Tag Archives: the modern school

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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Anarchism and the Sub-basement of the Graduate Library

Mikhail Bakunin

Mikhail Bakunin

My senior year in high school (1971-1972) I was a wannabe radical, enjoying the intoxicating stories of my high school history teacher (an avowed communist) about the group that plotted and killed the Czar in 1881, the Russian revolution of 1905 and its failure to seize power, and the Bolsheviks who thirteen years later successfully did so, leading to my own flirting with the ideas of anarchism, entombed in old dusty volumes housed in the sub-basement of the University of Michigan graduate library.

Throughout my childhood and youth, whatever compelling story I heard, read, saw in the movies or saw on television, I wanted to emulate, and became a source of play and fantasy. Now 16 and a senior in high school (I skipped kindergarten if you’re doing the math), I was enthralled by the story my “Modern Russian History” teacher was telling us. He was a larger than life figure, an “out” Trotskyite and a heck of storyteller, and I imagine only in a really liberal university town like Ann Arbor could he unabashedly do his thing and flaunt his card-carrying credentials. Continue reading →