When most people think of a “school”, particularly a school for young people, the image of kids sitting behind desks with a teacher at the front leading the class (as the “sage on the stage” as they say) generally comes to mind. Somewhere down the hall from this and other classrooms is an “office” including administrative staff and particularly the school principal who runs the school, including giving marching orders to and evaluating the teachers, and dealing with student disciplinary issues that are referred to them by the teachers.
The “governance model” is presumed to be completely hierarchical. Students at the bottom of the hierarchy get their lectures, assignments, evaluation, administrative and disciplinary rules from their teacher(s). Teachers are supervised and evaluated by their school principal. The principal acts as a conduit for the educational mandates on curriculum and pedagogy from the district, which is basically implementing the curricular and pedagogical standards set by the real school decision-makers, the state legislature, through the auspices of the state board of education and other related state bodies.
What is important for people to know is that there are at least two other very different models for schools existing in the real world, that are beyond the conventional imagining of most people. The better known (and more numerous) of these other models is what are often referred to as “holistic schools”, which look more at educating the “whole person” beyond compartmentalized academic subjects, and are generally based on the ideas of a visionary educator like Maria Montessori, Rudolph Steiner, or John Dewey. Though elements of their educational philosophies have worked their way into conventional U.S. schools, it is an interesting discussion for another time why most conventional schools in the U.S. do not fully embrace the educational visions of these great thinkers.
The road least taken (and perhaps qualifying as the “Rodney Dangerfield” of school models), are schools that include students in the schools’ governance and allow those students to completely direct their own learning. Such schools are often referred to as “democratic-free” schools, and though rare, can be found in many parts of the U.S. and in countries around the world. Though highly unorthodox they are anecdotally judged effective by most who have studied them, but the very nature of an educational content and process that can be different for every student and is not externally dictated, makes them difficult if not impossible to measure by any standard school evaluation metrics.
Here is my best shot at an overview of this democratic-free school model.
Roots of Democratic-Free Schools
The ideas of “non-coercive” and “learner-led” schools have roots in the educational philosophy of Spanish educator Francisco Ferrer (1859-1909), and American educators Homer Lane (1875-1925) and John Holt (1923-1985).
Ferrer, who was an anarchist, founded his “Escuela Moderna” (The Modern School) in 1901 in Barcelona. The school’s stated goal was to “educate the working class in a rational, secular and non-coercive setting”, but also hoped to train leaders for an upcoming revolution, so the curriculum probably was closer to the contemporary concept of Critical Pedagogy than being completely “free” (decided by the individual student). High tuition fees restricted attendance at the school to wealthier middle class students, and the school closed in 1906 when Ferrer was arrested for suspicion of involvement in an assassination attempt on the Spanish king. After finally being exonerated and released from jail a year later, Ferrer wrote and published a treatise on his school and educational philosophy before being arrested and summarily executed in 1909 (without a trial) after martial law was declared in Spain. After his death, his writings inspired several “Modern Schools” in America, most notably one opened in 1911 in New York City by a group including American anarchist Emma Goldman, a school with a number of famous students and staff.
Homer Lane also picked up the torch for non-coercive education initially working as a social worker with youth in Detroit who had run afoul of the law. Lane started several schools in America and later England based on the philosophy laid out in his book, Talks to Parents and Teachers…
The relationship between teacher and child should be pure democracy – the child should not be on the defensive, but should be free to ask all questions… self-government must be given, both in the team play of games and still more in team play made possible for work… We must give responsibility for, say, history and get the class to discuss the syllabus and the allotment of time to the part of it, and to assume responsibility for getting through it. (page 109)
Lane is particularly important in this narrative because he was the chief mentor of English educator A.S. Neill, who founded perhaps the most well know democratic-free school in the world, Summerhill, in 1921 in Suffolk county England. Ninety years later the school continues to be open, surviving some rough patches when the British government made moves to shut it down.
Summerhill was the prototype for other contemporary democratic-free schools, including America’s most notable, the Sudbury Valley school in Framingham Massachusetts, opened in 1968 and still going strong today. Founded by Daniel Greenberg and others, it in turn has inspired other similar schools around the U.S and in other countries as well.
A key justification for a “free” learner-driven curriculum was given by American teacher John Holt in his most popular books, How Children Fail and How Children Learn, based on his unique opportunity to observe students’ learning process (during his years as a team teacher where he spent extensive time observing his teaching partner’s class). According to the Wikipedia piece on Holt…
He held that the primary reason children did not learn in schools was fear: fear of getting the wrong answers, fear of being ridiculed by the teacher and classmates, fear of not being good enough. He maintained that this was made worse by children being forced to study things that they were not necessarily interested in.
Main Features: Curriculum, Pedagogy & Governance
I generally see a school model in terms of these three aspects, essentially what is being learned, how it is being learned, and who is making the decisions on what and how and managing the other aspects of the school as a functioning entity. Again in the conventional conception of a school, curriculum is predetermined by some “higher authority” and presented to the students by a teacher in a classroom through some form or another of instructional pedagogy. The school governance is assumed to be hierarchical like a factory where the principals are the “bosses”, the teachers are the “workers”, and the students are the “product”. The unionization of many teachers reinforces that assumption because it frames teachers as “labor” and the principals and administrators above them as “management”.
But in a typical democratic-free school the components of curriculum, pedagogy and governance are constituted quite differently, and are laid out below…
* The role of adult school staff: As long as the students do no harm to others, they can for the most part do whatever they want with their time in school. The adults that staff the school (which depending on the school may or may not be referred to as “teachers”) are there to facilitate keeping this basic freedom in place and are available to the students to assist as needed. Beyond this, the adult staff and the students are both involved in running the school to the extent of their ability and interest, usually by the forming of committees and bringing the most important decisions to a general school meeting.
* Access to school resources: Students are free to spend their time however they wish and access all the educational resources – library, lab, kitchen, nature, and adult staff – available in the school. Where improper use of certain equipment or venues can be dangerous (or cause damage), students generally have to pass some sort of minimum certification (agreed to by the community) for using that equipment or venue.
* De-emphasis of classes: The classroom is no longer seen as the focal point of the educational process. Depending on the school’s particular rules of engagement between the adult staff and the students, the adult staff may suggest or even initiate classes (which students may choose to attend); but at others, like Sudbury Valley, adult staff can only respond to a request by one or more students to start a class.
* Age mixing: Students are generally not separated into age-groups and allowed to mix freely, interacting with those younger and older than themselves. This is considered much more natural than the conventional school age segregation and promotes opportunities for informal mentoring between older and younger students providing real opportunities to learn from others and/or be of value to others, and all the opportunities that presents for enhancing ones own self-esteem and self-image.
* Governance & administration: The school is run by the democratic process with all the students and adult staff as participants with an equal voice and vote. There is generally a regular all-school meeting where the most important issues are addressed and resolved. Other administrative functions are handled by committees, again including both adults and students. A key aspect of the curriculum and pedagogy is learning democracy by experience, including experiencing the rights, responsibilities and consequences as fully functioning individuals within a community.
* Hiring and firing staff: In some democratic-free schools, like Sudbury Valley, the students and current staff hire and fire staff through the school meeting. In other schools this function is performed by the adult staff only.
* Order and discipline: School rules and regulations are generally made at the school meeting. All students and adult staff are equally and personally responsible for how they conduct themselves and interact with others in the school community. Every school has some sort of agreed process for students or staff to bring alleged rule infractions or other wrongs to the general meeting or some sort of “justice committee” for adjudication and assignment of any disciplinary action. These processes can even rise to the level of a school meeting deciding to expel a student. Again, a key aspect of the learning is participation in the maintenance of order and discipline and dispensing justice as part of a “jury of peers”.
* Evaluation: Students are generally not assessed, evaluated, graded or otherwise compared with one another, but of course can ask fellow students or staff for feedback on how they are doing. The assumption is the primacy of self-assessment for a self-directed learner.
* Graduation: There is generally some form of graduation and/or diploma available to students who wish for such, or feel the need for such a document for their further education or future job applications. The process differs from school to school but can involve presenting your “case” for graduation to the school meeting or to some sort of duly constituted “jury” for adjudication.
In summary, the curriculum is completely in the hands of the individual student. The pedagogy is one based on self-direction, plus the real experiences one has fully participating in all aspects of a democratically run community. The governance model is intended to mirror that of the adult society the students will be participating in.
Pros & Cons vs Other School Models
The arguments for democratic-free schools are based on their compatibility with a larger democratic society as well as the natural human learning process, and include…
* Allowing young people free rein to explore and focus on developing their unique talents to the fullest (particular if those talents fall outside the mandated academic learning in conventional schools) without the distraction of external learning mandates
* Providing young people the opportunity at a much earlier age to be fully functional people participating in a “real” community that includes both youth and adults
* Giving young people the opportunity to “learn by doing” to be active and effective citizens in a democratic country where active political participation is critical to the maintenance of a democracy, but has tended to wane in recent decades
* Enabling a community that includes some democratic-free schools to have a fuller spectrum of educational choices (along with conventional and “holistic” schools) to provide to families within that community
* Establishing an educational venue that, based on its use of democratic process, can continually adapt and evolve to meet the continuing needs of its students, their families and the larger community
* Creating an educational venue that is ethically consistent with acknowledging young people as full human beings with inherent worth and dignity comparable to adults, as those rights were laid out in the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
The arguments against democratic-free schools are generally based on the model’s incompatibility with educational standardization, plus conventional expectations and assumptions that most young people are not yet capable of directing important aspects of their own lives. Those arguments include…
* That young people do not inherently know what is best for them developmentally and need to be directed in their development by more mature members of their larger community
* That students will take their liberty as license to waste their time on activities like socializing or playing video games and not properly prepare themselves for college, jobs and other aspects of adult life
* That subjecting teachers and adult school staff to student feedback and participation in school governance dishonors and disrespects those adults as elders and proper authority figures
* That not subjecting young people to external and at times what may seem like arbitrary authority will not properly prepare them to abide by such authority in real work situations they are likely to encounter as adults
* That democratic-free schools cannot be judged on conventional school assessment metrics based on student knowledge of standardized curriculum and therefore cannot pass muster as U.S. public schools.
Advocacy & Support
Finally, if you are interested in learning more about democratic-free schools, including finding one locally to enroll a young person, or even starting one, I’m aware of at least two organizations in the U.S. that are focused on supporting this educational model…
* The Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) was founded in 1989 by longtime democratic educator Jerry Mintz. AERO promotes democratic-free schools, and provides support and networking for people trying to start or manage such schools. It maintains a list of such schools in the United States and around the world. It offers consulting on democratic school process, school starter classes, and mounts a yearly national conference drawing democratic educators and advocates from around the country and from other countries as well. Attending one of their usually four-day conferences would be a great way to introduce yourself to this educational model and some of its key practitioners.
* The Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA) was founded in 2009 inspired by longtime Israeli democratic educator Yaacov Hecht. Its staff represents a younger generation of democratic education activists, and the organization provides an online community, consulting, advocacy, and a clearinghouse for innovative programs and resources that support democratic education. I had the privilege of participating in some of the early discussions and meetings with founder Dana Benis and other leaders of the organization that led up to its launch.
Click here to see my additional writing on “From Schooling to Human Development”.
Click here to see my additional writing on “From One Size Fits All to Education Alternatives”.