January 17th, 2021
This article is adapted from the author’s two-part video series on democratic education: “From Democratic Free Schools to Democratic Free Communities” (Neighbor Democracy,English language, 2019)embedded below. Part 1 defines democratic free schools and opens up the argument that advocates of these schools should expand their focus into advocacy for a broader democratic free community to support such schools. Part 2 looks at what communities would look like if they applied the shared values of democratic schools as defined in the first part. Cooperation Denton is interested in spreading decentralized, directly democratic, and cooperative relationships throughout all aspects of our lives and we see the self-directed education movement as the best example of that in the education sphere. There are several learning communities in the metroplex actively putting these models of radical education into practice, putting learning back into the hands of children, teachers, and civil society instead of those of the state.
There are few issues which incite so much passion in so many people than the topic of education. You will hardly talk to anyone who doesn’t feel that there are major flaws in their education system, especially in the United States. Thousands of mobilizations have tried to reform certain policies within the system, but the self-directed learning movement strikes at the heart of that system and seeks its complete overthrow and replacement with something entirely new. Probably the most radical wing of the self-directed learning movement is the current advocating for total, direct participatory democracy of students and staff. These schools exist in many parts of the world and have recently had something of a renaissance in the United States, where I live. This is the current that I will spend this article focusing on, but there are many other self-directed education options that are also worth exploring in-depth. Within the scope of this article, I aim to break down democratic free schooling into its most essential components for those who are new to the model.
What are Democratic Free Schools?
The starting premise behind the democratic free school is that kids are naturally eager learners, creative, and curious people who, given the freedom and autonomy to make the decisions that affect them and explore their passions to the fullest, will continue on a path of a life-long embrace of learning. Traditional schools embrace uniformity, authority, and rigorous standards and do little but crush that natural curiosity and passion in youth.
Democratic free schools seek to overturn that with a few key pillars: direct democracy and shared power in community, leadership through guidance and not authority, an embrace of play, and full freedom to explore one's individual passions and desires.
A quick look at each pillar in turn:
1. Direct Democracy and Shared Power in Community
At a democratic school the rule book usually starts with a blank slate, and becomes filled, added to, subtracted from, and modified over time through the flexible directly democratic school meeting, in which all students and staff have a direct say in all decisions that affect them and govern the school. This could mean anything from the physical design of the building, the admissions policy, and how funds are raised and spent, to the hiring and firing of staff or how transgressions of the mutually-agreed upon rules should be handled. Many democratic free schools strive for consensus decisions instead of a rule-by-majority. The middle person of the decision-making process is cut out- there are no principals or school boards imposing rules from above.
Contrary to what one might think, in my experience, this actually leads to less chaos and kids that are more likely to follow the rules, because they themselves participated in the proposing of rules, debating them, and finally voting on them. It follows that they are responsible for holding each other (and the staff) accountable to the rules. So the kids actually feel like they have more ownership in their education and want to be there more! If you don’t believe me, find me any other type of school where the kids can, and do, vote to go to school during the summer! That actually happened at a democratic free school I worked at.
True, healthy, community necessitates shared power and participation by everyone, instead of decisions and the ability to act being imposed and monopolized from above. The conditions most conducive to friendship are true equality in power. A community where decision-making power is decentralized widely to everyone means that people depend on close, friendly relationships with their peers, as that is the environment most suitable to building consensus.
With this constant need to cooperate, we have an environment where cliquish behavior is not rewarded. In my experience, democratic free schools incubate a sense that everyone in the school is a potential playmate, learning partner, or supporter of the next great idea you might bring to the table. This is a far-cry from the highly competitive environments incubated by advanced classes and standardized tests where your classmates are often seen as potential threats to one’s individual “achievement”, from whom knowledge is to be guarded at all costs. The more students are pitted against each other, the more likely there will be bullying and other anti-social behavior. I don’t want to minimize the possibility that bullying can and does happen in free schools, as in any environment, but I would argue that a strong democratic and cooperative culture makes these schools far less susceptible.
Those schools at the forefront of this emphasis on direct democracy uphold the democratic ethos across the board. By this I mean not only are the relations between staff and students thoroughly democratic, but also the relations among staff. Staff have their own meetings to democratically decide on all aspects of the school that only affect them, namely their own hours and pay. Some even leave this aspect of school also subject to the whole school meeting so that students really do have full say on the school budget. The important message here is that all school founders should seriously consider what message it sends to students to say the whole school is democratically run while not modeling democracy among ourselves as staff. Even in environments where youth and adults share power equally, kids do look up to adults as mentors, and to have hierarchical relations among staff could send the message that the democracy we advocate is a sham, or that real, radical democracy is just something that works as kids, but then we have to grow out of it and face the “real world” of stratification and power imbalances.
There is a model for democratically-run businesses outside of the free school movement. Worker-owned cooperatives, run through worker’s self-management have existed as long as people have made decisions about economic life or carried out tasks together. This has always been a current running through society, even as the hierarchical business models we know so well today became dominant. If we want to be at the forefront of democratic practice, then I think it is important that we show our commitment to these beliefs by democratizing power in our schools as workplaces, and not just as learning environments. Many schools are already doing just that, or started under worker self-management in the first place. There is nothing to stop school founders of existing schools who see themselves as “employers” to take that small extra step and further decentralize power and responsibility among the rest of the staff.
2. Leadership Through Guidance and not Authority
A strong, egalitarian community is never without leaders. Equality recognizes that each individual has unique skills and passions to bring to the whole, but places no individual with unique skills above the rest. Democratic free schools allow for every student and staff member to be a leader when they are sharing their gifts with others, but it is important that leadership is not turned into a permanent position of authority. In democratic schools, teaching is not something that is limited to adults.
3. An Embrace of Play
Play is a natural and beneficial human activity and should never be limited to the confines of “recess”. Free play is so crucial for developing kids’ sense of cooperation, consent, communal responsibility, as well as their imagination. Unlike in traditional schooling where play is seen as something separate from “business” and as something that should mostly be done at home, democratic schools put little to no limits on how often kids can play or what kind of play they can do. The adults don’t try to steer kids towards “productive” or “useful” play. That’s not for us to judge. The more adults intervene with play, the more they limit children’s creativity. Democratic free schools usually encourage adults to be quiet observers of play unless invited to join in by the kids. Play teaches us how to check in with one another to make sure everyone is still having fun, to be attuned to each other’s needs and wishes, to build teamwork skills, and encourages equality- everyone will just quit playing if one person gets to be king of the treehouse all the time.
4. Full Freedom to Explore One’s Individual Passions and Desires
The democratic free school is a place of constant learning, even without a set curriculum. Students are never held to some minimum “essential” knowledge they must obtain, they don’t take tests, get graded on their work, or go home with homework. Classes are often organized based on specific interests of students or staff (and can be taught by staff or students), but none of them are required. A student is free to go their whole time in the school without attending a single organized class. At the heart of the concept is total freedom for anyone in the school to explore their passions or desires or even passing interests to the fullest extent they care to. Staff are there to help students find the resources they need (if asked) to continue on whatever path or paths the child decides to venture down. This could mean helping them find books, films, or websites related to an interest (say: traditional mud house construction), connecting them with experts (say: an elder who can pass on that knowledge), or helping them approach that interest hands-on (attempting to build an abobe house with the kid). In this way, a staff member is more often to fill a mentor role than that of an instructor. Unlike traditional schooling, kids in democratic schools aren’t forced to learn anything they don’t want to and there are no pre-judged standards for what “acceptable” knowledge or activities are. Those decisions are truly in the hands of the individual student and the broader community through the school meeting.
These are in my mind the defining features of this model. This is a lot to take in, and very hard for most people to imagine because it is a world away from conventional schooling with all its assessments, statistics, and measurements. If you want to see it in action, I highly recommend the documentary “School Circles” which you can rent or buy off of Vimeo, and the feature length-film “Summerhill” that you can find free on Youtube under the title “BEST FREEDOM MOVIE EVER!”. If you happen to live in a country where these schools exist, there is no substitute to actually visiting your local democratic school, Sudbury school, or similar model. Generally, with some advance notice, these schools will be eager to give you a tour.
Even if the democratic free school model seems too unstructured or self-directed for your tastes, I would argue that everyone can benefit from knowing what some of the most radical people in education are arguing. Besides, there is a lot that any advocate of progressive education can learn from the theory and practices of democratic free schools. This model may not work for everyone, and ultimately an ideal education system would offer many equally funded models of education to meet the needs of every type of learner. The Zapatistas in Southeastern Mexico advocate a “world where many worlds fit” and I think that is also a good guideline for education. Regardless of where you stand, these four principles can hopefully give you some options to consider if you are looking for an educational model that gives students and teachers more autonomy over the classroom. I do not think that every person has to immediately implement all four principles to the fullest extent that democratic free schools do, but I do think that all schools can benefit from implementing some aspect of each of these principles. If we want an education system that is truly good for students, we have to start with trusting students. These principles are the attempt of just one model to live out that trust.