Tag Archives: democracy and education

What is a Democratic-Free School?

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.

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Starting to Imagine Non-Compulsory Schools

As I have mentioned before, I’ve been involved in an ongoing email “forum” over the past five years with fellow members of the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO). Topics revolve around youth, learning, and our societies educational institutions and possible alternatives to those institutions. Admittedly, we forum participants can be guilty of arguing perhaps from more of an ivory tower rather than from the trenches at times, but then again you have to be able to see the entire forest at times to best take care of all the trees.

One of the topics that keeps coming up and engenders a lot of impassioned prose on our forum is the reality of compulsory education for youth and the possibility of making it non-compulsory instead. The opinions on what would result from this change run the gamut, even among this self-selected group of alternative educators and other supporters (like me) of learning alternatives. Some of the forum participants (like me) take a more left-libertarian position and argue that our schools and the formal education process in general would be transformed for the better by shedding coercive elements of compulsion. Other list colleagues think that though in some ideal world this would be the way school should be, in our all too real and non-ideal world ending compulsory school attendance would be a disaster, and particularly for poor families that live in dangerous neighborhoods with little other infrastructure to offer youth.

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Healthcare Reform, Democracy & Schools

DemocracyI am concerned about the unfolding process of working out changes to our healthcare system, and particularly how it is being covered in the media as a contest with winners and losers rather than an exercise in compromise to find a working consensus. I think the framing of the debate in the coverage reflects a conventional wisdom that our political and legislative process is more akin to a spectator sport (where our political elite are alone on the playing field) rather than a societal effort to mitigate conflicting interests and find a compromise that can begin to improve the healthcare context for all of us. I for one, put a lot of blame on our education system.

My personal preference would be to treat healthcare basically as a public utility and adopt a single-payer system like they have in Canada, which I think would unleash the currently tamped-down entrepreneurial spirit in our country and liberate a great deal of pent up creative energy that could be directed toward starting more small businesses and reinvigorating our economy. Short of single-payer, some sort of government-run “public option” would be a step in that direction, and I imagine that fact is why so many conservatives and others vested in our for-profit medical establishment are fighting so fiercely against any sort of additional “toe in the door” alongside Medicare, the VA, and Medicaid. Continue reading →