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Rationale Thinking About A Democratic Structure of Schooling

Schools have evolved in the United States over time from “restricted access for some” to “you must go” while increasing provisions for those that are in need, and offering a menu of activities in participatory culture. The problem is that, despite the participatory feeling of these additions, schools lack in their efforts to prompt a democratic education. In fact, the very idea that school is compulsory and students are not permitted to opt-out prohibits these structures from being democratic simply because with democracy comes the ability of choice and free will within the environment. If the original problem with education was that it was too restrictive in keeping people out then the modern problem may be that we work too hard to keep kids in.

Let’s be honest: does it make any sense to force kids to stay in school if they don’t want to? Does compulsory education teach them that no matter what happens, they will always be provided for the same way that they can always go to school?

All the people who have recently jumped on the Dan Pink bandwagon of “Motivation 3.0” I have a question for you. If motivation is based upon intrinsic rewards, then can’t we get rid of compulsory education? Won’t that improve attendance rates AND increase student achievement simply because their participation is something that will be inherently valuable to them rather than something bestowed upon them by the evil adults? Of course not. There is merit to the argument in his book, but not even he suggests this drastic of a measure during the final chapter of suggestions for future use.

I’m purposely taking this discussion to the extreme because I think there are a lot of people who need to come to some clear realizations about a democratic education. Kids need to learn what a democracy is before they can truly value this type of mindset. So now that I have taken it to the extreme and suggested we rid ourselves of compulsory education altogether, let’s ground ourselves in some possibilities that will allow for education to move closer towards the way a democracy works without getting carried away and ruining the lives of a generation of American youth.

How can schools be structured for more democratic education? The key to all of this is for us to rid ourselves of grade levels, which would eliminate our need for tracking. Without ending the practice of “grade level by age” we are simply cookie-cuttering the educational experience for all children. Come to think of it, our current practice reminds me more of a communist approach than anything else. I have yet to come across a logical rationale for why a student who is “x” years old must be in “x” grade. It makes no sense whatsoever, and the negative stigma that comes with students who “stay back” has more to do with our inability to see beyond tradition and look more for logic. If a student is reading on a 4th grade level then why are we forcing him or her into 7th grade? Wouldn’t it make more sense if the student was able to progress at a rate that was conducive to his or her learning style? At the same time, why is a student who reads on a 10th grade level still in a 7th grade English class? In addition to all of this, I can’t understand why a student has every class on the same grade level is he or she isn’t performing equally in each!

If we want schools to be structured further for a democratic education we need to think along these two lines: flexibility and participation. Schooling will never take on the form of democracy in its purest definition simply because of the following truthism: kids are kids and, regardless of what we want to think, they need guidance and must be taught to make appropriate decisions through experiences. How do offer this? We begin to investigate ways to differentiate the entire schooling experience so that students have options, which do not currently exist in our school structure other than electives (now you know why they are the most popular courses). Students should take four years of history in high school, but why do they each have to take the same topic of class, the same year of school, in the same amount of time?

If you want to start thinking about how to make schools more democratic structure, then start thinking about what options aren’t available to your students, and what feasible steps we can take towards allowing for more choice to exist.

About Aaron Eyler

Aaron is a U.S. history teacher in a Central Jersey school district. In addition, to his Bachelor's degree in History and Education certification, he has a Master's degree in Educational Administration and Leadership.


4 thoughts on “Rationale Thinking About A Democratic Structure of Schooling

  1. Nice post. I like how you started with an extreme case and worked your way back to the idea.

    I am a fan of intrinsic motivaton, and have to constantly defend intrinsic motivation from those who see it as one step short of anarchy. People need guidance, especially children.

    Can you imagine how many children might opt out of ‘traditional’ school if they had the chance?And rightfully so.

    I do believe there is a problem when some teachers have a captured audience rather than a captivated audience.

    Thx for sharing


    Posted by Joe Bower | March 8, 2010, 3:49 pm
  2. Aaron,

    I agree that our cookie cutter approach to schools creates unnecessary impediments to learning, positive self-image, and democracy. It is mostly a conveyor belt that accommodates bureaucratic box-checking. So let’s say we do away with “grade level by age,” now how is it determined that it is time and appropriate for someone to graduate?

    Furthermore, how as a teacher do you facilitate a class on let’s say US History, when students are coming from all over the place. How could you teach without the assurance that students in your class had covered the required standards from their previous year that would have prepared them for your class now? (I admit to sarcasm in this last question)


    Posted by Adam Burk | March 8, 2010, 7:17 pm
  3. Aaron, this question grabbed me:

    “Does compulsory education teach them that no matter what happens, they will always be provided for the same way that they can always go to school?”

    I hope public education reforms schools to give kids the safety, resource rich environments, and caring relationships they need to see that they can provide for themselves thanks to education. I hope schools come to graduate a citizenry that can explain the positive connections between schools and citizens’ private, vocational, public, and democratic lives. I don’t mean to push a meritocracy, circumstances be damned; rather, I want schools to stand with students and their learning and passions so that students graduate ready and able to stand for democracy, education, and democracy in education.

    If a teacher wanted to make class more democratic tomorrow, what should he or she do? If a teacher wanted to make the next unit of study democratic, what planning tools and methods would you advise? If a teacher wanted to approach a building-level or district administrator for waivers to run a democratic classroom, what examples, research, and language should he or she employ?

    What are acceptable compromises public schools and their classroom teachers can make now to democratize school for kids?

    These are the same questions I’m wrestling with as our project grows.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 8, 2010, 8:25 pm
  4. An excellent arguement Aaron. I agree that there is inherent risk with a truly democractic model of schools, especially when that model does not exist in our society. While we may not be able to model a true democracy, we need to provide students with as many options to practice democracy as possible. School should provide for a safe environment where students can learn how to best exercise their democratic rights. Currently most members of society choose to not utilize their rights, perhaps because while they were in school, those rights were not theirs.

    Posted by Matthew Campbell | April 5, 2010, 7:09 pm

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