  Aspire towards a sense of spaciousness. Allow for silence and time for reflection

64.  Have a sense of humor! If you must use your authority to exact desired behaviors, acknowledge to yourself and the kids that this is what you are doing, and recognize that doing so does not match your ideal world view. Notice the absurd when it comes up – especially when it comes out of your own mouth, i.e. “no, this is not a good time to use the restroom. You’ll need to wait.”

65.  Invite classes and parents to contribute to the development of whole school policies (values and citizenship, assessment, homework etc.)

66.  Involve pupils and parents in the recruitment of headteachers / deputes.

67.  Everyone, pupils and staff (teaching, admin, catering, janitorial) do the same child protection training for insight to peer mentoring

68.  Pupils build the class requisition for supplies

69.  Pupils choose what they will learn and suggesting how they might best learn it

70.  Let students determine what their homework is and have them show it to others. This is like Google giving employees 20% of their time to do whatever they want

71.  Allow each student to determine what they put on the wall from their own work. By the way, the wall has expanded to include school Facebook pages and blogs

72.  Get rid of the staff dining room

73. Let students decide when school starts

74. Let students decide if anyone gets cut from any team

75. Let students choose the cast for the school plays and musicals after open auditions

76. Let students take tests when they think they are ready

77. Let students take tests as many times as they want. This would include only taking the portions that they haven’t passes yet

78.  Let students continue with a course that they haven’t passed yet until they can show that they know the material. Nobody should ever fail a course again

79. Put students in charge of the assemblies

80. Put students on hiring and interviewing committees

81. Give everyone in the building 20% flex time to work on their own projects

82. Have a course (or school) for which the decisions about what is learned is up to the students

83. Vote on important issues for the school and bide by those votes

84. Replace standardized textbooks with student co-created ones using wiki technology and incorporating multimedia

85.  Take some time to just sit still, play, hike, sing, and laugh with students and across age groups.

86. Have everyone (teachers, principals, coaches, parents, school board members, administrators, and community leaders) take the standardized tests and report their scores right alongside the students and openly discuss everyone’s results together

87.  Eat lunch with kids you rarely talk to and then listen to everything

88.  Host an open lunch in your classroom and invite students and staff once a month (can include discussion topics, short films, YouTube clips)

89.  Always give students choice in assessments

90.  Start a multi-grade elective class and structure it for many interactions between age groups (Creative Writing works)

91.  Bring Show & Tell to the high school level! (Think of a version on steroids – introducing philosophy, art, music, etc.)  Have students and faculty take turns

92.  If at all possible, do the major assignments you assign with your students.  Show your work when possible

93.  Do in-class assignments with students.  Show them that learning is a joint process

94.  Start a Anti-Racism group at your school (You’ll be amazed how many students will join).  Prepare thoughtful, difficult, uncomfortable, fulfilling, honest, discussions between students.  Get staff to join

95.  Include custodians, paraprofessionals, office workers, lunch workers in everything:  faculty parties and luncheons, community events, staff/faculty meetings, school assemblies

96. Bottom-up – Teachers/Staff run faculty meetings, department meetings, etc. and help shape policies

97. Continuous dialogue with students about learning activities, deadlines, grading, projects, teaching effectiveness, how policy affects them in the classroom, etc. (lift the curtain)

98. Have small group multi-age group discussions about the challenges faced at each school

99.  All school clean-up, like what is done in Japan. Not as a punishment, but to foster community involvement

100. Invite parents and community members into the school to participate in discussions, work, and activities

101.  Tell your students that their final exam will be to create their own way of demonstrating their knowledge of the subject

102.  Spend the time you might use telling your students to “think critically” by asking provocative questions that cause them to think critically. If they are not responding critically, you’re probably not asking the right questions

103.  Don’t get discouraged. For those of you looking to try on something new and make your corner of the world a little more democratic, don’t get discouraged by the occasional squabbling over what is or isn’t “democratic education” or a “democratic school.” We’re all going to do things a little differently, and what’s most important is that we leverage our power as educators to bend our institutions a little farther in the direction of social justice

103. Have courses in which teachers and students learn together and peer review each other’s progress. Can be done with open courseware, teachers teaching classes with teachers and students as pupils, or simply the teacher offering revealing their own advancement of learning in a course

104. Have courses that allow students and teachers to involve themselves in their communities (organizing, speaking, aiding in community projects). Being an engaged citizen is a valuable component of democracy. Also, this creates a diversion from the norm of “community service” as a chore or punishment

105.  “Free dress” for everyone!

106.  Co-teaching: Teachers and students cooperate to (as often as they see fit) mix grade levels covering the same topics, or even drop in on other subjects to have conversation about parallels and connections. This helps relieve age segregation and subject compartmentalization, which in larger society is not as extreme as it is in school

107. Encourage students and teachers to use free media such as pod-casting, to examine school issues and promote ideas

108.  I also love the promotion of play time! I always feel sad when looking at the progression of people going through school, playing less and less in favor or more “age-appropriate” “maturity.” I’ve seen for sure that 12 to even 19 year olds (junior high, high school, young adults) like jungle gyms, trampolines, and other places to let out playful energy!

109.  Ensure all K-12 students have an understanding of Civics and what democratic values represent

110. Engage all students to contribute ideas of what would make their school more democratic – where more real thinking can happen

111.  Get students out of the classroom to interact with the real world to make those learning connections

112. Realize that students need real exercise every day in order to learn

113.  Switch the conversation from grades to metacognition – how do YOU learn best?

114.  LISTEN to kids–give them a chance in every lesson to share how they think/feel/question.

115.  Let kids sit where they want to, beside whom they want to. I tell them to make wise choices or we’ll have to re-negotiate the choice. (Again, they would give input and have decision-making ability to choose differently or decide to change the behavior that’s causing us to have this conversation.)

116.  Shake the seating up regularly, encouraging the kids to sit by someone they’ve never sat by before to get to know more people. (Again, they get to choose.)

117.  Let kids go when they need to go. Don’t make them ask to go to the bathroom.

118.  Teach kids how to have a conversation without raising hands–turn-taking with respect and considerate behavior is a crucial social skill.

119.  Help push toward: curriculum compacting, enrichment clusters, and total talent portfolios http://tinyurl.com/24btz8f (as written up here http://tinyurl.com/2a53awp)

120.  Establish a class agreement for optimal learning, rather than teacher setting rules.

121.  Have students lead conferences where they share their learning with their parents

122.  Create a culture where thinking is modeled and valued.

123.  Step back and encourage students to take control of their own learning.

124.  Allow choice for assessment tasks, so that learning can be demonstrated in a variety of ways

125.  Analyze a “decision” a class has collectively made that has not worked out well, discuss the decision-making process, and what might be done to achieve a better result. What didn’t work? What can we learn from this? What should we be thinking about for next time?

Want to add  yours? We’re waiting?….


22 thoughts on “125 Ways To Make Your School More Democratic

      • Unless students start by learning how to do an evaluation, what the goal is and what the criteria is, this turns into a popularity contest. Think about it: were your best teachers in school always the ones you liked the most? I teach college and we have students do evaluations, and they are generally useless, dividing neatly into groups of students who personally adore me or those who hate me. In fact, all faculty evaluations should be conducted by someone who understands how to teach (and that is not always true of administrators) or they are not useful.

  1. What an amazing list. Here’s another idea: invite families to come in and observe their children’s learning, interacting or not with them, as they see fit. Barring checking the calendar to see if the class won’t be in the room at a particular time, families should feel free to visit the place where their children spend so much of their daytime hours.

    • Elisa, I feel this is an especially great suggestion. I often feel that that boundary between school and parents/families is insurmountable, unless parents come into the school only as teachers and administrators wish. I love this suggestion and it too will be added.

      Thank you.


  2. Pingback: oldsow.wordpress.com: 125 Ways To Make Your School More Democratic (by Kirsten Olson) | Bennitos Blog

  3. I have a special chair in the back of my room for either of the principals, any parent or guardian, administrator, or legislator that might acutally drop in and observe or participate with us. I have even called parents or guardians and ask that come and shadow their student because of behavior issues—some have but MOST have not.

    • Again, like Elisa’s comment above, this is also very powerful. Symbolically, there is a place for those outside the classroom by virtue of the chair.

      I also think the idea of parents coming to shadow their children is a great one, and one I’ve never seen used before.

      I appreciate this and will respectfully add to the list.


  4. This list only makes sense if it’s starting from a school being democratically run by staff and students together. A school can not be “more democratic” if it isn’t democratic to start with. Otherwise, the list needs to be “125 Ways to Make Your School More Participatory”.

    • Abe, You are absolutely right. AND we are trying to highlight the possible importance of democratic practices, to support people in trying small (or big) things they might try in their own classes or schools. Philosophically we say, small changes can make big differences. The beginning is participation. The goal is more democratic practice.


  5. Children being allowed to use the toilet when they need to should (as well as other physical needs such as eating, hydrating and physical activity) should be at the top of the list as basic human rights, not #117. And I disagree with letting teachers use the bathroom with students. There is nothing more creepy than a teacher being in the bathroom with a child. My teenage son is unschooled because public schools are toxic places, but I would never want a male or female teacher in the bathroom with him any more than I would tolerate a teacher denying him the right to use the toilet when he needed.

  6. Laurie, Okay, I’m taking your toileting prompts to heart and learning from them. The way in which we are allowed to go to the bathroom, and with whom, is a big deal in school, and a serious indicator of how well we are taken care of generally. I will update the list based on your suggestions.



  7. Pingback: Guess what… I Don’t Actually Hate School! *gasp* | lifeistheteacher

  8. Pingback: Paradoxes of Our Work « Cooperative Catalyst

  9. Pingback: Paradoxes of Our Work | Pedagogies of Abundance

  10. I’m a student and I think that some of these are great but some of them can go wrong. As an example, ‘Leave classes that suck’, sure that sounds good to me but my teachers would never allow students who have a negative view on the class just leave. Also, ‘free dress, for everyone’, being another idea faculty wouldn’t like, even some students wouldn’t like it. Most of my friends, including myself, follow the dress code without even trying, but ther’re are some people ( mostly girls) who don’t (eg. low neck lines, SHORT short shorts,ect). Girls at my school don’t always follow the code, it’s not always pretty. We don’t need to see that. Although I did really like the show and tell idea. I’m doing a project about making your classroom more democratic for my civics class and this helped alot. Thank youu

  11. Hi Elaine, I’m so glad this is helpful. The folks who posted these suggestions come from schools all around the world–some with dress codes, many without, some with mandatory attendance policies, many without. The point is: how could school allow you to be more of whom you are, and how would that influence your learning?

    Thank you for posting a comment!


  12. Make schools and classes open to more of an age range instead of isolating into narrow age groupings, while allowing the kids and families to select their own classes. Think college for kids-with lots of ages with same interest coming together to learn and create. We do this at Village Home Education Resource Center in Oregon, a place designed with homeschoolers in mind. Sometimes teens want their teen only classes and those are arranged too (but they are still a range-like 14 and up). Parents are in every classroom as volunteers and some take classes with their kids. Every term, parents and kids suggest their desires for what classes they want to have, and what subjects they want more of. Many times parents step forward to lead a class based on their own special talents or interests whether or not they are “teachers.”

  13. Pingback: Paradoxes of Our Work « Kirsten Olson

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