Tag Archives: summerhill

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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Summerhill: Fully Engaging Youth in their Education

The Summerhill school in England was one of the world’s first, and along with the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, one of the world’s most successful and enduring “democratic-free” schools. “Free” in that the students are completely in charge of what, when, where, how and from whom they learn. “Democratic” in that the students and the staff jointly participate in school governance through use of the democratic process, with youth and adults having an equal voice and vote in most matters.

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Leonard Turton on Democracy & Education

Here is a provocative quote on democracy and schools, which I believe to be on the mark, from a person named Leonard Turton who I exchanged emails with on the AERO (Alternative Education Revolution Organization) listserv back several years ago. If you consider yourself a progressive person and you believe that our country should embody democratic principles, I think you need think long and hard about what he is saying, and if you can rationalize our current education system with those democratic principles… Continue reading →