Should Schools be More or Less Democratic?

Like most parents of a young child, I’m trying to decide which environment will be the best for my son when he enters a public school for the first time next fall. At nearly every open house my wife and I attend, cheerful administrators and educators tout the advantage of being a “participatory” school, and of “giving children the opportunity to learn and work in groups.” Send your child here, they tell us, and he’ll acquire a core set of democratic skills – from working collaboratively to acting empathetically – that will help him successfully negotiate our increasingly interconnected global community.

Sounds great, I say – until I open my Sunday New York Times and read a cover story warning against the rise of a new type of groupthink. “Most of us now work in teams,” writes author Susan Cain, “in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in. But there’s a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.”

Whom should we trust? Have we overvalued democratic skills like collaboration and shared decision-making to our own detriment? And, in the end, should our schools be more or less democratic?

The answer, of course, depends on which values and behaviors we associate with that word – democratic. And the reality is that too often, too many of us – from local educators to federal policymakers – define it in a way that limits our collective capacity to understand what a healthy, high-functioning learning community really looks like, and requires.

In many schools, “democracy” is a subject students study in social studies, or via a special add-on program, or, if your school still has such a thing, in civics class. It’s something schools and districts seek separate grant money to support. And it’s something that, in the end, you learn about – whether it’s the three branches of government or the legislative process or the twenty-seven Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Call it “Democracy via Content.”

In other schools, the word stands for something very different – a philosophy of human interaction that guides how adult decisions are made and how students interact with each other. In these places, what matters most is how the classroom itself is structured (or unstructured), and the messiness of the approach becomes the central message about what it all means. Call it “Democracy via Process.”

Problems arise whenever we overvalue either approach. In an environment where democracy is seen solely as a subject, children memorize their rights but never practice them. And in a classroom where democracy is seen primarily as a process, children sit in circles or work in teams – regardless of whether or not those methods are helping them learn more effectively.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan underscored this point at a recent White House forum. “The goals of traditional civic education – to increase civic knowledge, voter participation, and volunteerism– are all still fundamental,” he asserted. “But the new generation of civic learning puts students at the center. It includes both learning and practice — not just rote memorization of names, dates, and processes.” Harvard’s Tony Wagner agrees, noting that there is a “happy convergence between the skills most needed in the global knowledge economy and those most needed to keep our democracy safe and vibrant.”

In a healthy school, educators know which skills – from collaboration to self-direction – their students must develop to be successful as adults, and which combination of content and processes will get them there. Some days, that might mean working in groups; other days, it might mean listening to an old-fashioned lecture. And every day, it means school leaders are aware of the paradoxical human impulse at the center of any democratic society – a point Ms. Cain makes in her Times article. “Most humans have two contradictory impulses,” she writes. “We love and need one another, yet we crave privacy and autonomy.”

A democratic learning environment honors both needs. That’s why from now on, the first thing I’ll ask at the open house is if the school understands which specific skills it wants to cultivate in its students, and why. I’ll ask which processes the teachers will use to engage kids in their own learning, and why. And when I find a school with clear answers and a clear plan for developing both “choice and voice,” I’ll know where to send my son.

Categories: Democracy, Learning

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  1. Posted January 19, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Sam, I think the point of democratic or “free” education isn’t the use of democracy to clear every decision or to collaborate on every project, but to give each individual a voice in his or her learning.

    A democratic school doesn’t exist to be messy, and it doesn’t thrive on messiness, per se. Instead, as I understand it, it tries to give each learner the opportunity to shape his or her learning and learning space (even in orderly ways), but also the responsibility to take care of that place as a community member. Moreover, democratic schools don’t exist to make students collaborate – in fact their primary feature is the protection and empowerment of individual learners’ voices. Such a school involves students in deciding what work to do when in which ways.

    Perhaps the very healthiest schools involve kids, not just educators, in knowing which skills they must develop to be part of a community, as well as one of its stewards.

    The lone genius – or any traditionally voiceless student hindered by the system – has less to fear from a democratic school than a traditional one that keeps him or her on a curriculum treadmill.

    All the best,

  2. Posted January 20, 2012 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    Thanks Chad, and I agree that the best schools do what you say. My point was that there have been many I’ve observed that aren’t as clear on these issues, and as a result they end up overvaluing either the content or the process to their own detriment. I’ve certainly been in schools where kids had a voice, but it didn’t seem that voice was being cultivated in a way that was actually helping that child learn. And I’ve seen schools where the notion of voice gets drowned out by red white and blue cupcakes, and the pomp and circumstance of celebrating our founding principles — whether or not kids ever get to practice them (let alone adults!). So the piece is really more for parents who may be evaluating schools for the first time, and trying to help them be more mindful of that potential pitfall.

  3. Posted January 20, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    Cupcakes do quiet the masses.

  4. Posted January 23, 2012 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    This finding supports the theory that when it comes to behavioral change, environment is a key factor.

  5. Posted February 28, 2012 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Steve,I’m glad you’re reanidg Littky. I’ve been waiting for someone to tell me whether or not that’s what School 2.0 looks like. Certainly one reason that the revolutionary schools that exist don’t get more attention is because people like to talk about revolutionary schools without doing enough hard research to know what’s going on around them. I’ve got a Big Picture elementary school opening two blocks away this fall, and that’s not a coincidence.

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