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50 Ways To Make Your School More Democratic

This is also cross posted at the IDEA (Institute for Democratic Education In America) website.

It was an amazing meeting.  Ten activists, educators, school founders, and school re-starters recently gathered for an IDEA Board Retreat in San Francisco.  Fired up by Pedro Noguera’s keynote speech to the Coalition of Essential Schools the day before, we framed up IDEA’s commitments and strategy:  how we move this baby out so we’re actually doing something, making sure we’re talking about what matters, and ensuring we’re providing tools for change. Because we aim to be the organization in this country connecting people who are transforming and revolutionizing education, we had a lot to talk about.

Want to get in?

What have you done, as a classroom teacher, a student, a parent, administrator, to make your school more equitable, less hierarchical, more welcoming to everyone, and more like a place where real thinking happens?


1.  Invite 5 students to a faculty meeting

2.  Eliminate staff and student bathrooms

3.  Ask students to facilitate important school wide meetings

4.  Start each day with a morning meeting and check in, and listen to each other. (How are you? How are you feeling today?)

5.  Ask students to develop rubrics for judging “excellent” work

6.  End courses/units with a culminating projects designed by students, about something that really matters to them

7.  Have students read each other’s papers and comment on them, directly to each other

8.  Get students to determine the homework policy (even in the early grades)

9.  Charge students with deciding what goes up on the walls at school

10.  Pass a “talking stick” during intense discussions so that everyone gets a chance to speak

11.  Eat lunch with kids (or teachers) you rarely talk to

12.  Ask students to attend parent/teacher conferences

13.  Ask students to evaluate themselves prior to parent/teacher conferences

14.  Ask students to run parent/teacher conferences

15.  Have everyone practice “yes/and” more than “no/but” (because success is available to everyone!)

YES! And what can you add?

We want to go for 50 (or hundreds) more suggestions, and then use them to talk about our mission.  Please let us know how you are making your school more democratic, or ways you wish your school were more democratic…


About Kirsten Olson

I'm writer and educational activist. I work in public, charter, private, unschools. I'm here for the learning revolution.


20 thoughts on “50 Ways To Make Your School More Democratic

  1. Use participatory budgeting to engage the whole school community in setting budgets.
    Involve students in staff appointments.
    Make sure any school inspectors or visitors talk to any students, not just those staff select or who are self-selecting (e.g. student council).
    Keep track of student involvement as well as attainment (Who is taking on what leadership roles? Who is engaged in programmes that allow them to be involved in decision-making?)
    Make sure your student council isn’t just a fundraising or school improvement club, but is a students’ union – – make it clear that its primary role is to represent the views of students.
    Get students to research what helps them to learn. Get them to present their findings to staff.
    Give students the funding, trust and time to set up and run their own extra-curricular clubs and activities.
    Get students involved in planning lessons.
    Get students involved in teaching lessons.
    Get students involved in evaluating lessons.
    Make sure your School Development Plan has a ‘student voice’ column, so that every issue has a ‘student voice’ from reducing truancy to improving attainment. ‘Student voice’ should not be a line that is separate from anything else. If you don’t have a School Development Plan, look at all your other policies, add in a student voice element.
    Train students and staff together.
    Have student mediators.
    Have student mentors.
    Have student play and sports leaders.
    Don’t have a staff room – or allow students free access to it.
    Uniforms: if you’re going to be democratic they need to be as free/restrictive for staff as they are for students.
    I’ll stop for now. Great post.

    Posted by Asher Jacobsberg | December 14, 2010, 8:29 am
  2. Invite students to budget meetings, listen to their unique perspective on what is important.
    Let students be in charge of organizing school assemblies and gatherings.
    Invite students to help plan learning.

    Posted by ktenkely | December 14, 2010, 6:08 pm
  3. You guys are describing a ‘learning commons’! Alec Patton and I wrote about it in the Learning Futures recent pamphlet: ‘The Engaging School: Principles and Practices’. Learning Commons schools aren’t just democratic, they’re successful, achieving schools. We have to accept that giving students more power/rights/responsibilities will only be accepted by administrators, parents, policy makers and, yes, teachers, if it also increases attainment. But let’s not be afraid of saying it does. Here’s a few from Learning Futures ( schools’ practice:
    1. Ask students to define what powerful learning looks like, and commit to implementing findings (see Harris Federation ‘Commission for Learning’);
    2. Make students co-designers of projects;
    3. Train students to coach each other to become better learners;
    4. Instigate a ‘right to roam’: if students would better learn from someone else in (or out) of schools, let them (with responsibilities to report back);
    5. Set up staff/student research programmes;

    None of these theoretical – all set up and working well.
    Great ideas – hope you get lots more!

    Posted by David Price | December 15, 2010, 7:51 am
    • David, I just checked out Learning Futures online and you guys look fantastic. We over at IDEA will be in touch. We are very aligned philosophically and I am interested in your emerging four principles. Thank you so much for commenting.

      As someone who spends a lot of time in schools, I am especially taken with your ROOM TO ROAM idea. I see so many students planted in chairs in school dying from lack of oxygen and stimulation, and if they could roam, they’d be learning. I’m going to quote you on this.


      Posted by Kirsten | December 15, 2010, 4:48 pm
  4. With apologies and a headache:

    – Start a democratic school meant to take on traditional public schools in your community.

    – Focus on democratic education, rather than school, and credential experts and community volunteers to serve as circuit teachers meeting with a variety of students at a variety of sites for authentic, project and service-based work in communities. Let the credentialed experiential instructors pitch courses for students to choose, as is done at Steve Miranda’s school.

    – Give students and parents equal votes and/or shares in consensus decisions about budget, facilities, catering, curriculum, materials, and staffing.

    – Allow students to leave classes that suck.

    – Ask all adult community members and interested students to read Doing School, Wounded by School, and The New Global Student.

    – Provide leave time for all community members to visit undemocratic schools and to discuss how similar and different their democratic schools are to and from the undemocratic ones.

    – Accept for credit (whatever that means) all service work and self-directed learning evidenced outside school.

    – Allow students to define “credit” individually.

    – Abolish seat time requirements.

    – Secure and defend self-pacing rights for students, including graduation plans, portfolios, and requirements.

    – Allow specialization.

    – Allow students to use public and private transportation to attend the school of their choice.

    – Study the sustainability of a democratic model within the context of your school and division given the predispositions of the rest of the staff, faculty turnover, and community values. Don’t do democracy to a community unwilling to participate in it. Start slowly unless you are in the perfect place.

    – Leave schools that aren’t democratic.

    – Abolish grading and resist all norm-referencing products and practices, including state tests which, while seemingly criterion/standards-based, are actually validated and scored by norm-referencing student performance on each item each administration.

    – Allow communities to democratically elect their teachers and administrators, as well as to democratically authorize new schools.

    – Look past your school, which is likely unrepresentative of all of our kids.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | December 15, 2010, 9:31 am
  5. Wow Chad, with a headache.

    You rock. This puts us so far past 50.

    3 of my 4 children go to a school like you describe. Teachers pitch courses to students, students vote on what will get taught. Major (and minor) decisions get made in Town Meeting. Everyone votes. My son tried to organize abolition of grades, but students wouldn’t go for it.

    There should be many, many more democratic schools for families, students, and teachers to choose. You seem like the perfect executive director for one. When?

    Posted by Kirsten | December 15, 2010, 4:53 pm
    • That kind of school sounds great to me, Kirsten. I think it’s important for community members to have voice, to feel supported and interdependent, and to know that even if a well-reasoned and passionate argument doesn’t carry the day, the community still cares for each person in it and values him or her.

      I don’t know that executive is the right branch of government for me – which one does trial and error best?

      With thanks,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | December 15, 2010, 5:15 pm
  6. I’m thinking of all of these below–in verb form:

    Posted by jengroves | December 15, 2010, 8:24 pm
  7. Jen, Love it! Do you know of schools in your area that embody these values?


    Posted by Kirsten | December 16, 2010, 12:31 pm
  8. Kirsten,

    I can’t resist the urge to reply to your posts. You have an amazing way of inviting us all in. Something to aspire to for me as a teacher.

    So how about…
    A) Turn off the damn bells! Feels like we are teaching inside a Skinner box! Let’s encourage kids to respond to their inner voices, to human requests, not to bells. While we’re at it turn off the intercoms too. Too Orwellian.

    B) Take the kids outside the classroom. Nothing democratizes like a natural setting. No overheads pointed to the front. No teacher at the board. If it’s not possible to take ’em outside, how about the hallway. Cn you at least arrange the seats in a circle or somehow allow students to see eachother’s eyes?

    C) Create choice in any way you can. Ask yourself honestly, how many legitimate options does a given student have in any one moment? For example: they can raise their hand and answer the question. They can ask to use the bathroom. They can sit quietly. Challenge yourself to increase the range of acceptable moves exponentially. No secret formula here; what is possible depends entirely on your specifics. Be creative.

    D) Allow for physical movement. This needn’t mean anarchy. Establish whatever boundaries you need to on this, but again challenge yourself to allow for stretching, standing, circulating. This can be done without losing time, focus or completion of tasks. Truly.

    E) Aspire towards a sense of spaciousness. Allow for silence and time for reflection.

    F) Have a sense of humor! If you must use your authority to exact desired behaviors, acknowledge to yourself and the kids that this is what you are doing, and recognize that doing so does not match your ideal world view. Notice the absurd when it comes up – especially when it comes out of your own mouth, i.e. “no, this is not a good time to use the restroom. You’ll need to wait.”

    I’d love to see the long list of suggestions when they’re all compiled together.

    Thanks, Kirsten


    Posted by Paul Freedman | December 17, 2010, 11:28 am
  9. Paul, Thanks for your beautiful and as always, thoughtful suggestions. They go to the heart of things. The bells too drive me crazy, as do the loudspeaker announcements. Not being able to move–especially for people who learn best with their bodies–makes school torture. Finally, I think one of the reasons Courage and Renewal work (which we’ve discussed) often is most needed in schools, and often hardest to land there, is its emphasis on spaciousness, silence, and reflection as deeply connected to the life of the teacher. In my experience, silence is often shatteringly difficult for practitioners. Silence means having to listen to yourself, which in a very busy place that overvalues process, can be extremely uncomfortable.

    You should write about the atmosphere at Salmonberry. Tell us what it’s like to be a student there.

    Posted by Kirsten | December 20, 2010, 3:50 pm
  10. Hi Kirsten,
    Replies make great reading and it’s exciting to know that this democratic approach to education is so sought after across the globe – after all it is the kids school, not ours!!
    Some of the key ways our schools are including children in the process are
    * inviting classes and parents to contribute to the development of whole school policies (values and citizenship, assessment, homework etc)
    * pupils and parents being involved in the recruitment of headteachers / deputes.
    * pupils and staff (teaching, admin, catering, janitorial) doing the same child protection training for insight to peer mentoring.
    * pupils building the class requisition for supplies.
    * pupils choosing what they will learn and suggesting how they might best learn it.

    Well done on creating such an inviting discussion.

    Posted by jenmcnicol | December 27, 2010, 6:18 pm
    • Folks, Based on this list here and others at IDEA and the Daily Riff, I’m putting together a proposal to present these to instructional leaders in Massachusetts in February. So keep them coming! Thank you collaborators!

      Posted by Kirsten | January 4, 2011, 9:49 am
  11. Thanks Chad, you’re right as usual. The idealogical divide: kids need to be controlled and prodded and managed to learn, vs. the human beings are naturally primed to learn, and we need different kinds of structures and environments depending on the task and our own development, really shows up in hiring. Also shows up in who shows up to a conference offering on making your school more democratic!

    And hey, when did you say you’re starting your school?

    Posted by Kirsten | January 4, 2011, 4:56 pm


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