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Undemocratic classrooms of a Democratic Society

Democracy truly is something all Americans (and yes, even us Canadians) should truly cherish. We should cherish it so much that we should do whatever it takes to ensure that our children be guaranteed the same rights and freedoms that we have come to appreciate.

So how do we do that?

Public Education.

Public education may be one of the most important characteristics of an ever-lasting democractic people. And yet it is sadly ironic that schools are one of the least democratic places inside of a democracy.

Alfie Kohn reflects on this unfortunate paradox in his article Choices for Children: Why and How to Let Students Decide:

Several years ago, a group of teachers from Florida traveled to what was then the USSR to exchange information and ideas with their Russian-speaking counterparts. What the Soviet teachers most wanted from their guests was guidance on setting up and running democratic schools. Their questions on this topic were based on the assumption that a country like the United States, so committed to the idea of democracy, surely must involve children in decision-making processes from their earliest years.

The irony is enough to make us wince. As one survey of American schools after another has confirmed, students are rarely invited to become active participants in their own education.(1) Schooling is typically about doing things to children, not working with them. An array of punishments and rewards is used to enforce compliance with an agenda that students rarely have any opportunity to influence.

When I share the idea of making classrooms more democratic with teachers or parents who are reluctant to trust children, I quite often hear, “Children are not responsible enough or trustworthy enough to be given choice.”

Children do not become good choice-makers by being told what to do, nor do children become more responsible by simply following instructions.

They must be afforded the opportunity to make good and bad choices.

They must be given the chance to be responsible and irresponsible.

If children are not afforded the opportunity to learn how to participate in a democratic classroom by being in a democratic classroom, when shall they learn how to participate and perpetuate the democratic ideals that you Americans and we Canadians have come to love so very much?



About joebower

I believe students should experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information.


4 thoughts on “Undemocratic classrooms of a Democratic Society

  1. Joe, your post brings back to mind vivid memories of half-day kindergarten daycare during Reagan’s second campaign for President. Man, we were some passionate 6-year-olds, arguing with each other over whatever our parents had said. Jump ahead to fifth grade: Bush vs. Dukakis. Same thing. Jump ahead to 12th grade, Clinton vs. Dole – what’s this? Children voting differently from their parents? Sometimes. In my case it was an adolescent knee-jerk reaction against my parents – sorry, Mom & Dad, but I bet you already knew that.

    My point: as a kid, I learned that democracy meant voting like or against your parents in presidential elections. (Although I give mad props to the teachers of our 12th grade current events seminar for trying to do more.)

    To better protect our democracy and graduate students willing to attack our nations’ and world’s problems cooperatively, we need to do more throughout public education to let students come together in democratic ways and experience the powers of individual voice and collective action.

    So, bravo, YLI youth elections, but how do we give kids governance and agency in their daily lives? What should we let go of and give to students? How patient should we be? How involved?

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 10, 2010, 6:24 am
  2. Joe, I really enjoyed this post. I submit teachers question their current practices with the goal of giving students more choice. Teachers have to learn to give up that need to control everything in the classroom and give students the opportunity to make choices, even though they will make mistakes. Of course the teacher must make sure choice is given while still maintaining a safe classroom. Indeed, “Children do not become good choice-makers by being told what to do, nor do children become more responsible by simply following instructions.” When students have a say in what happens in a class, a more rich, learning experience takes place.

    Posted by Brian Barry | March 13, 2011, 2:08 am
  3. Joe – You have raised a valid point. Classrooms today, in Canada and the U.S., are still very directive environments (teacher-led, highly scheduled, focused on skill delivery and practice). A democratic classroom involves providing for well-reasoned choices and children need many opportunities to practice making thoughtful choices (and need to be allowed to make the wrong choices and learn from them). A democratic environment also provides for and encourages dialogue and the classroom is an excellent place to learn to engage in thoughtful discussion. I find that my small group Guided Reading lessons are an excellent place for dialogue. The teacher ensures turn-taking and provides queries and comments to encourage students to think and respond. We, as teachers, need to slow down and listen and talk to children.

    Posted by Laura Vilness | March 13, 2011, 11:29 am
  4. I’m very much with you that we need classrooms democratically run by staff and students together. I’m not with this statement, “Public education may be one of the most important characteristics of an ever-lasting democractic people.” Public education is neither public nor free. I think it would more accurately be called “government education”. I like the idea of Community-Supported Education, where the community comes together to support an education for everyone, but if give the responsibilty over to government, of course, it’s going to come along with political agendas.

    Posted by Abe K. | March 13, 2011, 6:09 pm

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