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Democracy in the Classroom

There is, on the whole, nothing on earth intended for innocent people so horrible as a school.
George Bernard Shaw

When Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western Civilisation he replied that he thought it would be a good idea. I think the same can be said for Western Democracy, which in my view is much closer to oligarchy than being democratic. For instance, what control do "the people" really have when governments can decide to go to war ignoring "the electorate" (I'm thinking particularly of Britain, Spain and Italy). And what say do ordinary people have over how the economy is run or even taxation and how it is used? What say do most people even have over their working conditions? In many aspects we live our lives with very limited choices. I wonder why this is. And I wonder how long people will put up with it. I also wonder why most schools are so profoundly undemocratic. And I wonder what can be done about it. That's a lot of wondering.

A while back I wrote about tests. One of the arguments on the ETJ list put forward in favour of tests was that without them kids would study less and accordingly know less and enter college with less academic knowledge which would ultimately create long-term economic problems for a country. This argument is interesting not because of it's horse-shoe nail approach but because if accepted it means that the function of education is to prepare children to be productive for the economy. I think this is a rather narrow definition of education and in many respects, rather fascist. But then perhaps compulsory education is fascistic. As John Taylor Gatto has written, "The truth is that schools don't really teach anything except how to obey orders." And he goes further than this, in his book The Underground History of American Education he maintains that modern schooling is a religious idea gone out of control and that what it teaches is dumbness. If this is true then it's not surprising that schools are undemocratic. How long would schooling remain the way it is if genuine choice existed? How long would society remain the same if it were genuinely democratic?

Though John Taylor Gatto charts how modern schooling is a system of social engineering it is important to stress that this wasn't created by some sinister conspiracy. Rather that institutions have grown beyond control. Accordingly it doesn't really matter how we try to reform our institutions when the real problem is the very structure of the institutions. Reform is akin to painting the prison walls a new colour. The prison remains. Every generation lays down a fresh coat of paint when what is really needed is a completely new building.

Of course, if we decide to create a new building it is worth examining what functions we wish it to fulfil. This in turn depends upon the values that we hold. Four values that I think are key are solidarity, diversity, equity, and self-management. You may have others you would like to see. But regardless of the values selected I think democracy must be a keystone in any new structure. Unfortunately, this word is rather elastic so I think I better explain my understanding of it.

What I do not mean is simple majority rule. Nor am I thinking of representational democracy where power is surrendered to an elite assisted by a self-serving bureaucracy. I guess what is in my mind is closer to anarchy. Essentially I am thinking of a system whereby the amount of say a person has over a decision is related to the degree to which that person is affected by that decision. That would mean, for example, that it would be a child's own individual decision about whether to attend any lessons or not. It would also be a child's choice as to which of the lessons available to attend. No one else could hold that power. Following on from this it would be reasonable to expect that a child would have some say over the curriculum, the day-to-day running of the school and even the appointment of teachers. Does this sound like a formula for chaos and disaster? In fact there are schools that exist which follow approaches similar to this. Here are a few links:

The Albany Free School (New York, US) When the founder, Mary Leue, asked A. S. Neill what he thought of starting a free school in the inner city, he responded, "I would think myself daft to try." The school has been running for over 32 years.

The Booroobin Sudbury School (Queensland, Australia) Currently fighting the Queensland Government for accreditation with democracy and free choice for students the main area of confrontation.

The Sudbury Valley School (Massachusetts, US) Founded in 1968 and the model for over 30 democratic schools located all over the World.

Summerhill (Suffolk, UK) Founded in 1921 and the oldest ‘free school' in the World.

There are differences between these schools, the main ones being the degree to which students have a say over economic decisions. But all these schools have one thing in common without which they probably couldn't function and that is the spirit of community. Without this spirit the kind of democracy I am thinking of cannot be realised. Democracy is not something one learns about by studying but by living. How then, can we put democracy into our classrooms?

As long as I have been teaching children in Japan I have always taken the attitude that children should have the right to choose whether to participate in any given activity or not. This is rather basic. On top of this I think students should be able to choose what they do in class and that this choice should take priority over my own lesson plans and inclinations. For example, I favour co-operative games over competitive ones but I have one class of five Junior High School students who like playing the Milton Bradley game Escape From Atlantis. This is highly competitive, prone to viciousness and not very flexible as a tool for learning language. From an English language learning point of view there are much better activities but I think freedom of choice comes first. So we negotiate and reach agreement. Last time they wanted to play I pointed out that they were using mainly Japanese when they played and very little English. So not using Japanese became incorporated as one of the game rules.

The decision to play the game and the decision to change the rules were both taken on the spur of the moment. Consensus was reached by the entire class. I favour consensus as an approach to problem solving. Even though it takes time. When time isn't available I favour structures like Spend-A-Buck (Spencer Kagan) or Chance Voting as I think straight majority voting rather divisive. In Spend-A-Buck participants are given 100 cents to spend and are required to spend them on at least two alternatives. With Chance Voting everyone casts one or more votes for a given number of options but the option chosen is selected randomly. In both cases the notion of winning and losing is blurred. I think this is important as I feel genuine democracy is not adversarial but collaborative.

Democracy is nothing without respect, which is why the issue of community is important. The schools listed above have the advantage of being full-time. Time can be set aside for meetings. But at typical language schools students may only be attending once or twice a week. What can be done in such cases? One solution, as practised at the British Centres Kleva Kid school in Athens, Greece, is to give individual classes autonomy. Anyone, teacher or student can call a meeting inside a class if there is an issue to be addressed. An issue, may be something like whether to hold a class inside or outside or that the subject matter is boring or indeed anything. The language used to discuss the issue is open – indeed one of the points of the process is building community by seeking to understand each other.

Another way I have been attempting to introduce democracy into children's classes, here in Japan, is by using questionnaires. First I created worksheets that required students to match English and Japanese phrases. I then gave the students a questionnaire using the same phrases. For the following month each student was asked to select one preferred learning focus (reading, writing, speaking or listening) and one topic from a list of five. From the results I created a pie chart that indicated the ratio of topics chosen and the preferred learning focus. I used this as a basis for making lesson plans. I've just begun this process but so far after two months I've noticed a trend. Fourth to Sixth graders chose reading and writing as their preferred method of learning English. Junior High School students placed emphasis on speaking and listening. Whether this will continue or not remains to be seen.

Using questionnaires is a poor substitute for democracy but it is a start. I want to create methods that can be used by native English teachers with little Japanese language ability (such as myself). In my experience many children are not used to the idea of making choices. They are not used to the idea of taking responsibility for their actions and this has to be built gradually.

For me, freedom and democracy go together, and the concept that binds them together is the notion of licence. Licence occurs when an individual refuses to take responsibility for his or her own actions. Licence often interferes with the liberty of others. Choosing not to study is an individual's right but disrupting those who wish to study is an act of licence. This is something I have never tolerated and have been autocratic about. In the past I've removed students from a classroom because they disrupted the class. But ideally, I think I should have called a meeting and got the class to decide what action should have been taken. This is what I intend to do should the situation arise in the future.

I began with a quote from George Bernard Shaw. I'd like to end with two more, both from Man and Superman (1903):

Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few.
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Is it so unreasonable to ask for more real democracy in schools, and for that matter, in life?

May 2004
(Think Tank Column for ELT News )

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