Democratic Education in Practice

Democratic education

‘Democratic education’ does not have a singular, objective, or fixed meaning. ‘Democratic education’ is a term often used by Teachers, Academics, Educators, and, Policy-Makers which simultaneously can signify many different meanings, logics, understandings and practices of ‘Democratic education.’

General themes

Broadly speaking, ‘Democratic education’ can be understood as: “Education in which young people have the freedom to organize their daily activities, and in which there is equality and democratic decision-making among young people and adults,” to quote AERO’s (Alternative Education Resource Organization) Directory of Democratic Education.

Democratic educational approaches

Democratic education encompasses a broad range of theories, philosophies, pedagogies and educational practices. From the liberal progressivist theories of John Dewey; to communitarian and dialogical forms of democracy; to critical and/or anti-pedagogical approaches; to new technologies such as the gamification of learning.   IDEC 2016 coincides with the centenary anniversary of John Dewey’s Democracy and Education. John Dewey’s work still influences many educators and non-educators today and is often cited on issues associated with democratic education.

Why democratic education?

We are told we live in a ‘democracy’. Yet, if there is little or no democracy in our schools how can we expect current and future generations to understand, practice, and, think about democracy in their societies. Democratic education seeks to empower young people and teachers through self-responsibility and democratic participation in schools whereby students learn to; speak their minds, fight for issues that are important to them, solve problems as a group, respect the opinions of others and contribute to developing their communities.  Democratic education seeks to empower young people through establishing inclusive, communicative and cooperative pedagogies. Learning processes are thus harmonious and respectful as upholding the human rights of students and the human rights of teachers are of upmost importance in the classroom. As a result, democratic schools give students the freedom to decide what, how, when and with whom they want to learn.

Democratic schools around the world

At the moment there are about 1000 schools around the world which call themselves democratic schools. The way the democracy shows in these shools waries a lot starting from simple school meetings where students have a vote in certain issues to a complete democracy where students are involved in all decisions about their school including the budget, hiring and firing of teachers and the curriculum if there is any.

Democratic schools have been around since early 20th century staring from Summerhill school in England, which started in 1921 as a democratic boarding school, where lessons were optional. Another major school, Sudbury Valley School started in 1968 in Massachusettes, U.S. as a day school. Having no curriculum or no mandatory learning plans, grading or other structures usually found in schools, Sudbury Valley became another radical option. Only few schools have followed the boarding model of Summerhill, while several hundred schools have used the ideas of SVS or are more or less strictly based on the model.

Finland and democracy in schools

Finnish schools are generally seen as quite democratic, even though there are rarely any democratic structures in them. The democracy in Finnish schools is mainly based on the equality between teachers and students. Though being far from Sudbury model or Summerhill, Finnish schools have maintained a rather humanistic and holistic approach to education.

In the new curriculum which comes into effect in 2016 there is a great emphasis on student participation. Students have to have a say in how they study and what they study. Even though the national curriculum still has a wide variety of subjects and content described in it, it will be interesting to see how the schools implement this new approach.

Map taken from AERO website

What does democratic education mean? What is a democratic school like?

Hudson Valley Sudbury School – Intro Video from BellyFire Productions on Vimeo.