Sunday, August 15, 2010

Undemocratic classrooms of a democratic society

Democracy truly is something all Americans (and yes, even us Canadians) should truly cherish. We should cherish it so much that we should do whatever it takes to ensure that our children be guaranteed the same rights and freedoms that we have come to appreciate.

So how do we do that?

Public Education.

Public education may be one of the most important characteristics of an ever-lasting democractic people. And yet it is sadly ironic that schools are one of the least democratic places inside of a democracy.

Alfie Kohn reflects on this unfortunate paradox in his article Choices for Children: Why and How to Let Students Decide:

Several years ago, a group of teachers from Florida traveled to what was then the USSR to exchange information and ideas with their Russian-speaking counterparts. What the Soviet teachers most wanted from their guests was guidance on setting up and running democratic schools. Their questions on this topic were based on the assumption that a country like the United States, so committed to the idea of democracy, surely must involve children in decision-making processes from their earliest years.

The irony is enough to make us wince. As one survey of American schools after another has confirmed, students are rarely invited to become active participants in their own education.(1) Schooling is typically about doing things to children, not working with them. An array of punishments and rewards is used to enforce compliance with an agenda that students rarely have any opportunity to influence.

When I share the idea of making classrooms more democratic with teachers or parents who are reluctant to trust children, I quite often hear, "Children are not responsible enough or trustworthy enough to be given choice."

Children do not become good choice-makers by being told what to do, nor do children become more responsible by simply following instructions.

They must be afforded the opportunity to make good and bad choices.

They must be given the chance to be responsible and irresponsible.

If children are not afforded the opportunity to learn how to participate in a democratic classroom by being in a democratic classroom, when shall they learn how to participate and perpetuate the democratic ideals that you Americans and we Canadians have come to love so very much?


  1. Excellent. But there's more: In order for classrooms to be democratic, attendance can't be compulsory.

  2. Wendy, I'm glad you brought up the attendance issue. I'm currently struggling with how I feel about a new tardiness/absentee policy being implemented in the public community high school (7-12) where I am student teaching. A component of the policy is to report parents to Child Protective Services for educational neglect if their students miss too many classes or if they are even late to too many classes. I'm new to the education profession (am a career changer from IT Project Management), so I am just learning, but my instincts tell me we are doing a disservice to the children when we implement such a policy. What do you think?

    Joe, I found your site from a tweet on this post on true democracy in the classroom. Thank you for expressing what I'm feeling so well. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

  3. Yup. You can't teach responsibility w/o giving responsibility.
    Re. democracy... Democracy is an ideal. I'm glad to live in one, but society routinely goes off course and all we're left with is social relativism.
    Have always been fascinated by this-
    "Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time" Winston Churchill
    Enjoy the last couple weeks of summer, hope you enjoyed SC in Banff.

  4. In my neck of the woods, schools can reign tyranny over entire families. One school teacher at Urbita Elementary in San Bernardino California even has "mandatory parent homework help sessions" for parents who run afoul (kid doesn't turn in homework) of the law. Can you imagine asking your boss for time off to attend a homework jail sentence from your child's kindergarten teacher? How can democracy and Mini Mao retraining camps co-exist?
    Click on my name to read the "Welcome To School" letter/threat/warning from the teacher. Or read her own posts on "Whole Brain Teachers of America" website.

  5. Joe, you'll love the Sudbury Valley School

    SVS Governance:
    The school is governed on the model of a traditional New England Town Meeting. The daily affairs of the school are managed by the weekly School Meeting, at which each student and staff member has one vote. Rules of behavior, use of facilities, expenditures, staff hiring, and all the routines of running an institution are determined by debate and vote at the School Meeting. At Sudbury Valley, students share fully the responsibility for effective operation of the school and for the quality of life at school.

    SVS Independence:
    Sudbury Valley School is a place where people decide for themselves how to spend their days. Here, students of all ages determine what they will do, as well as when, how, and where they will do it. This freedom is at the heart of the school; it belongs to the students as their right, not to be violated.

    In practice this means that students initiate all their own activities and create their own environments. The physical plant, the staff, and the equipment are there for the students to use as the need arises.

    The school provides a setting in which students are independent, are trusted, and are treated as responsible people; and a community in which students are exposed to the complexities of life in the framework of a participatory democracy.

  6. fnoschese, Sudbury Valley School sounds like a little slice of heaven. Could you loan me 7k per year tuition? This puts another spin on "The cost of freedom," eh?

  7. BTW, there was a documentary made about the school. You can watch it on YouTube:

  8. Democracy can mean different things for different people. Alfie Kohn imho has a different take on democracy than ' libertarians'

    from his article you quote

    ' On closer examination, however, it seems clear that what must occasionally be restricted is not choice but individual choice. (It is an interesting reflection on our culture that we tend to see these as interchangeable.) To affirm the importance of community does not at all compromise the right to make decisions, per se, or the importance of involving everyone in a class or school in such a process. In fact, we might say that it is the integration of these two values, community and choice, that defines democracy '

    Democracy without community imho does not serve children very well

  9. in "Why School?" Mike Rose makes the point (as does Bill Ayers in a review of it in Rethinking Schools)that you'd expect schools in totalitarian regimes to be authoritarian, which they do; and you'd expect schools in a democracy to reflect democracy more....but they often also resemble authoritarian structures/power relationships -- Brian (@_teach4change)

  10. "Kids can't be trusted to make decisions on their own. Let's keep them from doing so until they really need to and see how much it helps."

    I hate how little the people of the U.S. think past the short-term consequences to "solutions".

  11. My opinion is that all of you are being extremely naive...come to your sense guys...

    Schools, by definition, are undemocratic, since most children don't even want to study, they want to play and be free. I always felt like school was torturous and taught me stuff I would forget in an hour. Cuz if I hate it, how will I remember it?

    I would let my kid decide if and when s/he wanted to go to school. If s/he says no, then no it is...