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The DNA of Democracy

“Democracy. Every man was the master of his own soul. Although it was wisdom to cooperate, a person was not required to if he did not think it was right.”-Jean Craighead George, Water Sky, p. 132

My Top Ten Ways to Create Democracy in Schools

1. No GradesDr. Simon Lin, Northwestern University
2. Explain to students that it is everyone’s job to be involved in growth and learning.
3. Show students that you are.
4. Make the school structure as simple as possible, but no simpler.
5. Create the most supportive and least restrictive environment possible.
6. Create ground rules together with students.
7. Create goals together with students.
8. Invite life into the classroom, and invite the classroom out to life.
9. Don’t talk all the time. Listen.
10. Remember, ultimately, it is the student who understands how she learns best.

Structures and Defined Roles

To build democracy in education, we must remove all but the most necessary structures. These necessary structures are the ones that ensure safety (facilities, transportation, etc), facilitate communication (front office, technology, etc.) and sustainability (e.g. accounting).

Nearly everything else can be directed by the faculty and students. By removing all but the essential structures we create the least restrictive environment possible, a prerequisite for democracy.


All members of the community will create the norms, including students. Once an inaugural set of norms are established, this need not be redone from scratch every year, but rather refined as time would need it. Anyone can create the impetus for such a refinement and methods such as “fist to five” consensus should be used to move motions along or end them.

As is done in the Sudbury model, there is no need for every member to always be present for voting, but rather it is trusted that those who are present for the vote are capable of making the decision. Decisions can always be refined later as new points of view emerge.


Just as it is trusted that those present for school decisions are capable, it is trusted that faculty and students are capable of developing curriculum. Any curriculum guides will be as non-intrusive as possible, and shall be developed by faculty, students, families, and alumni.  If someone who is teaching doesn’t know well enough what skills and knowledge a high-school graduate needs to possess, I suggest another line of work. Again, I advocate for the use of The Earth Charter as the guide for curriculum development and aims.

Furthermore, the aim is must be larger than high-school graduation and college entrance. It is a fulfilling and well-evaluated life. If students are living such lives, which by their very definition contribute to the wealth (not just monetarily) and the vitality of their communities and nation, what else could we want? Why should a school be geared towards any other end?

Students must be principal architects in their own learning. I repeat, students must be the generators of their own learning.

Beginning in early childhood education, students must be shown respect. Models such as Reggio Emilia, are wonderful in this way. While 4-year-old’s cannot be expected to state their desired goals and outcomes (or can they?), teachers can began facilitating the meta-process of teaching learning. Thus, over time the balance shifts from faculty being responsible for designing the supporting structures for a student’s interests to the student being responsible herself.


There shall be no grades! Carve it stone, put it on a mountaintop, I don’t care, just stop worrying about grades and scores!

There are two tiers of assessment that need to be differentiated. The first level is per task assessment, and secondly assessment over time. Per task assessment is the usual marking of a quiz, paper, etc. However, this shall be done not with a grade but with a dialogue. Students should assess themselves through reflection. Teachers shall discuss the task with students in detail including its successes and what it reveals needs further work.

Assessment over time, is currently a report card, either quarterly or per semester. Report cards shall be used either in compost bins or as fire starter, they no longer have any other place in schools. Assessment over time will build upon the assessment strategy used for tasks. Students will continue to self-reflect, while teachers provide detailed feedback including strengths and areas for growth. Portfolios are also an acceptable means of documentation for assessment if the student elects such a format.

The basis of assessments shall be made clear at the outset. I personally am not a fan of complex rubrics, but they may have a place. My bent is towards straightforward expectations that may seem to be black and white, but actually accommodate many shades of gray. For example, for a writing assignment: Writing shall be clear, intelligible, and coherent. If a teacher can not facilitate the discussion that goes along with this statement, then again, please find another job.

Rather than students learning to “pass” instead of learn, learning is kept at the forefront. There is nothing else to be gained from the assignment other than increased proficiency and the inherent satisfaction that comes from learning and doing a job to the best of one’s capability.

A Day in the Life

School days begin with greetings and celebration, like the peacemaking traditions of indigenous people in the Yukon, school should be framed with the same philosophy, “Begin and end in a good way.” Building a culture of kindness and celebration supports us in the tough times that are inevitable. Frustrations are inevitable, are time together should not embolden that.

Faculty hold open classes, meaning that anyone, may come if they think it is relevant or interesting to them (read: students choose). Reading The Giving Tree can be just as impacting to an 18-year-old (or 45-year-old), as it is to a 5-year-old. Project-based learning is also the norm whether in agriculture, aquaculture, environmental restoration, or community engagement. This multi-age interaction builds social/emotional skills, creates many teachers in the room, disallows for teaching to the middle, and is dependent on teaching in support of differentiated learning.

By self-selecting where they are throughout the day students are exercising their voting muscles by making choices, meaningful choices, every day. These classes are bound to be more vibrant as they are held together by common interest and inquisition.

Students regularly get together to play games, explore, and discuss the day’s happenings. They also take personal time to investigate themselves or a subject independently. Faculty are regularly available through “office hours” to meet individually or with small groups of students to discuss particular matters.

All Together Now

These strands together form the double helix of democracy—empowered citizens and supportive and least restrictive environments. This is the optimal form of democracy, where the participants are capable of interacting with a nimble system to ensure individual liberties are in balance with common good.

There are few models of this in schools, none that I know of as public schools. This must not be a discouragement to creating such organizations. For examples and further reading I suggest Sudbury Valley Schools, Salmonberry School, City and Country School and writings by John Holt, Ron Miller, Ira Shor, Steven Harrison, John Taylor Gatto, Alfie Kohn, David Bohm, and Albert Einstein.


About Adam Burk

Adam aims to serve the greater good; alleviate unnecessary suffering; and create beautiful, sane human communities in concert with the living planet. Recently, he has helped to rebuild local food systems in Maine in large part through school food services, organized the TEDxDirigo conference, and is a digital organizer with the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA).


6 thoughts on “The DNA of Democracy

  1. Adam, I especially enjoy both the idea and definition of your “double-helix” of democracy. Your post makes me think, also about how driven we teachers are to articulate and align what we ask of students to standards that may or may not be useful or intelligible in and of themselves. I wonder how much time I’ve spent “teaching” a rubric or its language, attending to the minutiae of standards, when I could have been talking with students instead about the big ideas at play in their writing. Thanks for the pause.

    I want to read more about Reggio Emilia’s work. I can see critics of democratic education questioning its appropriateness for young students or students labeled this or that. I want to be able to answer that criticism with examples of how reason, respect, and teachers’ good judgment can make democratic education and the development of metacognition work for all kids.

    What would your exit requirement be from democratic public education? How would you assess it? Would it be a educational or entrepreneurial end – getting a job? Attending university? Joining a military or service organization? Starting a service organization? A business? All of the above? What would be the common, shared characteristics of successful exit performances or portfolios?

    Best regards,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 8, 2010, 8:38 pm
  2. Chad,

    As always you pose great questions.

    My exit requirement would at a minimum include exemplary written work, completion of a “capstone” project, and presentation to the community. If standards are a reality in public education that aren’t going away, then I like the Maine Farm Enterprise Schools approach to this [see standards-based assessment at link],

    The designed end of the school program would be whatever the student decided in collaboration with faculty. If her goal was to travel the world, then goals would be set for suitable preparation for this- e.g., budget management, cultural competency, and foreign language proficiency. If it was to start a landscape company then goals could include: business accounting, business law, ecology, horticulture, and small engine repair. A last and traditional example-entrance to college-goals for this may be: completion of relevant community college courses, relevant standardized tests, and self-designed prerequisite courses for admissions.

    Ah, I am feeling relieved and invigorated just thinking of such a system.

    What do you think? Would my ideas set students up for success or problems down the road? If we were to drop a standards-based assessment for graduation would this complicate life for students wishing to attend college later, if it was not their goal initially?

    Posted by Adam Burk | March 8, 2010, 9:00 pm
    • The dual-enrollment requirement for college is a perfect bridge, Adam: something happening right now that could be seen as a common-sense indicator of a student’s readiness to exit public school. I also like the multiple promotion portfolio assessment at the Maine Farm School. The resources and hours spent scoring yearly testing could be better spent in more episodic and in depth assessment of students’ highest quality work. The vision of travel as assessment is awesome. Could we bank per pupil funds saved on testing & texts to pay for such authentic assessments? I would like to see students record their project designs for other students and schools, too.

      Any student who could meet the requirements of such assessments could teach him or herself what to do to score well on an SAT or ACT.

      How would you go about implementing a public democratic school without falling into traditional thinking? For what initial enrollment would you plan and staff it? I keep wanting to say, “Well, we’ll start X kindergartners, and X 6th graders, and X 9th graders,” but that’s just because I’m trying to crosswalk myself back into the box. Considering highly qualified teacher status, do you hire folks across age-level licenses with multiple certificates and open the doors?

      Posted by Chad Sansing | March 8, 2010, 9:35 pm
      • Chad,

        Thank you for sharing your thoughts and extending the boundary of our discussion.

        First, I know first-hand that a student can teach himself what’s needed to score well on an a standardized test. We need not spend all our class time preparing them for these singular events.

        As for an initial enrollment plan, it may make sense to begin with an elementary school (what ages this covers depends on the state) because the license needed (elementary ed and art) is singular and across the board. That way everyone can work with anyone admitted.

        Admittedly, beginning with an elementary school falls into traditional breaks and grouping, but you have to start somewhere.

        Otherwise, I would begin enrollment a year before start-up of the school, and then staff accordingly. Or, I would hire people representing each endorsement area, and know that regardless of enrollment demographics each person will be able to contribute to the process. Anyone joining this endeavor would obviously be committed to the mission and thus dedicated to moving towards a trans-disciplinary approach. If you can find people with multiple endorsements and a congruence of philosophy all the better.

        Then if needed to satisfy rules, assign students to the staff with the corresponding endorsement as advisers.

        This level of organizational administration is admittedly an area I am growing and learning in.

        I look forward to yours and others thoughts.


        Posted by Adam Burk | March 9, 2010, 6:07 pm
  3. Adam – I was so pleased to read this – and to know that your focus is on bringing democracy into the classrooms. I, presently, am studying how to support democracy into a therapeutic environment.

    Thanks for the links – I plan to follow them.

    One note on tone…it’s interesting, Arnold Mindel speaks about this in his book ‘Leader as Martial Artist’ – how an individual can be speaking about respect, equality, rights, and democracy, but can be doing so in a voice that is repressive, demanding, and seeking to instill a prime directive. I wonder if righteousness – which may be fuel – is productive in communication?

    Your thoughts? Because I notice this in my own writing as well.


    Posted by Jennifer Bruno | March 9, 2010, 10:29 am
  4. Jennifer,

    You raise a good question. Qualities we wish to espouse in others must be demonstrated in our selves. Righteousness as a default setting in communication will not be productive long-term, but I do believe it has its place and time.

    Also, I think that we need to be discerning between tone and action. For example, I am, as you are, a very passionate person. Thus, my tone often takes on fiery edge. However, if you evaluate my actions, it can easily be seen that I am a compassionate man who does not as a pattern restrict the thoughts or actions of another. In other words, I allow others to have equal opportunity to air their own view or act as they choose be it different or the same as mine.

    I am a bit confused, did you find my post to contain this tone that is repressive, demanding, or righteous? It obviously was seeking to instill a prime directive, as was the objective of the question I was responding to “How should schools be structured to support educational democracy?” I can finds instances of righteousness, but do not think that is the overall tone. This could be a mistake of perception on my part or an issue of interpreting text. As always I appreciate your reflections and challenges as they promote self-evaluation, growth, and refinement.

    As a last note, ultimately, I am not interested in being right, but being a part of the movement of change that time demands.

    In peace,

    Posted by Adam Burk | March 9, 2010, 11:56 am

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